January 20, 2021

DCTRS

Damascus Center for Theoretical and Civil Rights Studies

A filmmaker creates the Hanukkah experience he always wanted

When Michael Lam was about 5 years old, a pharmacy employee wished him and his family a merry Christmas.

Big mistake.

“We don’t celebrate Christmas,” Lam snapped on their way out of the store. “Happy Hanukkah!”

The Los Angeles screenwriter and producer, now 45, can’t help but laugh at that brief exchange — both because of his unfiltered childhood behavior and his fiery spirit to represent his Jewish culture that still burns within him like candles on a menorah.

“I guess it’s always kind of been ingrained in me that Hanukkah needed a little boost,” he said during a recent phone call with The Times.

As the son of a cantor growing up Sherman Oaks, Lam was surrounded by a large and thriving Jewish community. But by the time December arrived each year, Christmas decorations, songs and movies completely dominated the cultural conversation, rendering Hanukkah “an afterthought of the season.”

Beloved titles such as “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “Miracle on 34th Street” are immediately recognizable. But there was no such thing as a “classic Hanukkah film,” a void Lam hopes to fill with his latest project, “The Broken Candle,” starring Vanessa Marshall, Tiffany Haddish and Eugenio Derbez.

Screenwriter and producer Michael Lam poses with a giant metal dreidel he had made for Stephen Wise Temple’s “Lit: A Drive-Thru Hanukkah Experience.”

(Aviel Alit)

The inspirational animated short is now playing as part of “Lit: A Drive-Thru Hanukkah Experience,” which runs through Dec. 25 at L.A.’s Stephen Wise Temple.

“I just want to give [Jewish kids] something to be proud of,” Lam said, “[so] that they don’t have to feel like you’re celebrating Hanukkah but you really wish you could also celebrate Christmas.”

“The Broken Candle” is the main attraction at “Lit,” which was originally conceived as an indoor pop-up museum. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the holiday event has since been transformed into a dazzling musical light show that L.A. families can enjoy outdoors at a safe distance.

Inspired by an “amazing” projection display Lam once saw while visiting Jerusalem, the multipart spectacular leads groups of cars through a luminous wonderland complete with giant dreidels, disco balls, LED screens, infinity mirrors and more.

“Because Hanukkah is a festival, I really wanted people to have the party they couldn’t go to because of COVID,” Lam said. “Especially during this year, when things have been so turned on their head, we felt like people really needed something like this.”

Modeled after Pixar films that imagine the secret lives of inanimate objects, “The Broken Candle” follows an orange Hanukkah candle named Nira (voiced by Marshall) on her journey from the wax factory to the home of a young Jewish family. But before she can even make it into the candle box (voiced by Derbez), Nira suffers a hard fall on the assembly line and — to her horror — snaps in half.

“[Director Felix Kiner and I] were talking about the different possible characters, and he said, ‘Oh yeah, and there’s always the one broken [candle],’” Lam said. “And then that triggered everything, because Hanukkah is a story about rededication and repair. So … thematically, it was a perfect fit.”

With the help of her cardboard casing, Shomer (Derbez), and her candle friends, Nira eventually reaches her destination safely but not in one piece. Injured and crestfallen, she worries she’ll never graduate to the menorah (voiced by Haddish), because — as one bitter candle harshly puts it — “Nobody wants a broken Hanukkah candle.”

Multicolor animated Hanukkah candles inside a box

An orange Hanukkah candle named Nira (voiced by Vanessa Marshall) snaps in half in “The Broken Candle.”

(Felix Kiner)

On the last night of the festival, a dejected Nira is finally plucked from the box, exposing her fractured frame. But (spoiler alert!) instead of tossing her aside, her new family senses her spirit and appoints her to the important role of the shamash — the central candle used to light the rest of the menorah. After losing her dangling bottom half to a pair of children’s scissors, Nira fits perfectly between her waxy pals, who gleefully celebrate her new status.

“The hope would be that every person — no matter what their obvious abilities are or challenges that they might face — can identify with the main character in the film,” said senior Rabbi Yoshi Zweiback of the Stephen Wise Temple. “And we can each see ourselves, in some ways, as a broken candle, but who’s still worthy of shining her light out into the world.”

“I think we are all a little bit broken with all that’s happening in the world,” said Derbez. “It doesn’t mean that we can’t fulfill our purpose. I loved being part of this project, and especially working for kids and showing them that it doesn’t matter if sometimes you’re broken. You can fulfill your dream no matter what.”

Also appealing to Derbez was the opportunity to collaborate with Lam, whom he knows through Wise elementary school and his work as cocreator of “Club de Cuervos,” Netflix’s first Spanish-language original series.

The “Dora and the Lost City of Gold” actor and his wife, Mexican singer-actress Alessandra Rosaldo, recently began learning about and appreciating Judaism after enrolling their 6-year-old daughter at Wise — where she proudly tells her classmates, “My dad is the box … that holds the candles!”

“My wife says that I’m always trying to protect everyone,” said Derbez, whose character’s name, Shomer, means guardian in Hebrew. “And when I saw this character, I was like, ‘Yeah, that’s what I am.’ … I love to be this protector that is guiding all the candles to their final destiny and show them that they can do it, even though one of them is broken.”

An animated, open box of rainbow-colored Hanukkah candles

Actor Eugenio Derbez voices Shomer, an amiable box of candles, in “The Broken Candle.”

(Felix Kiner)

Despite its grand scale, “Lit: A Drive-Thru Hanukkah Experience” — short film included — took about two months to finish, and the enthusiastic response from the local community has made late 2020 “the most rewarding period of time” in Lam’s professional life.

“Growing up as a Jew, even in Los Angeles, during the holiday season, I always felt there was something lacking,” one attendee, Joshua Smith, wrote on Facebook. “From barely 4 choices in the card section, to barely 3 choices in the decoration section. Our destination event was Candy Cane Lane and not a menorah in sight.

“We are so proud of … @mikelam75 for creating … something that is finally being delivered to generations of Jews feeling unrepresented during the holiday season,” he added. “The lines of cars almost brought me to tears, and the short film ‘Broken Candle’ actually did. Thanks again for … delivering what we’ve been missing all these years; something our children will now never realize was ever lacking.”

A tunnel of blue lights

A light tunnel at Stephen Wise Temple’s “Lit: A Drive-Thru Hanukkah Experience.”

(Molly Marler)

In addition to touching appreciations like Smith’s, Lam knows of at least two families who have elected to keep the broken candles on their menorahs this year after seeing his film. And one of his former USC classmates, who is not Jewish, “said her daughter wants to celebrate Hanukkah now” because of the show.

“[I’m] so glad that they have something to be excited and proud of for Hanukkah,” Lam said. “Not feeling like they have to just go to a Christmas-related event this time of year for things to feel like the holiday season.”

Rabbi Zweiback also has taken note of the film’s warm reception by watching young attendees — deprived of movie theater outings amid the public health crisis — absorb its motivational message on the big screen in real time.

“No matter how dark the world feels at a particular moment, we never give up hope, and we always search for the light and ultimately try to spread the light,” Zweiback said. “That’s one of the central lessons of Hanukkah, and it’s a great takeaway of this experience.”