"A Rugrats Passover" is the 26th and final episode of the third season of the American animated television series Rugrats, and its 65th episode overall. It was broadcast originally on April 13, 1995, on the cable network Nickelodeon. The plot follows series regulars Grandpa Boris and the babies as they become trapped in the attic on Passover; to pass the time, Boris tells the Jewish story of the Exodus. During the episode the babies themselves reenact the story, with young Tommy portraying Moses, while his cousin Angelica represents the Pharaoh of Egypt.
"A Rugrats Passover" was directed by Jim Duffy, Steve Socki, and Jeff McGrath from the script by Peter Gaffney, Paul Germain, Rachel Lipman, and Jonathon Greenberg. The episode was conceived in 1992 when Germain responded to a Nickelodeon request for a Rugrats Hanukkah special by creating a Passover episode instead. The episode scored a 3.1 Nielsen Rating, making it "the highest-rated show in Nickelodeon's history", and received overwhelmingly positive reviews, including from Jewish community publications. It was nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award, an Annie Award, and a CableACE Award. The episode also, however, attracted controversy, when the Anti-Defamation League compared the artistic design of the older characters to anti-Semitic drawings from a 1930s Nazi newspaper.
The episode made Rugrats one of the first animated series to focus on a Jewish holiday; its success precipitated the creation of another special, "A Rugrats Chanukah", which also attracted critical acclaim. A novelization of the episode was in 2007 exhibited at the Sherwin Miller Museum of Jewish Art in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
As the episode opens, Tommy and Angelica Pickles and their parents are all gathering to celebrate the Passover Seder at the home of Didi's parents, Boris and Minka Kropotkin. Stu and Angelica, who are Christians, both find Passover boring, and Angelica argues why she and her parents should be at the Seder at all, especially considering Boris and Minka aren't actually related to them. Following an argument with Minka about what type of wine glasses they should use (either the glasses that belonged to Minka's mother or the ones that belonged Boris's father), Boris storms out of the room; the two families arrive and Didi tries comforting her mom, who believes Boris has run away.
Boris hasn't reappeared by the time Tommy's best friend, Chuckie Finster, and his dad, Chas, arrive to join the celebration; when the Seder begins the children set off to search for Boris, eventually finding him in the attic. Boris explains that he felt bad about yelling at Minka, and had gone to look for her mother's wine glasses, but had become locked inside when the door closed behind him (it can't open from the inside). Angelica tests the door, and inadvertently locks them all in again.
Angelica tells Boris that he's not really missing anything and admits that she thinks that Passover's a dumb holiday. Boris tries convincing her otherwise by telling her and the boys the story of the Exodus, hoping to improve their understanding of Passover. As he talks, Angelica imagines herself as the Pharaoh of Egypt, who commands the Hebrew slaves (imagined as the other Rugrats and numerous other babies) to throw their newborn sons into the Nile River. One Hebrew slave defies the order by putting her infant son, Moses (imagined as Tommy), into a basket and setting the basket afloat in the river. The basket and baby are discovered by Pharaoh Angelica, who shows Moses around her palace and kingdom, and decides to make him her partner.
As Boris explains that the Pharaoh was unaware that Moses himself was actually a Hebrew, Chas enters the attic, looking for the children, and becomes locked in with the rest of them. He sits down and listens as Boris continues: years later, Boris says, Moses stood up for an abused Hebrew slave (imagined as Chuckie), and was outed as a Hebrew. The episode then pictures Tommy as Moses fleeing to the desert, where he becomes a shepherd and forgets about Egypt and the Pharaoh, until the voice of God calls to him from a burning bush, telling him that he must free the Hebrews from slavery.
Moses confronts the Pharaoh and demands that she free the Hebrews. She refuses and calls her guards (one of which was a kid named Justin, voiced by Dana Hill) to drag Moses away; he curses her kingdom with terrible plagues until she relents and allows Moses to leave with the enslaved Hebrews. As Boris is explaining how the Pharaoh deceives the Hebrews and prevents them from leaving, Angelica's parents, Drew and Charlotte, arrive and become locked in with the others.
Boris resumes the story: the Pharaoh's treachery causes Moses to curse her once more, this time with a plague on the first-born children of Egypt. The Pharaoh, after realizing that she herself is a first-born child, bargains with Moses: he can leave if he calls off this final plague. Moses hesitates at first, but complies and leads the Hebrews out of Egypt. The Pharaoh reneges on her promise (after realizing that she set all of the Hebrews free) and leads out her remaining army to pursue them.
Minka, Didi, and Stu arrive in the attic to find the group enthralled by the end of Boris's story: Moses, cornered, calls down the power of God to part the Red Sea, which the Hebrews are approaching. They pass through the parted waters, which then crash back together behind them, engulfing the Pharaoh and her army. With the story over, the family gets up to finish the Seder only to see the wind blow the door shut, locking them all in. Boris decides to tell them another story, which Chas at first thinks is about how the Hebrews wandered the desert for forty years before finally reaching the Promised Land. Boris explains that it's actually a story about how an aunt and uncle of his met at Passover Seder back in Russia.
The episode's inception in 1992 followed a call by Nickelodeon to the Rugrats production staff, pitching the concept of a special episode concerning Hanukkah. The crew agreed instead that a Passover special would offer both "historical interest" and a "funny idea", so Paul Germain—founder of the series along with Arlene Klasky and Gábor Csupó—pitched the Passover idea instead.
Germain wrote the episode's teleplay along with regular Rugrats writers Peter Gaffney, Rachel Lipman, and Jonathon Greenberg; animators Jim Duffy, Steve Socki, and Jeff McGrath directed. While scripting the episode, now entitled "A Rugrats Passover", the writers were forced to audit many elements of the portrayal of plagues, particularly the third one, so it could still be accessible to children and not too frightening. Though regular episodes of the series comprised two separate 15-minute segments, "A Rugrats Passover" had a special 22-minute format, occupying the show's full network Rugrats slot. The show's voice actors each spent from fifteen minutes to four hours in recording sessions for the episode.
The episode was released in several formats, including DVD and VHS. It appears on the video release A Rugrats Passover alongside features "Toys in the Attic", and Rugrats Passover: Let My Babies Go. It is also featured on the Grandpa's Favorite Stories video release, with the episode "The Return of Reptar". Publisher Simon Spotlight in 1998 released a novelization of the episode, entitled Let My Babies Go! A Passover Story, written by Sarah Wilson and featuring illustrations by Barry Goldberg.
"A Rugrats Passover" was unusual among contemporary animations in its attention to Jewish ritual and tradition. Its portrayal of a Seder dinner received press attention as a rare occurrence in children's programming. The episode was also unusual among animated series for discussing the characters' religious affiliations. It revealed Boris, Minka, and Didi's adherence to Judaism, and compared it with the relative non-participation of Stu and his side of the family. Chuckie and his father Chas, meanwhile, were portrayed as nonreligious yet inclusive and enthused to learn about the customs of the holiday.
As with other Rugrats episodes, "A Rugrats Passover" depicts "the innocence of a baby's perception of the world," emphasizing the young characters' intense, childlike reactions to their environment. Creator Klasky identified the episode's depiction of the Pickles family as "very loving, [and] basically functional" as strikingly different from the prevailing trends in contemporary television programming. Another episode element common to the series' broader themes is its treatment of Angelica's mother Charlotte, who throughout the episode is glued to her cell phone and engrossed in her business life, despite her professed desire to provide Angelica with an educational environment.
"A Rugrats Passover" was broadcast originally on April 13, 1995, on the Nickelodeon television network. Repeats of the episode began that Saturday at 7:30 p.m. The episode received a Nielsen Rating of 3.1, with a 4.8% share of American audiences, making it the sixth most-watched American telecast of the week. According to Catherine Mullally, Vice President and Executive Producer of Nickelodeon Video and Audio Works in 1995, the episode was the highest Nielsen-rated telecast in the network's history. The episode was supplanted as Nickelodeon's most-viewed in 1998, by another Rugrats special, when the Thanksgiving episode "The Turkey Who Came to Dinner" attracted 3.7 million viewers (9.4/28).
The episode was nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award in the category "Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Animated Program (for Programming Less Than One Hour)," but lost to The Simpsons episode "Lisa's Wedding." At the 23rd Annual Annie Awards it was nominated in the category "Best Individual Achievement for Writing in the Field of Animation," but was beaten by the episode "The Tick vs. Arthur’s Bank Account" from Fox Kids' animated series The Tick. In 1995, it was Rugrats' submission for a CableACE award; it received a nomination but did not win.
"A Rugrats Passover" received overwhelmingly positive reviews and became one of the series' all-time most popular episodes. John J. O'Connor of The New York Times wrote of the episode "If not a first, it certainly is a rarity." Ted Cox of the Daily Herald called the episode "among the best holiday TV specials ever produced." Other reviews applauded the episode for its treatment of Judaism. Authors Michael Atkinson and Laurel Shifrin, in their book Flickipedia: Perfect Films for Every Occasion, Holiday, Mood, Ordeal, and Whim praised the episode for celebrating "secular Jewishness in the wisest and most entertaining fashion [...] Grandpa Boris regales the kids with an epic, albeit abridged, Exodus story." Halley Blair of Forward Magazine called the episode "a comical primer for getting children ready for upcoming seders," and Danny Goldberg, in How The Left Lost Teen Spirit, noted that the episode's Jewish themes were "clearly expressed in the context of a mass appeal entertainment." Among many positive reviews of the episode in Jewish community publications, Gila Wertheimer of the Chicago Jewish Star said that the episode "will entertain children of all ages – and their parents."
Joel Keller of AOL's TV Squad, on the other hand, noted in 2006 that he "always hated" the episode, and resented that it was one of only two Passover-themed television episodes he could find via a Google search.
"A Rugrats Passover," along with other Rugrats episodes featuring Boris and Minka, attracted controversy when the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) claimed that the two characters resembled anti-Semitic drawings that had appeared in a 1930s Nazi newspaper. Nickelodeon's then-president Albie Hecht, himself Jewish, professed himself dumbfounded by the criticism, calling it absurd. The controversy resurfaced in 1998 when the ADL criticized another appearance of Boris, this time reciting the Mourner's Kaddish in a Rugrats comic strip published in newspapers during the Jewish New Year. Unlike Hecht, Nickelodeon's new president Herb Scannell agreed with the criticism and apologized, promising never to run the character or the strip again.
"A Rugrats Passover" has been Nickelodeon's first programming about Passover; the network went on to broadcast other episodes concerning Jewish traditions, including "Harold's Bar Mitzvah", a 1997 episode of Hey Arnold! in which the character Harold Berman prepares for his Bar Mitzvah. Rugrats in turn produced a second Jewish holiday episode, this time to meet the network executives' original Hanukkah special pitch. David N. Weiss, who had recently converted to Judaism, and J. David Stem collaborated to write the script, and Raymie Muzquiz directed. The episode, entitled "A Rugrats Chanukah," was originally broadcast on December 4, 1996, on Nickelodeon and received a Nielsen rating of 7.9 in the Kids 2–11 demographic. Like "A Rugrats Passover," it was critically acclaimed and became among the most popular episodes in the series.
In 2007 the Sherwin Miller Museum of Jewish Art in Tulsa, Oklahoma opened an exhibition of Biblical images in art and pop culture, including a poster for Let My Babies Go! A Passover Story, the picture book based on "A Rugrats Passover". Other items highlighted in the gallery included a promotional poster for The Simpsons episode "Simpsons Bible Stories" and a vintage Superman comic book entitled "The Red-Headed Beatle of 1000 B.C.," featuring the character Jimmy Olsen's time-traveling adventures in the Biblical age.