I originally watched Hallmark’s second attempt at a Hanukkah film about halfway through a long-haul flight. This is honestly the ideal use case for Hallmark holiday films: You’re a little blurry, brain-wise, and emotionally-delicate (or maybe that’s just me. It’s normal to silently weep if they run out of ginger ale, right? We all feel like that about flying?). Having gone into the film looking for mindless fluff, I found myself in the twilight zone of Hallmark holiday films. This season, I needed to revisit this film to confirm that it was a) real and b) as weird as I remembered.
I imagine the creative process at Hallmark HQ went something like this: Someone said, “We should make one of these things for Hanukkah, so… what do we think Hanukkah is like?” They get on their laptops and begin a-Google-ing, and finally someone says, “Well, apparently ‘Jtwitter’” — he does the air quotes — “gets very mad when people treat Hanukkah like it’s just Christmas for Jews, so we can’t just use the Christmas movie template” (which is a physical thing that sits on their whiteboard). “Then how can we possibly write it?!” our terrified head writer shouts to the sky. Another plucky young writer stands up: “I’ve got it!” She takes the template off the big board and turns it upside down. “Now it’s a Hanukkah movie!” Five minutes later, that young writer gets a text saying her father has Malignant Tinsel Disease and she needs to get back to her hometown right away.
Let’s quickly review the Standard Hallmark Christmas Movie plot: A spunky young woman is working hard on her career in the Big City and isn’t too worried about all this Christmas stuff. Then there’s some family thing, probably with her dad, that drags her back to Generic Quaint Small Town. She is then taken on a magical journey by some hunky townsman and learns the true meaning of Christmas, whereupon she decides to give up on her career and move back to her small town. It’s a Christmas miracle! Now, don’t get me wrong, I love this film. I will watch all its variations. I wish the hunky townsman were a butch lesbian sometimes, but I am not immune to holiday propaganda.
Anyway. All this brings us to “Love, Lights, Hanukkah”: A Christmas-obsessed 40-something, Christina, who has never moved away from her hometown (of Cleveland, an actual real city, collapsing the traditional hometown/big city dichotomy), has lately just not been focused on her job, instead buying more and more Christmas-y tchotchkes. Then, in the process of connecting with her Jewish birth mother (that’s right! It’s not even a dad this time! Christina has two moms, but not in a queer way —Hallmark wants to be very clear about that), she meets a Nice Jewish Boy (David, played by “Boy Meets World” heartthrob Ben Savage). David helps her learn the true meaning of Hanukkah and the importance of taking your career seriously while still showing up for your family. In the end, Christina clears out some of her Christmas crap and buckles down at work, ultimately saving her adoptive mom’s restaurant with a Jewish-Italian feast on the last day of Hanukkah, which is also Christmas Eve. The film ends with her deciding to travel the world beyond her hometown. It’s a Christmukkah miracle!
Let’s start with the positive. Let’s “yes, and” this bitch to encourage creators to make schmaltzy Hanukkah movies better. I think this movie is very sweet, and the leads are talented actors who bring genuine charm to a pretty bland script (and they mostly cast Jewish actors for Jewish roles — nice!). It’s corny, like any Hallmark movie, but it’s a good film within that genre. Its portrayal of Jews and Judaism is very positive, though as you watch it, you’ll think often of Rachel Bloom’s line from JAP Battle Rap: “I’m translating — FOR THE GOYS” — because boy oh boy is this movie Hanukkah for Babies. It’s more Hanukkah for Babies than the Rugrats Hanukkah special, which is literally Hanukkah for babies. AND YET, the scene in which Christina first sings the blessing for lighting the candles after being tutored by Boy Meets World is genuinely touching.
Now for the… interesting choices. This is probably obvious but, for a film about Hanukkah, it certainly wasn’t made for a Jewish audience. They go out of their way to make it extremely non-threatening for non-Jews. There’s still a huge amount of Christmas content, which makes sense in the story but is still glaring. At one point, the characters go to a lighting of an obviously Chabad public menorah (you know how they’re all the same exact shape? No shade, but you can tell), but there are absolutely no visible Chabadniks — in case the funny hats are too much for Linda from St. Olaf, I guess. The only Jewish foods they can think of are latkes, briskets, kugel and bagels; this is all the Jewish characters ever eat. (They must be so blocked up.) In one line, Christina says she’s including dishes from the Italian Jewish community on her Christmas Eve menu, but we are neither told nor shown what those might be. Also at one point the characters sit down to a brunch of untoasted grocery store bagels — despite the fact that Christina’s long-lost half siblings own an actual deli. That at least borders on a shonda.
I’m left not sure how to feel. It’s basically a bland and charming film — clearly made by and for non-Jews. A friend of mine asked me whether the movie had turned out offensive or inoffensive, and I could only reply with “a secret third thing.” Ultimately, I think, pop it on in the background for a long latke-making sesh with your buds and enjoy the cheese, the camp and the baffling choices, But let’s push for more of the schmaltzy Hanukkah movies from Jewish creators we all deserve.
Discovering you have secret half-siblings who own a deli is the dream though, right?