It’s hard to overstate just how many Christmas romantic comedy movies exist. Truthfully, I can’t even find an adequate approximation online. But to give you a general idea: Last week, Entertainment Weekly published an article listing 157 Christmas rom-coms that are premiering on networks and streamers this year alone!
For Jewish fans of heart-warming and festive romantic flicks, the offerings are much more sparse. 2019 was the first year that Hallmark or Lifetime premiered any Hanukkah movies at all, and since then, all the resulting titles — including “Holiday Date,” “Double Holiday,” “Mistletoe and Menorahs,” “Love, Lights, Hanukkah!” and “Eight Gifts Of Hanukkah” — have overwhelmingly been criticized. Because, as Will Feinstein so aptly wrote in AV Club in 2020, these offerings are actually “Christmas movies, but with a little bit of Hanukkah, as a treat.”
Enter “Menorah in the Middle,” a new Hanukkah rom-com on Hulu that is essentially made by Jews, for Jews.
Written and directed by Jewish director Jordan Kessler, “Menorah in the Middle” tells the story of Sarah Becker (Lucy DeVito), a nice Jewish girl who is going home for Hanukkah to introduce her non-Jewish, not-very-nice fiancé Chad (Cristián de la Fuente) to her family. But just as they’re getting settled in — and Sarah is reconnecting with family friend and former Camp Shalom crush Ben (Jonah Platt) — her father is injured in a game of dreidel gone awry. With the medical expenses from an overnight ER stay, the family bakery is plunged into serious trouble. As the family, Ben and Chad try to save the business, Sarah must reckon with her own troubles of the heart and decide if she wants the nice Jewish boy or “the goy.” And just when we thought things couldn’t get any better, the very talented and star-studded Jewish cast is rounded out by Adam Busch as Sarah’s Jake Becker, Gina Hecht as Linda Becker, Bruce Nozick as Frank Becker, and Sarah and Laura Silverman as the Baum sisters.
I spoke with stars Lucy DeVito and Jonah Platt about “Menorah in the Middle,” the Hanukkah miracle of how the movie came to be and what it means to star in one of the few Jewish rom-coms.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
In the spirit of the holiday, my first question is: What’s your favorite Hanukkah tradition?
Jonah Platt: Well, it’s a new one. It has become our tradition that we have my whole family over on the first night. My wife usually decorates our house, and she got very zealous this year. It’s already decorated for Hanukkah — which is tough for my 3-year-old, who keeps wanting to open presents and eat gelt. And I’m like, “Not for six weeks.” But yeah, we have everybody over and I make latkes, and we have a whole little shebang.
Lucy DeVito: Latkes, absolutely. Every single year for the past 20 years or something, one of my best friends has a vodka latke party. Basically she just makes a lot of latkes and has all these different vodkas for a Russian flair. It’s really fun.
Lucy, I’m going to have to steal that idea. Can you each tell me how you came to be involved in “Menorah in the Middle”?
JP: Like everything these days, you get an audition through your reps and you put yourself on tape. But this movie got thrown together very quickly. It’s honestly sort of a Hanukkah miracle that this movie was made. It was written in six days.
JP: So basically, this production company came to Jordan and said, “Hey, we want you to direct this Hanukkah movie.” Jordan saw the script and said, “I can’t direct this movie. This is not an authentic Hanukkah film. I can direct a different one, but you’ve got to let me write it.” They said, “OK, you have six days.” So the Hanukkah miracle is that he wrote a script in six days, they cast it and we were shooting a week later. We filmed at the end of July/beginning of August, and now it’s already on TV in November. Which is insane. So I mean, I got the tape and I knew right away. I was like, “I know this guy.” I didn’t really have to stretch. It was just a nice, regular Jewish dude. And speaking with Jordan (after the fact, as we all got to know each other), he told me, “My focus was going to have to be on getting the thing made. I needed actors who just got this and were these people.” So yeah, I just did my thing. I actually spoke in Hebrew in my slate. I always try to do a little something to make my tape stand out, so on this one I started by speaking in Hebrew with an Israeli accent. And I was like, “No, I’m just kidding.” But Jordan loved it and was like, “I knew right away that this guy is part of this world. He knows this stuff. I’m not going to have to teach him how to be Jewish.”
LD: It was definitely the quickest process I’ve ever experienced. But I think that lends itself to having a lot of fun and just going for it. It’s unbelievable that it did get made and is out. I love everyone in the movie and we had a great time. Jordan, the writer/director, was our leader through it all.
Did you feel a certain amount of pressure because it all happened so fast?
LD: There was no time for pressure, which was kind of a gift. When you’re presented with something where someone says, “OK, you’re doing it tomorrow,” you’re like, “Well, guess I’m gonna do it.” And the movie itself is meant to be fun and to spread joy and laughs. The fact that we were making a holiday movie was always in the back of everyone’s mind. And it’s a Hanukkah movie, which is like something I’ve never seen before. So we just kept that spirit of what we were doing in the process.
Yeah, I think I can count the number of Hanukkah movies and rom-coms that exist on one hand. What does it mean to you to be in one of those few films?
LD: I feel honored. And like, why are there so few? There’s an enormous amount of Christmas movies that exist — let’s even it out a little, you know? But, yeah I grew up in a Jewish household, my mom is Jewish, and it feels nice to be representing that side of myself through this family movie. To me, Judaism is about is connecting with my family and the cultural aspect of that. So it’s really nice to be a part of a movie that lifts that up.
JP: Yeah, I love it. This is a very low-budget, tiny movie, so we shot it fast and dirty. And what makes doing something like that worthwhile is, as a Jew, knowing you’re getting to play a Jew in this authentic Jewish story — and that you’re contributing to the holiday canon for Jews, which is like… nothing. The cupboard is quite bare. I’m really happy to be part of bringing an authentic Jewish story to the screen.
Your characters Ben and Sarah reconnect over their shared Jewish upbringing – having gone to Jewish summer camp, playing Jewish geography, etc. How do their Jewish upbringings compare to yours? Were there any parts of your characters you brought your own experiences to?
JP: Of course. It’s all there in the script, right? There’s one scene in the movie where we all sing the Hanukkah blessing together. On probably any other movie, someone would be reading a transliteration of it and the actors would have to be taught the melody. But we all just knew it, and we didn’t have to prepare at all.
There’s this whole sequence about Camp Shalom with Lucy and me calling all of our old friends from camp. 90% of those phone calls are improvised, and for all of those I was just pulling from my own experience. There’s one where I’m calling my buddy Reuben and I talked about him being “the sandwich,” which is basically my buddy Reuben from college whose fraternity pledge name was about being a sandwich. And there’s a joke I made where I’m calling a girl named Shayna M. and I’m like, “Hey, have you spoken to Shayna S. recently?” It was just always a thing that there were like three Lauren’s and two Shaynas and four Daniels. So yeah, all of that was super natural and authentic to all of us. We all had experience being Jewish authentically.
LD: I’d say that my character, Sarah, is more Jewish than me. I didn’t go to Jewish summer camp, and I think that my character’s family, the Beckers, are a bit more religious than I was when growing up. But I do connect to the family aspect of it all. My family is very close, and the Beckers are very close. They mean a lot to each other, they make decisions by taking the tribe into account, basically, and I very much related to that. And I feel like the cute romance of it all and the message of partnering with someone who shares those values and knows you so well is something I appreciated.
Growing up, was your family interfaith, Lucy?
LD: Yeah, we were. My dad was raised Catholic and my mom is Jewish, so we celebrated all the holidays, including Christmas. But I would say that we took the Jewish holidays more seriously. My grandparents, when they were alive, would come for the seder. Those traditions were kept alive more when they were alive. But I miss them, and they mean a lot to me.
Jonah, your point about saying the blessings is so cool. I don’t think I’ve ever seen the Hanukkah blessings said on a platform like Hulu.
JP: I don’t think you’ve ever seen it in a movie at all! And if you do, it always feels stilted. We didn’t have to fake anything. It was so refreshing and nice, and also very necessary on a 10-day shoot.
That’s great — and it seems like a lot of the people involved with the movie are Jewish. What was it like working on a project where not only is the content Jewish, but so are the cast and writer/director?
JP: It was nice having our writer/director be cut from the same cloth as all of the cast. He got everything and we got it, you know? He can reference anything about being an American Jew and we all spoke the same language about it.
LD: It was great. Jordan created this wonderful mini-family for us. It was like we knew each other right away, even though we didn’t. It was so easy. We were all there in support of each other.
Definitely. Jonah, you had mentioned to me that some of the cast got together to watch the film when it came out. How was that?
JP: It’s funny, usually you wrap a movie and then you’re not viewing it together for like a year or something. But we hadn’t seen each other for only two or three months. It was nice to get to see each other again so soon. It was a lovely, familial vibe and just really sweet.
That’s wonderful. Do you have any upcoming or current projects?
JP: I’m in two movies that come out next year. One’s called “Spread” — it’s an R-rated, very raunchy rom-com that’ll be out in the spring with Harvey Keitel and Liz Gillies. I’m also in another rom-com called “The List” with Halston Sage. And I’m producing my first feature, a Jewish story called “The Mensch,” which I’m really excited about. I’m also acting in that. I’m trying to put my money where my mouth is and bring another contemporary Jewish story to the screen, one that’s never been done before.
LD: Other than this, I’m in the FX show “Little Demon” on Hulu.
That’s right, and you play a half-Jewish, half-demon character. Do you feel drawn to playing Jewish roles?
LD: Yeah, I totally am. It’s a part of who I am, so I’m always excited to embrace that side of myself. I was part of the creation of “Little Demon,” and we wanted to make it as real as possible, in terms of the groundedness of the characters.
And your father on the show is your real-life dad, Danny DeVito. What’s it been like to work with him on it?
LD: So great. He’s so fun. We’re really good at collaborating together, and he’s always been supportive of me being an actor. We had a lot of fun actually playing father and daughter, but in a turn-it-on-its-head sort of way. He’s a goofball. And my mom played a part in “Little Demon” too!
Speaking of family, because our audience loves all things Brothers Platt, I have to ask: Jonah, how are your brothers?
JP: They’re doing great. I was with them last night for a cousin’s wedding here in town. So everybody’s here for the wedding, and my birthday is in a few days so we’re having a birthday dinner. And then we’ll all be together for Thanksgiving. So the Platts will be together in full force, which is always a good thing.