'For many years our stories haven't gotten the shelf space'

Love, laughter, latkes: Hanukkah rom-coms are having a moment

With a new Hallmark film and multiple new romance novels out this year, American Jews have a greater chance of seeing the Festival of Lights reflected in popular culture

Amy Spiro is a reporter and writer with The Times of Israel

The cast of 'Eight Gifts of Hanukkah,' premiering in 2021 on Hallmark. (Courtesy Hallmark)
The cast of 'Eight Gifts of Hanukkah,' premiering in 2021 on Hallmark. (Courtesy Hallmark)

Each year like clockwork, the weather grows cold, the days grow shorter and the offerings on TV, at the theater and at bookstores turn decidedly seasonal.

The plots of such books and films — boy, girl, cozy sweaters, sprigs of mistletoe and happily ever after — are often so predictable as to be laughable, serving up the type of comforting, kitschy fare that has spawned hundreds of memes and yet remains unendingly popular.

Over the years, TV networks Hallmark and Lifetime, and more recently streaming platform Netflix, have ramped up their holiday offerings, spawning dozens of films each year following the same meet-cute framework and set against the backdrop of snowflakes, pine trees, candy canes and, of course, holiday spirit.

Is there room in that well-worn formula for some Hanukkah celebrations? The answer, increasingly, seems to be yes. Hallmark and Lifetime both premiered their first-ever Hanukkah offerings in 2019, a year in which the Jewish holiday overlapped with December 25. Last year, Hallmark produced another such offering, and this year it is releasing “Eight Gifts of Hanukkah” on the sixth night of the holiday.

Unlike Hallmark’s past Hanukkah movies, this year’s film features two main characters who were both raised Jewish, in what appears to be a tacit response to some of the criticism received by the last two years’ releases.

The Hallmark and Lifetime films that premiered in 2019 were met with resounding disappointment and were taken to task for portraying Hanukkah as a foreign concept and including main characters who celebrate Christmas as a foil to the Jewish traditions.

The cast of the 2019 Hallmark Hanukkah film ‘Double Holiday.’ (Albert Camicioli/Crown Media)

But in “Eight Gifts of Hanukkah,” optometrist Sara Levin receives mysterious yet personal gifts from a secret admirer on each night of the holiday. Will she realize by the time the “Mazel Ball” rolls around on the eighth night of Hanukkah that the man trying to win her heart might be closer to her than she thinks?

The film is about “making Hanukkah front and center to the narrative and characters,” Joey Plager, the executive producer of “Eight Gifts of Hanukkah,” told The Times of Israel. “We worked hard on this film to strike the right balance of a home that is decorated and feels festive and to celebrate traditions that are authentically Jewish.”

And at a time when representation on screen is debated more than ever, both main characters in the film are played by Jewish actors: Inbar Lavi (“Prison Break,” “Lucifer” and the upcoming season of “Fauda”) and Jake Epstein (“Suits,” “Designated Survivor”). Plager said the casting “strikes a ring of authenticity” for the film.

But the market is far from saturated with Hanukkah offerings. Lifetime, which produced 35 new Christmas films this year, did not make any new Jewish-themed offerings, and did not respond to a request for comment. Netflix, which this year has 21 new holiday-themed shows and movies, also has no Hanukkah productions, and also declined multiple requests for comment on the streaming platform’s decision-making process.

But it’s not just films that are branching out from red-and-green festivities to blue-and-white traditions. More and more Hanukkah romance novels are hitting the shelves this year, including one from HarperCollins’ Harlequin, arguably the first such offering from a major US publishing house.

In “The Matzah Ball” by Jean Meltzer, Rachel Rubenstein-Goldblatt leads a secret double life as the daughter of a prominent rabbi who writes popular Christmas romances under a pen name — that even her parents don’t know about. When her publisher asks her to instead pen a Hanukkah-themed novel, she scrambles to get involved with the local Matzah Ball party for inspiration — before she realizes it’s being run by her former Jewish summer camp love interest-turned-nemesis.

Author Jean Meltzer and her debut novel, ‘The Matzah Ball.’ (Courtesy)

And from the independent Tule Publishing Group, Rebecca Crowley’s “Shine a Light” also offers a lighthearted romance tied to the holiday. In the novel, out on November 30 — the second day of Hanukkah — aspiring actress Ellie Bloom meets a sexy firefighter after she almost burns down her apartment — only to find out later that he’s not just the rabbi’s son, but also helping her co-direct the temple’s Hanukkah play. Can she set aside her dreams of a Hollywood career in order to pursue a budding relationship with the hunky rabbinical scion next door?

Meltzer said that — like her main character — while she grew up in an observant family in a Jewish neighborhood, she always loved reading Christmas-themed romance novels and reveling in the holiday.

“There was always the lights and the music and all the television shows and the stories,” she said. “And there was just something really compelling about it to me.”

Each year, she said, “I would go to Target or Barnes and Noble, and there would always be that table for all the Christmas books. And every year I would go and look for a Hanukkah book, and there never was one. So I knew I wanted to write a Jewish romance, and I felt very keenly that it had to be a Hanukkah romance.”

Crowley, a seasoned romance author, said that she was inspired to write her first Hanukkah novel after being disappointed by Hallmark and Lifetime’s ventures into producing Jewish holiday fare.

“The thing that kind of bothered me about them, was that in all of those stories, the Jewish characters were always teaching non-Jewish people about their holidays and their festivities,” said Crowley. “And so I wanted to write a story about two Jewish characters who fall in love, who inhabit their Jewishness, rather than perform it.”

Author Rebecca Crowley and her latest work, ‘Shine A Light.’ (Courtesy)

While this year’s Hallmark offering is far from perfect, greater care appears to have been taken to showcase authentic Jewish traditions without the need for Christmas as a contrast. In “Eight Gifts of Hanukkah,” one character uses the word “bashert” — the Jewish concept of a soulmate — and another opens a music box that plays a version of the traditional Jewish song “Maoz Tzur.”

Those touches make it easier to forgive the other slightly less authentic moments — like the constant presence of brisket, kugel and rugelach on every night of the holiday, and the fairly foreign — and Christian-tinged — concept of a Hanukkah gelt hunt.

“It’s incredibly important that we honor the distinct values and customs of each celebration with authentic stories,” said Plager, who also executive produced Hallmark’s “Love, Lights, Hanukkah” last year, as well as a range of Christmas movies. One such plotline in the film, involving a “Mazel Ball” at the end of the holiday, was based on “the personal experience of one of our Hallmark executives, Liz Yost,” said Plager.

“Stories that ring true are a recipe for success,” he said.

In both Meltzer’s and Crowley’s books, there is room for the richness of specificity that the movies tend to lack; in “Shine a Light,” one character struggles to fit the new Hanukkah candles in where the previous night’s candles left behind a pile of wax. In “The Matzah Ball,” a religious woman makes tea on Shabbat by pouring the hot water from the urn into one cup and then into another cup, in keeping with strict Jewish law.

With a nod to that level of understanding of Jewish holidays and traditions, both books also subtly acknowledge that — in the overall Jewish calendar — Hanukkah is a relatively minor event. But with a larger nod to publishing schedules and holiday hooks, both Meltzer and Crowley chose the Festival of Lights as the setting for their first Jewish-themed novels, which each mark the first in a series that will eventually center on other Jewish holidays.

“I think [Hanukkah] has such prominence in the mind of — at least for me — the Jewish-American experience,” Meltzer said. “We’re sort of immersed in Christmas time, and so I felt that Hanukkah deserves its own representation on the table.”

Crowley admitted that she believed focusing the first book in her new series on Hanukkah would make it more palatable to her publisher. The second book, slated for release in April and titled “Two Nights to Forever,” is set around Passover.

“Being perfectly honest, I thought it would be the most marketable,” said Crowley. “There’s a huge demand for winter holiday novels… people buy a lot of books at this time of year, so it’s a great foot in the door of getting people interested in this series.”

Both women drew deeply from their own experiences to craft authentically Jewish stories.

“I never grew up in a big Jewish community,” said Crowley, a native of Kansas. “And at the same time, that part of my identity was always a foregone conclusion.” It was important to her, therefore, to set the book in a fictional suburb of St. Louis, “to give a little shoutout to the Midwestern Jews.”

Meltzer was raised in an observant home, and spent five years in rabbinical school before ending her studies due to a chronic illness.

“When I look at ‘The Matzah Ball,’ it’s a book that comes not just from 40-plus years of experience, but from years of being in rabbinical school, years of living in an observant Jewish community, and I think that comes across on the page,” she said.

Actress Mia Kirshner lights the Hanukkah candles in the 2020 Hallmark film ‘Love, Lights, Hanukkah.’ (Farah Nosh/Crown Media)

Both authors said they felt that the often markedly formulaic and narrow world of romance novels is finally becoming more open to traditions outside the mainstream.

Meltzer, a first-time novelist, said she wrote “The Matzah Ball” never believing that it would find a publisher, and was overjoyed when it did.

“I absolutely think that there’s a push in publishing now for diverse stories or voices,” she said. “I think that for many years our stories — not just mine, but the whole wide spectrum of human experience — haven’t really gotten the shelf space in the same way as other types of stories.”

And Crowley — who has published many romance novels over the years, including two holiday romances loosely based around Christmas — said she feels freer than ever to write about her own experiences.

“I definitely think that over the last few years, I’ve felt like I’ve had more permission to write Jewish characters,” she said. “Over the last three or four years, I feel like the conversation has opened up, and there’s been more encouragement for writing from a place of authenticity and writing the characters that you want to see yourself in.. and that has definitely felt freeing. And I think it’s allowed me as well to, I think, write more meaningfully, and invest in them a lot more.”

And they are both hopeful — not just for the purpose of sales — that their works will resonate with readers outside of the Jewish community.

Actress Inbar Lavi as Sara Levin in ‘Eight Gifts of Hanukkah’ on Hallmark. (Courtesy Hallmark)

“I’m hopeful that people will have an open mind and will enjoy experiencing this other holiday,” said Crowley. “And at the same time, I also hope for the Jewish readers out there — like me — who find themselves binging hours of Christmas movies and ice skating and trees and all this stuff — it’s nice to also open a book and see yourself and say, ‘Okay, this looks a lot more like my family or my experience.’”

“One of the things I hoped to do was bring down some of the barriers to entry,” said Meltzer. “I hope that other cultures and other religions will have just as much enjoyment seeing those experiences.”

Plager said he is also optimistic that “Eight Gifts of Hanukkah” will be popular among viewers who normally tune in for Hallmark’s Christmas-saturated fare.

“Creating holiday films that embrace diversity and inclusion are of paramount importance as the holiday season is not the exclusive provenance of any one race or religion,” he said. “If done right, a Hanukkah movie will resonate with non-Jewish viewers just as Christmas movies have resonated with Jews for so many years.”

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