Hallmark’s latest Hanukkah movie is weirdly good

Except for the fact that it’s a Nora Ephron knockoff

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BIrene Katz Connell, The Forward

When the Christmas content giant released its first Jewish movie in 2019, they couldn’t even squeeze the word “Hanukkah” into the title. Double Holiday and Holiday Date, both about interfaith holiday romances, featured beleaguered Jewish protagonists begging their studly Christian lovers to do a single Hanukkah activity while receiving a crash course on Christmas, a holiday they seemed to know nothing about despite its iron grip on American society. 

Love, Lights, Hanukkah, which arrived a year later, was a tad bit more Jewish insofar as it involved guilt-trips and a weird obsession with DNA tests. But packed with tutorials on Hanukkah basics like lighting the menorah, it seemed geared towards non-Jewish watchers more than the people actually celebrating the holiday. 

However, just as Picasso emerged from his Blue Period to invent Cubism, Hallmark has produced Hanukkah on Rye, set to premiere Dec. 18 on the Hallmark Channel. A tale of two warring delis and the star-crossed lovers who unite them, this movie kind of has everything: egg creams, meddling grandmothers who call at inconvenient times, terrible attempts at Hanukkah songs and Lower East Side lore. We are forced to admit that Hallmark has listened to the consistent griping of the Forward culture desk and and given us a Hanukkah movie we can’t criticize — at least, not on grounds of being insufficiently Jewish. 

Written by Julie Sherman Wolfe, Hanukkah on Rye is the lovely story of Molly (Yael Grobglas) and Jacob (Jeremy Jordan), two blandly beautiful 20-something scions of legacy Jewish delis in New York and Los Angeles, respectively. Having embraced modernity by serving fajitas and decorating with light-up menorahs, Jacob’s deli, Zimmer’s, is doing great, and his parents send him to scout out New York locations for a new franchise. As soon as he arrives on the Lower East Side, Jacob realizes that the building he’s eyeing is just down the street from Gilbert’s, a struggling and staunchly traditional deli that Molly hopes to take over from her parents — if it doesn’t go out of business first. 

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Meanwhile, Molly and Jacob’s grandmothers have signed them up for an elite Jewish matchmaker whose foolproof process involves forcing singletons to write longhand letters to an anonymous bashert. As Molly and Jacob spar IRL, they’re also (you know it!) falling in love via snail mail. But can their love overcome their families’ business interests? You literally already know the answer to this, but I will leave you to find out the specifics yourself.

Having screened years of laughably off-base Hallmark movies, I had low expectations for Hanukkah on Rye. But while absolutely, consummately schlocky — scene transitions involve montages of deli fare that will make you want to ditch the movie and go out for a Reuben — it’s an indisputable improvement on previous entries in the genre. 

Instead of voyeuristic glimpses of stilted Hanukkah traditions, Hanukkah on Rye features jokes that, however corny, feel like they were written by and for Jews. Grandmothers kiss mezuzahs casually and kvetch about the Christmas trees that dominate New York’s hotel lobbies, while “courtesy menorahs” are relegated to dusty corridors. Molly and Jacob bond over the paucity of un-embarrassing Hanukkah songs. While their recitations of Jewish history are a little pious — “They knew one day they’d make their American Dream come true,” Molly sighs of her tenement-dwelling ancestors — the movie’s climax hinges on an immigration story that feels, if not exactly plausible, like exactly the kind of fable in which American Jews love to indulge. 

Hanukkah on Rye does have one fatal flaw, and you may have already guessed it: It’s basically a ripoff of Nora Ephron’s You’ve Got Mail. Chains squashing a small business? Check. Falling in love by anonymous letter? Check. A man courting a woman while simultaneously threatening her livelihood? It’s all there, with little more than their penchant for latkes and difficulty landing their jokes distinguishing Molly and Jacob from Ephron’s protagonists. 

If you’re a rom-com fan and always wondered why Ephron couldn’t squeeze more latkes into her characters’ lives, clear some space in your holiday calendar for Hanukkah on Rye. But Ephron purists had better stick to When Harry Met Sally for deli-adjacent romance.