Movie Review: Hanukkah on Rye

My bubby (grandmother) used to tell me, “For every pot there’s a lid.” She was referring to her desire to see me married before she died (it didn’t happen) but the same thing can be said about Hallmark’s Christmas movies and the people who watch them. I’m not one of those people because I prefer to keep my brain cells intact for as long as I can but I occasionally throw caution to the wind and brace myself for 90-odd minutes of wintery, mind-numbing silliness. Hallmark recently dropped HANUKKAH ON RYE, a seasonal romcom pandering straight to my religious demographic. How could I not watch?

Jacob (Jeremy Jordan, TV’s SUPERGIRL) is the fourth generation of the Zimmer family that runs a successful modern deli in Los Angeles. The family has decided to open up a branch in New York and Jacob goes out there to negotiate the lease on premises in the Lower East Side. He rents an Airbnb flat in a nearby building that also has three generations of the Gilbert family as its residents. The Gilberts run a successful traditional deli just down the road from the site that Jacob wants to lease and Molly (Yael Grobglas, TV’s JANE THE VIRGIN) represents its fourth generation as well. Jacob and Molly are both committed singles, much to the disappointment of their grandmothers, Esther (Paula Shaw) and Ruth (Linda Darlow) respectively, and the two old women independently decide to register their eineklach (grandchildren) with Mrs. Mizansky (Angela Narth), a successful matchmaker based in Brooklyn. Mizansky’s method is to have the couple write letters to each other using pseudonyms so they don’t know each other’s true identity. While Jacob and Molly do just that, they begin to cultivate a friendship without knowing that they are also corresponding with each other at the same time. Their budding relationship eventually hits a road bump though, when Molly learns that Jacob is in New York to effectively go into competition with her and her family. But, of course, love manages to find a way to win out in the end and, because it’s Chanukah, latkes are involved.

Oy gevalt. Leaving aside the obvious Jewish riff on YOU’VE GOT MAIL, kudos to Hallmark for being so on-brand. The company really has a wonderful knack of being able to “Christmasify” even the Jewish holidays. Writer Julie Sherman Wolfe, whom I assume is Jewish, goes to great lengths to make latkes Gilbert’s signature dish. Really? Potato pancakes? That’s the easiest thing to make. If you’ve never done so, they’re made of grated potatoes, eggs, salt, pepper, coarse flour and oil. It’s hardly something that a deli is going to hang its hat on unless it’s going to jazz them up, which many chefs are doing these days. A deli’s signature dish is brisket, matzoh ball soup or even its dill pickles but never latkes. But this is a story that takes place over Hanukkah – or Chanukah as I spell it – so something apropos for the holiday must be represented. The film does mention jelly donuts, which is another holiday staple, so why not make Gilbert’s and Zimmer’s competing bakeries instead of competing delis? If Wolfe had done that, then the film’s title would at least make sense. Gilbert’s could be known for its rye bread.

But that’s not the most annoying part of this story. If the characters in HANUKKAH ON RYE are supposed to be representational of American Jews, I just want to caution my non-Jewish readers that American Jews are a breed unto themselves. The rest of us don’t bring our chanukiyot (Chanukah menorahs) into a treif (unkosher) restaurant, as Gilbert’s clearly is, to light them there. We light them in our homes, in front of a street-facing window. And, while many Jewish communities around the world have a large chanukiya on display, we don’t crowd in front of it every night of the holiday to chant the two blessings and sing our two Chanukah songs. (There are actually more than two but really just two that we all know off by heart.) We save that activity for our homes.

HANUKKAH ON RYE is not all bad, though, and the story had potential. Molly decides to run a “Write and Sing Your Own Chanukah Song” promotion at the deli, which is a great idea. Here, singer-songwriter Lisa Loeb, another Member of the Tribe, makes a cameo where she sings an unplugged version of her song, “Light”. The film also climaxes with a Great American Latke Fry Off between the two families. Another great idea but if you’re going to do that, at least go beyond the traditional fare and use something other than regular potatoes. I make mine with sweet potatoes and the other day I had some with cheddar cheese inside.

As far as the performances go, Jordan and Grobglas have good on-screen chemistry together, which makes watching this pap somewhat palatable. At least they’re both Jewish so they understand the material and they pronounce the Hebrew and Yiddish words correctly (her more than him, as she grew up in Israel). I’m also not one of those people who say that only Jews should play Jews on screen and on stage (Rachel Brosnahan and Tony Shalhoub play amazing TV Jews) but in this case it was the right casting choice.

HANUKKAH ON RYE is obviously not my kind of holiday fare but maybe it’s yours so, if it is, enjoy. It’s streaming now on the Hallmark Channel. Have a nice holiday, whichever one you celebrate.

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4 thoughts on “Movie Review: Hanukkah on Rye

  1. Looking forward to seeing it with my daughter who has the Hallmark Channel!

    I love corny (or wry) romances.

      1. We saw Menu while in Florida. We wouldn’t have gone if we had read the full review, and would have missed an excellent and well done film on the ills of society. We had a discussion about it after and cousin Lawrie declared that the premise was brilliant and so well executed.

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