Hanukkah on Rye (2022)

Okay. Going to need a big old disclaimer for this one.

I'm Jewish. Also, I'm not Jewish. Depends on what you mean by "Jewish", really. My mother is Jewish and grew up in a Jewish household. My father was raised Christian, though I don't believe he ever identified as such in my lifetime. I was raised celebrating Hanukkah and Christmas, both in a secular context. I grew up thinking of myself as Jewish. I even got to experience some antisemitism in grade school in rural Maine (lucky me).

I never learned to speak Hebrew, I didn't have a Bar Mitzvah, I wasn't raised in a Jewish community, and I've only stepped into synagogues for weddings and funerals. When I was a kid, I didn't think these were relevant as far as my identity was concerned. And depending on who you ask and what the term means, they may not be.

However, from a cultural perspective at the very least, I am most certainly not Jewish.

The reason I'm bringing all this up is I'm about to say some very nice things about Hallmark's first true Hanukkah romcom, and I want to be clear about where I'm coming from, particularly because while there are plenty of people celebrating the representation provided by the film, the movie's also been criticized for reducing its characters to stereotypes, among other issues. The line between comedic characters and stereotypes is sometimes tough to discern, and even more so given Jewish comedy traditions. I'll note that writer Julie Sherman Wolfe and the actors playing the movie's lead characters are Jewish. I haven't been able to easily determine whether the same is true of director, Peter DeLuise. However I should also note I didn't run across the article linked above by accident: the way the characters speak and behave felt very stereotypical to me, so I went looking to see how it was being received by audiences who were raised in traditional Jewish settings. In short, while I don't think Greg Nussen's reaction will be universal, I certainly don't think he's being overly sensitive.

With all that out of the way, I suspect a few of you noticed I may have buried the lead: this is, in fact, a good romantic comedy. And seeing as I've said that (or something like it) several times this year in reference to Hallmark movies, I should probably stop acting surprised. The company's output seems to be getting better.

In this case, maybe a lot better. Because this sidesteps several of the studio's usual limitations, to the point I was genuinely surprised to see the narrative unfold the way it did, which is to say, competently. This is still a G-rated romantic comedy, but it's one with a bit of tension and relatable obstacles, none of which could have been solved with a simple conversation or well-timed platitude. In short, this is written like an actual movie, rather than a template with names and a gimmick penciled in.

Granted, the premise is still recycled, but that's generally true of theatrically released romcoms, too. I'm not expecting wholly original here: just something that doesn't feel like it was formed in a mold where every decision was rubber-stamped by a room full of executives fixated on brand management.

The story is based on the 1940 Christmas film, The Shop Around the Corner, but since most of you haven't seen that, also You've Got Mail. Come to think of it, I haven't seen You've Got Mail and should probably rectify that sooner or later. I should also really get around to watching Fiddler on the Roof, which is cited directly in Hanukkah on Rye when one of the leads mocks the other for never having seen it. Also, the movie includes a matchmaker who is maybe supposed to be the matchmaker from Fiddler. Or possibly connected in some way? I don't know - they wanted a Santa-analogue, and that's what they came up with.

The movie's leads are Molly (Yael Grobglas) and Jacob (Jeremy Jordan), both heirs to Jewish delis, albeit ones with very different philosophies. Jacob's family deli is located in LA, and their menu includes countless options, most of which aren't at all connected thematically to the restaurant. Molly's is in New York, and they're far more traditional. But while Jacob's family business is thriving, Molly's is struggling. Making matters worse, Jacob is in town to sign a lease, so his family can open a new location. All decisions, it should be noted, are dictated by the respective family matriarchs - the leads' grandmothers, who also conveniently enlisted the services of the mysterious matchmaker I mentioned earlier. Molly and Jacob reluctantly agree to participate in what's essentially an anonymous pen pal situation supposedly guaranteed to result in a match. Of course, they also randomly meet in person, not realizing they're simultaneously communicating in secret, and begin a friendship that starts growing into something more.

But that hits a snag when Molly discovers Jacob is planning to open a competing deli just down the street from her family's, something she worries might put them out of business. Jacob, meanwhile, has reservations about all of this: he really doesn't want to hurt Molly's family deli and tries looking for alternatives.

He also discovers that Molly is the woman he's exchanging letters with, though he keeps this to himself while trying to convince his family not to open their deli down the street from hers. This goes on for three days, at the end of which Jacob's family shows up to find out why the deal hasn't closed. He misses a date where he planned to reveal his identity to Molly, so he can speak to his grandmother instead. Not only does he fail to convince her to change locations, he discovers why this location means so much to her (turns out there's family history here he never knew about). He goes to tell Molly he couldn't talk her out of it and discovers she understands the restaurant thing. Hell, she wasn't even mad at her pen pal for standing her up - it gave her a chance to realize she wanted to be with Jacob. But you'll note "wanted" is past tense, because guess what she is mad about: he knew she was his anonymous pen pal for three days and kept it from her while they poured their hearts out to each other. He argues he was waiting until he could talk his family out of opening the deli, but she views it as a serious breach of trust.

And... Yeah. There's nothing here to explain. There's no easy misunderstanding, nothing for me to roll my eyes at, no easy fix. The obstacle grew out of their respective flaws: this is actually the way you're supposed to write these. I'm just not used to seeing this in Hallmark movies.

But it is still Hallmark, so there's some deus ex machina waiting in the wings. The two grandmothers go to complain to the matchmaker and demand a refund, but find her door locked. Waiting outside, they deduce the other's identity after discussing the matter in a way that villainizes the person who broke their grandchild's heart. The discussion turns to food, and then the matter really gets personal. A latke challenge is issued and agreed to, with the winner walking away with bragging rights as the best in the city.

Everyone shows up for the battle. When the latkes are ready they just need an impartial judge to ensure it's a blind taste test. And of course it's the matchmaker who raises her hand (no one's actually interacted with her in person, so she's just a stranger to everyone but the audience).

With everyone provided with samples of each, they discover... the latkes are identical. Not just equal, mind you: literally, they're indistinguishable from each other. As in, they're made using the exact same recipe. After some discussion everyone realizes the grandmothers' late mothers met on the journey to America and became close, sharing everything, including family recipes. They thought of each other as sisters.

Some of this should probably have been established earlier, but it's still well executed. And of course this brings the families together - they decide to open a new restaurant together. Then Jacob and Molly talk and figure things out. The matchmaker grins at the camera and closes this out.

So, that's the plot, or at least enough of it to get a general idea of how this plays out. There's of course a lot of additional stuff, mostly related to food. This thing uses shots of deli sandwiches and latkes the way Hallmark Christmas movies use decorations.

Speaking of Christmas decorations, they're largely absent from this film, which makes for a nice change of pace. There's a brief scene in a hotel decked out for Christmas, but that's about it. Most of this is set in a Jewish neighborhood, so the focus is more on Hanukkah. There's not a lot of Hanukkah decorations, because... well, there wouldn't be. The holidays are celebrated differently, after all, so this focuses on the food. And also on the music. They bring in Lisa Loeb to sing an original Hanukkah song that isn't half bad. There are also sequences of characters celebrating Hanukkah alone and together, and they're refreshingly grounded.

But at its core, this is a romantic comedy, so naturally a lot of the movie's success is going to hinge on said comedy. And I certainly found it funny, though it's worth noting the style of humor is also where it veers dangerously close towards highlighting stereotypes. Again, I don't get a vote as to whether it crosses any lines, but I will say I found the characters likeable and genuinely funny.

Saying this is the best Hanukkah movie I've come across would be faint praise - that just means it's better than Eight Crazy Nights and Full-Court Miracle, and what isn't? This is, at least in my opinion, a good movie. It's sweet, funny, and the characters have grounded, believable arcs. I know I glossed over the recognition between families in my synopsis, but it was handled quite well (if you clicked on that link at the top, you found out even he found that bit touching, albeit in a manipulative way). The conflict has some tension, too, which is virtually unheard of in Hallmark holiday fare. I'm not as enthusiastic about the matchmaker basically being magic - it really did feel like they using her as a stand-in for Santa Claus - but that's a minor quibble. If this is an indication of the direction Hallmark's headed, I'm going to need to find a new studio to make fun of.