NEW YORK – The Hallmark Channel, known for its light and romantic Christmas movies, has come under fire from critics for its attempts at Hanukkah flicks this year. Yet while some op-eds and tweets say the films are rife with stereotypes and portray the Jewish festival as another aspect of Christmas cheer, the Jewish screenwriter who penned one of them defends her work.
Last year, the Hallmark Channel announced it would include two Hanukkah-themed movies in its 2019 “Countdown to Christmas” programming – a lineup of cheesy seasonal films that has become the network's trademark and given it its highest annual ratings. But when the plots of the two movies, “Double Holiday” and “Holiday Date,” were released earlier this month, some of the excitement dimmed.
“Double Holiday” features a Jewish, career-minded, real estate project manager named Rebecca Hoffman (played by Carly Pope). She is tasked with organizing a Christmas party for a client alongside her office nemesis, Chris (Kristoffer Polaha), and has to juggle the job with her and her family’s Hanukkah plans. As their planning progresses, Chris learns about and embraces Rebecca’s Jewish Hanukkah traditions as he joins their celebrations all week. Of course, as the classic Hallmark formula suggests, the pair falls in love at the end of the movie.
“Double Holiday” drew criticism for what some saw as leaning on stereotypes – the Jewish protagonist has a loud, big family – but also for its Christmas imagery eclipsing its portrayal of Hanukkah. Rebecca’s office is decked in red and green, and her nephew performs in a Christmas play dressed as Santa.
These are not Hanukkah movies, writer Britni de la Cretaz kvetched in a Washington Post op-ed. “They are Christmas movies with Jewish characters. And they rely on some of the oldest anti-Semitic tropes in the book.”
A New York Times article by Jordan Salama echoed the sentiment: “These are Christmas movies through and through, with Hanukkah portrayed as an afterthought. Instead of helping to make non-Jewish Americans more comfortable with Jewish traditions – which is what true inclusion looks like – they are trying to make Christmas more comfortable for Jews.”
But “Double Holiday” screenwriter Nina Weinman stands behind her movie. “All I can say, to speak for myself, is that I was really, really careful to try not to be very cliché, and to not be super stereotypical,” she tell Haaretz. “In this day and age, people can find fault in anything.”
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Weinman, who was raised Jewish in California and has written over 20 movies for the Hallmark Channel, says she was very excited to include Hanukkah in one of her plots this season, and never intended to assimilate a Jewish narrative into a Christmas story.
“That was never something I was interested in doing, because what we really wanted to do is show a non-Jewish person assimilating into Hanukkah and really explore those traditions,” she says. “Hallmark was super encouraging about that, and they loved the story when we first came up with it and pitched it to them.”
She and her producer, Joel Rice, who is also Jewish, used their own experiences and traditions to create the scenario. Her being married to someone who isn’t Jewish also came into play in writing the movie's script.
“To say that something is anti-Semitic when it was made by Jewish people who were involved in this and took it very seriously, without having ever seen it, was really upsetting to me,” she adds.
Weinman was not involved in “Holiday Date,” Hallmark’s second Hanukkah movie and perhaps the more problematic of the two.
The film’s plot sees aspiring fashion designer Brooke dumped right before Christmas, leaving her dreading going home to celebrate without a date. She enlists the help of actor Joel to play the part of her boyfriend over the holidays.
Fully committed to the role, Joel enthusiastically participates in all the yuletide festivities. However, the family grows suspicious when he shows little knowledge of Christmas celebrations: He doesn’t know Christmas carol lyrics; fails at decorating the family tree; and makes a number of other faux pas during the visit. The movie portrays him as a clueless Jew who always wanted to celebrate Christmas, but has no idea how.
When her family eventually finds out Joel is Jewish, they incorporate his Hanukkah traditions into their plans. And yes, Brooke and Joel eventually fall in love.
“The trope of the sneaky, untrustworthy Jew, who is a perpetual outsider, is an enduring and pernicious stereotype,” de la Cretaz says of Joel’s charade. “In fact, it’s the cornerstone of anti-Semitism’s conspiratorial mode.”
The Jewish characters of both films, she says, are coerced into Christmas celebrations, and the tension only breaks once they learn how to properly embrace the tradition of the majority.
“This isn’t Scrooge waking up after a long, bad dream and deciding to give his employee a break,” de la Cretaz writes. “Forced assimilation is a form of violence, not an adorable caper or a heartwarming meet-cute.”
Addressing the Hallmark Channel, journalist Erin Biba tweeted: “I was pretty excited for your ‘Hanukkah’ movies, but these don’t actually have Hanukkah in them and even worse this one is borderline anti-Jewish and honestly now I wish you’d just go back to pretending we don’t exist.”
“Double Holiday” writer Weinman says she was never given a directive by the Hallmark Channel that the movie should include Christmas, but she viewed it as a “Hanukkah-Christmas” hybrid.
“I always knew that I was putting Hanukkah into this season and we were encouraged to weight it toward Hanukkah,” she says. “I think my producer and I both understood this is ‘Countdown to Christmas,’ so there’s gonna be some elements of both in it. But we weighted it more toward the traditions of Hanukkah with some Christmas sprinkled in the background too.
“What we wanted to do is have people come away with a little bit of better understanding of that celebration,” she says. “It’s about family, it’s about community, it’s about being thankful for the gifts, and sort of reflecting upon the end of the year and celebrating with the people that you love.”
Weinman adds, “I’ve never felt like, ‘We got one shot, we gotta get it right.’ I felt like this is the first of many to come.”
A previous version of this article incorrectly cited a New York Times article. The link and the author have been corrected.