Weinfeld: Hallmark’s Hanukkah movies aren’t anti-Semitic

A still from the Hallmark feature Double Holiday (Hallmark photo)

If you have never seen a Hallmark Christmas movie, you’re missing out. These made-for-TV movies, which air on the Hallmark Channel, are low budget and often shot in Canada. They feature semi-famous Canadian actors, or former American stars like Danica McKellar – a.k.a., Winnie Cooper from The Wonder Years – or Candace Cameron Bure – a.k.a., D.J. Tanner from Full House – as well as the now-disgraced Lori Loughlin.

Hallmark Christmas movies are spectacularly formulaic, which is exactly why people love them. A man and woman meet shortly before Christmas. They may be dating other people at the time, or one may be a widow or widower with a child. Regardless, the chemistry between them is instant. The romance meanders for the next 90 minutes, minor obstacles are manufactured and overcome and the two leads fall in love and share a very G-rated kiss before the credits roll. It’s a wonderfully predictable Christmas miracle every time.

These movies are very schmaltzy, but schmaltz is my jam. Which is why I and many other Jews were excited when we heard that this holiday season, the Hallmark Channel would be airing two Hallmark Hanukkah movies. Holiday Date concerns a non-Jewish woman who brings a Jewish actor, who is pretending to be her boyfriend, home for Christmas.

Double Holiday has a Jewish woman (played by Vancouverite Carly Pope) and her gentile co-worker planning the office Christmas party. In addition, the similarly schmaltzy Lifetime Network offered its own contribution, Mistletoe and Menorahs, in which a non-Jewish woman needs to learn about Hanukkah to impress a client.

My excitement was tempered, however, by a slew of negative reviews. Not only were these movies bad, but according to the Washington Post and the Forward, they were anti-Semitic. Reviews in the New York Times and Alma did not go that far, but still indicated that the films would leave Jewish viewers with bad tastes in their mouths, like a latke served with ketchup instead of applesauce or sour cream.

Were these assessments correct? First, a warning: if you’re looking for woke content, the Hallmark Channel is not your best bet. The movies do suffer from a startling lack of diversity. The romantic leads are always white and heterosexual. People of colour exist only as supporting characters and the LGBTQ community is barely represented at all. People who expect feminist portrayals of gender roles in Hallmark movies are bound to be disappointed.

Having said all that, let me be clear: the Hallmark and Lifetime Hanukkah movies were not at all anti-Semitic. It’s true that Holiday Date isn’t really a Hanukkah movie. It’s a Christmas movie with a Jewish love interest, and even by Hallmark standards, it’s not very compelling. But Double Holiday is positively delightful, as is Lifetime’s Mistletoe and Menorahs. Neither is perfect, but both portray Jews and Judaism admirably.

Jewish studies professor Amy Milligan appreciated Mistletoe and Menorahs’ “positive portrayal of interfaith families as part of normative American family life,” something Double Holiday did even more effectively, as the main character’s happily intermarried sister is fully accepted by their warm, welcoming Ashkenazic parents. By showing multiple menorah lightings, both movies realistically portray the repetitive nature of Jewish ritual observance. Labeling these movies anti-Semitic only makes sense if you are looking for an excuse to be offended.

In an era of increasing anti-Semitism, we Jews cannot throw around such accusations lightly. Conservatives are quick to label legitimate criticism of Israel as anti-Semitic, and that is not helpful. By the same token, calling Hallmark Hanukkah movies anti-Semitic is not helpful.

They could certainly be improved and hopefully next year there will be Hallmark movies with more Jews, and more ethnic diversity and LBGTQ representation. That’s a tradition I can get behind for at least eight nights.