December 7, 2019

A Hallmark Hanukkah: This Year, the Christmas Channel is a Little More Jewish

"Double Holiday"-Carly Pope and Kristoffer Polaha; Photo courtesy of Hallmark Channel

Jewish fans of Hallmark’s signature romantic-comedy movies have something to kvell about this year. Two of the channel’s 24 original holiday films include Hanukkah as part of the plot. Both “Holiday Date” and “Double Holiday” are about interfaith romantic relationships, and air Dec. 14 and 22, respectively.

According to “Double Holiday” writer Nina Weinman — who has had 21 movies air on the channel since 2010 — incorporating Hanukkah is “something that all of us in the Hallmark world have talked about for years. This year, they wanted to branch out and be part of the proper representation of what the world looks like, not just a Christmas story in a small town where two people fall in love. There is plenty of that. But it’s about diversity and thinking outside the box.”

Taking place over the eight days of Hanukkah and leading up to an office Christmas party, the story puts together rival co-workers Jewish Rebecca (Carly Pope) and non-Jewish Chris (Kristoffer Polaha), who learns about Hanukkah traditions while spending time with Rebecca’s family. Latke-making, menorah-lighting and a “very competitive dreidel event” are part of the festivities, Weinman said. 

Raised in a Reform Jewish family, Weinman had a bat mitzvah, went to Israel at age 15, and loved celebrating the holidays with her family. Her husband is not Jewish, and they’re raising their two children with the traditions of both faiths “to get them to understand that we’re both saying the same thing but just calling it by a different name,” she said.

To lighten the load of gifts they get for Hanukkah, Christmas and their winter birthdays, Weinman has the children pick a charity to donate to in lieu of gifts on all eight nights. “It’s all about giving back and being kind to others, appreciating what you have and being thankful for the gifts that have been bestowed on us,” she said, noting she incorporated a charitable element into “Double Holiday’s” script. 

A Silicon Valley native, Weinman spent seven years with Lifetime before moving on to Hallmark, where she has eight movies in various stages of completion, including “Christmas at Dollywood,” airing Dec. 8. 

“The thing I love about these movies and writing them is we know it’s a formula. We know how it’s going to end, but we can take people on a fun ride along the way and watch them fall in love,” she said.

Producer Joey Plager also is a Hallmark veteran, with credits that include four holiday films over the past six years. He worked closely with writer Karen Berger and channel executive Liz Yost on the “Holiday Date” script and supervised production on set, sometimes coaching the actors on Jewish elements. 

“Holiday Date”:  Photo: Matt Cohen Credit: ©2019 Crown Media United States LLC/Photographer: Allister Foster

He relished the opportunity to work on a movie that shows “people of all faiths can come together and enjoy the holiday spirit.” Its interfaith theme is familiar to Plager: He’s married to a woman who is half Jewish and grew up having a Christmas tree in her home. “The first four years of our marriage, I successfully fought off the notion of having a Christmas tree in our house. But she grew up having one and I relented,” Plager said.

In “Holiday Date,” a woman just dumped by her boyfriend enlists an actor to pretend to be her boyfriend and celebrate Christmas with her family, only to discover he’s Jewish. The family welcomes him, and they celebrate both traditions, which include saying the prayer over the candles, making latkes, spinning the dreidel and explaining the significance of the holiday. “We hit all the major milestones of Hanukkah,” Plager said. “It’s one of the funniest Hallmark movies I’ve worked on because of the inherent conflict in the setup.”

Plager was not involved in casting, but said there was an effort to find a Jewish actor for the lead role of Joel Parker. Matt Cohen got the job. “It was a character I hadn’t played before. It’s very refreshing,” Cohen said, contrasting it with the heavier roles of creeps, villains and demons he’s played before, including the “broken guy” he plays on “General Hospital.”

As someone who drifted away from Judaism, Cohen said, “It brought me great pleasure to step into this character and be engulfed by what Hanukkah is, what the prayers mean and why we say them.”

Cohen, a Miami native whose parents divorced when he was a baby, grew up with his single father and grandfather. They celebrated the Jewish holidays and said the prayers, “but I barely paid attention,” he said, noting that he studied for his bar mitzvah but never went through with it because his rebelliousness got him expelled from Hebrew school. On set,
 Plager helped Cohen with the proper Hebrew pronunciation of the prayers he had to recite.

Plager anticipates showing “Holiday Date” to his extended family at their annual gathering, where the adults do a white-elephant gift exchange as they nosh on latkes and brisket. He also is eager to see Rabbi Steve Leder at Wilshire Boulevard Temple, where Plager is a member. “He gives me a wry smile when he sees me around the holidays because he knows I’ve been producing Christmas movies,” Plager said. “I’m excited to tell him that I have a Christmas-Hanukkah movie this year.”

He called Hallmark’s recognition of Hanukkah “a wonderful step. These are the kind of movies you can watch with your entire family. There’s so little programming that’s on TV that you can sit down and watch with your grandparents and your children. They’re happy movies. Yes, they can be a bit predictable, but there’s some variation in theme, and they really celebrate the goodness in people, love, and family and friendship. People want to see that around the holidays.”

With a good response from the public and the ratings to back it up, there should be more Hanukkah on Hallmark in the future. Plager would like to see a sequel to “Holiday Date.” “There’s a suggestion that the lead characters may get engaged,” he said. “I think that ‘Holiday Wedding’ would be a nice follow-up.”

Weinman is similarly encouraged. “Hallmark is now so open to it that they’re already thinking about next year,” she said. “The floodgates are open. I don’t think it will stop anytime soon.”

“Holiday Date” premieres on Dec. 14 and “Double Holiday” premieres on Dec. 22 on Hallmark Channel.