January 28, 2020

Lifetime Welcomes Jew-ish Romantic Comedy ‘Mistletoe & Menorahs’

Jake Epstein and Kelly Jakle; Photo courtesy of Lifetime

Two things set apart “Mistletoe & Menorahs” from the other holiday romantic comedies airing on Lifetime this month. As the title suggests, it celebrates both Hanukkah and Christmas. But the story about an interfaith relationship also reflects the real-life love stories of its writer, Guy Yosub, and its lead actor, Jake Epstein. Both are Jewish and in interfaith marriages.

“It’s the story of two people who find each other and love the differences about each other. In today’s world I think that’s a beautiful message,” Epstein said. “And at this time of year when we’re inundated with Christmas programming, it’s a nice reminder that there are other cultures that celebrate in different ways.”

In the film, the couple falls in love as they learn about each other’s holiday traditions. Israeli-born Yosub recalled that his wife, Julianna Hays, an executive producer on the project, didn’t know much about Hanukkah when they met. “I had to do a lot of explaining. She had no idea what sufganiyot were,” he said. 

Yosub endeavored to put as many Hanukkah touchstones as possible into the movie, including dreidels, jelly doughnuts, lighting the candles and making latkes. In a caroling scene, Broadway veteran Epstein sings “Hanukkah, Oh Hanukkah.” 

Epstein met his wife, actress Vanessa Smythe, in high school. “We were friends, then sweethearts, then broke up. We kept in touch through the years, got back together and got married a year ago,” he said. He has fond memories of Hanukkah parties with his extended family in Toronto, where he once again resides after seven years in New York. “If you want to eat, you have to get up and tell a bad joke. It’s become a fun and competitive event.”

He had a “somewhat observant upbringing” that included Hebrew school, a bar mitzvah and celebrating holidays with family. “I would consider myself spiritually Jewish rather than religiously Jewish,” he said. “It was certainly a big part of my upbringing and certainly a big part of my identity.” 

“At this time of year when we’re inundated with Christmas programming, it’s a nice reminder that there are other cultures that celebrate in different ways.”
— Jake Epstein

Exposed to theater early by arts aficionado parents, Epstein and his sister became actors at an early age. “It’s not always the easiest job to be an actor. You’re constantly looking for the next job,” he said. “I consider myself one of the luckiest people in the world to get to do this and that I’ve been able to have a pretty good career so far.” His credits include “Degrassi: The Next Generation,” “Designated Survivor,” “Suits,” and the musicals “Spring Awakening,” “Billy Elliot” and “Beautiful.”

Also in Lifetime’s “A Storybook Christmas,” premiering Dec. 7, Epstein currently is starring in “Dear Jack, Dear Louise” at the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., and will appear in “Indecent” in Toronto in May. “Boy From the Sky,” his autobiographical one-act play that premiered earlier this year in Toronto, will be restaged there in 2020.

“I’m interested in writing and being part of great stories,” he said. “I love doing these Lifetime movies because they’re comedies. They’re really joyful and funny and fun to be part of. They’re really sweet and perfectly predictable. I think these movies are really comforting and I know a lot of people look forward to them every year.”

Yosub, whose parents are from Romania and whose father is a Holocaust survivor, was born in Ramat Chen outside Tel Aviv but grew up in Queens, N.Y., in a Reform Jewish home. He went to a Jewish day school, had a bar mitzvah and regularly attended synagogue. “The traditions, the lifestyle, are very important to me. I feel very connected,” he said, noting that Hays, whom he met at a poker game in 2008 and married this September, has been an eager student of the traditions. “We celebrate Hanukkah and Christmas, Easter and Passover now. If we’re lucky enough to have children, we’ll focus on the traditions of the holidays and the importance of family.”

Armed with a master’s in writing from Queens College, Yosub moved to Los Angeles in 2006 to pursue screenwriting, but after the economic crash and the writers’ strike in 2008, he took a job casting extras for film and TV. But with Hays’ encouragement, he eventually returned to writing scripts, several of which have sold. They include “Sign for Revenge,” a woman-in-jeopardy movie, and “Love at Daisy Hill,” set in Hays’ home state of Kentucky. While writing “Mistletoe & Menorahs,” he binged on rom-coms including “When Harry Met Sally” and “Sleepless in Seattle” for inspiration.

“These movies are becoming part of the lexicon of the season,” he said. “The whole family can gather round to watch. There’s a familiarity to it. All the joy of the holidays and the feeling of family and tradition shine through; the similarities between people and the family and tradition aspects of the holidays that are universal and we all share.”

He added, “I could not be more excited, happier and proud about it. I hope this becomes a tradition and we see a Hanukkah movie every year.” 

Meanwhile, he has an idea for a sequel: “A Very Easter-Passover Wedding.”

“Mistletoe & Menorahs” premieres Dec. 7 on Lifetime and OnDemand.