Among the 40 new holiday movies that will premiere on Hallmark Channel this season, there’s just one that highlights Jewish tradition. Premiering Dec. 12, “Love, Lights, Hanukkah!” stars Mia Kirshner as a chef and restaurateur who was adopted as a baby and discovers via an ancestry search that she’s Jewish. In short order, she meets her new family, the Bermans—half siblings Scott and Becky and her husband and daughters, and the mother (Marilu Henner) who gave her up for adoption. Over the next eight days, she learns about Hanukkah—and begins a romance with a menschy food critic (played by Kirshner’s fellow MOT Ben Savage).
“I feel very lucky to have gotten to do this film. I’m very proud of my Jewish culture and heritage and it’s really a pleasure for me to share that with a larger audience,” Kirshner told the Journal on a call from her native Toronto. “My other reason for doing it is we’re living in challenging times. I wanted to do something that would make people feel good about their lives and themselves– Nothing too complicated or heavy.”
“I feel very lucky to have gotten to do this film. I’m very proud of my Jewish culture and heritage and it’s really a pleasure for me to share that with a larger audience”
Known best for her roles in “24,” “The Vampire Diaries,” “Star Trek: Discovery,” and “The L Word,” in which she played Jewish writer Jenny Schecter, Kirshner was additionally drawn to the festive, meal-centric milieu on the seasonally-decorated set. “I love food,” she said.
Shooting in Canada under strict COVID-19 protocols meant quarantining beforehand, social distancing and masks for everyone. “We wore reflective masks between takes but it was a challenge for the cinematographer to light us because of the glare. The hair and makeup people were constantly shuttling back and forth with our masks and sanitizer. It’s a lot, but we were glad to be working,” Kirshner said. “I appreciated the camaraderie and how we took care of each other and be safe for one another. It created a really strong bond on the set.”
She and Advah Soudak, who plays her half-sister and has an Israeli mother, entertained each other by speaking Hebrew together and shared Hanukkah memories and experiences.
“Growing up, we had the menorah and latkes, of course,” Kirshner said. “My mom had a grater that her mother gave her as part of her trousseau. It lost its grip over time, peeling hundreds of potatoes. My mom made the crustiest, fluffiest latkes and served them with sour cream, applesauce and donuts, and we’d sing songs. It wasn’t about the gifts. It was about honoring tradition, culture and heritage, our Eastern European roots.”
Kirshner’s mother was born in Sofia, Bulgaria and raised in Jaffa, Israel, where she spent summers growing up. Her father’s parents were Polish Holocaust survivors, “and what they went through and lost affected our outlook on the world and the way we were raised,” she said. Immigrating to Canada, her grandfather, a tailor, began anew. But he didn’t escape anti-Semitism. “He was shot and robbed outside his store and people just walked by as he shouted in Yiddish for help.”
Kirshner’s father, Sheldon, was born in a DP camp in Germany and became one of the foremost Holocaust experts in the world and worked for three decades as a journalist for the Canadian Jewish News. His family’s experiences “solidified my cultural relationship to Judaism, because of what they went through, what they lost, and the traditions they weren’t allowed to practice. I feel it’s very important to honor them now,” she said, by becoming self-made, self-reliant, and never giving up.
Determined to become an actor from the time she was six, she pursued her passion with resolve, getting her first big break in the movie “Exotica.” Although she didn’t love the loneliness and time away from loved ones that the job requires, Kirshner has never stopped working. “Acting has always been a wonderful outlet for me but I’ve always had other things in my life because it’s not enough to sustain me,” she said. She has found that sustenance in human rights and advocacy.
In 2008, she published “I Live Here,” an anthology of stories and illustrations about women and children refugees from renowned writers and artists. Her current project is WeAreRosa.com, a Canadian platform to help those who’ve encountered sexual harassment in the workplace with the resources and the legal information they need. “I saw this happening in my own industry and decided to do something about it,” Kirshner said. “I devoted the last few years of my life to putting this together. My goal is to help as many people as possible.”
As for future roles, Kirshner wouldn’t mind doing something else in the feel-good, comedy-drama vein of “Love, Lights, Hanukkah!” “I’ve never played a character or been in a piece that doesn’t have something awful happening or characters going through these Herculean struggles of life and death. I gravitate towards drama naturally, but it was a relief to do something a little lighter where I didn’t have to be in a constant state of pain,” she said. “There’s nothing more interesting than telling stories about complex people and complicated things and that’s what I’m here to do as an actor. If the story and character are right, I’m open to it.”
Hanukkah will be different this year due to the pandemic, and she worries about people who are alone and separated from loved ones. “In these times, we have to make sure we have community and are surrounded by love. There are a lot of social programs and resources out there and I hope people who are struggling reach out and make a call,” she said.
Her partner is not Jewish, so as in the movie, she will be honoring both their heritages by having a menorah and a Christmas tree at home. She plans to make latkes from the old family recipes her parents have recorded and preserved in a binder. She hopes that “Love, Lights, Hanukkah!” will bring some joy into what has been a difficult year. “It’s warm, it’s about family, and it’s bound to make you smile and feel a little bit better about the world, at least momentarily,” she said. “It’s a great break.”
“Love, Lights, Hanukkah!” premieres Dec. 12 at 8 p.m. on Hallmark Channel.