Yael Grobglas grew up celebrating Hanukkah – but not quite like this.
The star of the newest Hallmark Hanukkah movie, “Hanukkah on Rye,” was raised in Israel, with somewhat different traditions from those embraced by American Jews.
“Hanukkah is big in Israel, of course. It’s always been one of my favorite holidays… but I feel like it has sort of got a lot bigger in the [United] States, because it has to compete with Christmas,” Grobglas told The Times of Israel in a recent phone interview from Los Angeles. The film premieres on the Hallmark channel on December 18, the first night of the holiday.
For the movie, Grobglas threw herself into the mindset of an American Jew to play the character of Molly Spiegelman, the third generation behind the counter of the Gilbert’s Deli family business on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.
After several years of living in in the US, Grobglas said she has grown accustomed to American Hanukkah traditions, although she pointed out that it “blew my mind” when she realized “the dreidels are wrong!”
Outside of Israel, the classic Hanukkah toy is printed with the Hebrew letters nun, gimmel, hey and shin – representing the Hebrew phrase “A great miracle happened there,” but in Israel the letters are nun, gimmel, hey and pey: “A great miracle happened here.”
Working on the film, Grobglas said, she had to balance her lifetime of knowledge of Jewish holidays with the newer American traditions she has picked up in recent years.
“For the movie, it was a bit tricky, because I had to sing the same prayers, but with a different tune,” Grobglas recalled. “It was a challenge throughout the movie to tone down my accent in Hebrew,” she said, noting her efforts to pronounce the traditional Hebrew prayers with an American accent – “which sounded pretty funny to me!”
Indeed, Grobglas’s more guttural pronunciation occasionally breaks through in the film, which is a sweet but silly entry in the Hallmark holiday canon. The movie plays out with a constant soundtrack of Hanukkah and Jewish music in the background, which feels over the top until you remember it’s the standard for Hallmark holiday fare.
“Hanukkah on Rye” tells a quintessentially Jewish – albeit stereotypically hokey – tale of dueling deli owners in the historic Jewish immigrant neighborhood of the Lower East Side (but filmed in Canada). Molly’s great-grandmother arrived in New York in 1914 and established Gilbert’s Deli, where Molly and her parents still work today.
Meanwhile, love interest Jacob Levy, played by Broadway star Jeremy Jordan, is also the third generation working in his own family’s deli business, Zimmer’s in Los Angeles. Levy is sent by his grandmother to open a new branch of their more modern approach to delis on the Lower East Side, where the meet-cute unfolds.
In a contrived subplot, both grandmothers hire matchmaker Rose Mizansky – who promises to “find your bashert, guaranteed” – who forces Jacob and Molly to send each other secret anonymous letters in a storyline more than a little reminiscent of the classic 1998 romcom “You’ve Got Mail.”
Grobglas, who is best known for her star turn as Petra on the hit show “Jane the Virgin,” said that while “we all know and love Christmas movies,” she would love to see more Hanukkah films – and more Jewish holidays on screen overall.
“We don’t have enough,” she said. “I’d like to see movies for all the Jewish holidays.
The actress said the film’s release at a time when vocal antisemitism has seen a notable spike – something Grobglas has spoken up about on social media – feels particularly fitting.
“I think it’s the perfect timing,” she said. “I just felt like this was meant to come out now – it feels very good to be able to represent [Jews] on screen at the moment.”
Grobglas said she has heard a lot of excitement about the film from her Jewish friends, “but I also love the idea that people who are not Jewish are going to get a glimpse into what Hanukkah is… this is a great chance for people to learn a little bit more about Jewish culture, about Jewish traditions, about how family is at the heart of the Jewish culture.”
Hallmark’s Hanukkah offerings have been steadily improving over the years. In its first foray into Hanukkah programming in 2019, Hallmark drew criticism for both “Holiday Date” and “Double Holiday” – which included elements of Hanukkah but only as a foil to Christmas, and positioned the holiday as a foreign concept which had to be taught to skeptical audiences.
In the network’s 2020 film, “Love, Lights, Hanukkah!” the focus was more on the Jewish holiday, but only after the Christmas-obsessed main character took a DNA test and realized she had Jewish heritage. Last year’s Hallmark film, “Eight Gifts of Hanukkah,” was given a considerably warmer welcome by Jewish audiences for featuring two Jewish main characters who grew up celebrating Hanukkah, without injecting Christmas into the plot.
And while “Hanukkah on Rye” isn’t perfect, it’s certainly come a long way – showcasing Jewish history, Jewish traditions and two Jewish leads played by Jewish actors.
“We had obviously, many, many Jewish people on set, and many Jewish people involved in the making of this movie,” said Grobglas. “But I also felt like even the people who weren’t Jewish who were there – either they did their research, or they knew about it from before.”
Written by Julie Sherman Wolfe, the film packs in plenty of nods and winks to Jewish jokes and stereotypes, including pushy moms who are always sending their kids home with leftovers; references to Manischewitz wine and “Fiddler on the Roof”; plans to eat Chinese food on Christmas; a bubbe vs. bubbe latke contest; and a pivotal scene where Molly and Jacob argue about the perfect way to construct a bagel with lox.
“I felt like the film really captured how food is at the heart of really all our holidays,” said Grobglas. “That was definitely a big part of my household growing up – food was always in the center.”
In a welcome nod to the long and storied history of American Jewry, the characters in “Hanukkah on Rye” engage in several discussions about the difficult conditions most Jewish immigrants faced in Lower East Side tenements at the turn of the 20th century.
“I learned a lot about it while making the film and I found it fascinating – I did not know about that before, that was new to me,” Grobglas noted.
The film’s emotional climax has little to do with Molly and Jacob’s romance (spoiler alert: it’s impossible to spoil a Hallmark movie), and is instead marked by the moment their grandmothers come to a realization about their shared Jewish history.
“Think of all the miracles that had to happen for us to get here,” says Jacob’s grandmother, Esther. It’s a perfect Hallmark message that manages to be poignant despite the cliché, and is fitting not just for Hanukkah — but for most of Jewish history.” PJC