So it was exciting to hear that the Hallmark Channel was introducing two Hanukkah movies to its winter lineup this year. I’m a sucker for cheesy holiday content, and along with many Jews I know, I looked forward to being represented in the schmaltz. Maybe we would get a romance using Hanukkah’s eight nights as a countdown, leaving the audience wondering whether the leads would end up together before the last candle was lit. I imagined jokes about the disappointment of getting socks as a gift each and every evening. Maybe there would be a climactic latke cook-off, complete with arguments about whether applesauce or sour cream is the better topping.
There’s just one problem: Neither movie is a Hanukkah movie. They are Christmas movies with Jewish characters. And they rely on some of the oldest anti-Semitic tropes in the book.
In “Holiday Date,” a woman hires a Jewish actor to pose as her boyfriend and join her at her family’s house for Christmas. But, as described by Hallmark’s executive vice president of programming, the family grows “suspicious” about “whether he knows how to celebrate.” The trope of the sneaky, untrustworthy Jew, who is a perpetual outsider, is an enduring and pernicious stereotype. In fact, it’s the cornerstone of anti-Semitism’s conspiratorial mode. Such portrayals of Jewish people as devious, dangerous interlopers manifested in Nazi propaganda and 9/11 conspiracies; President Trump trots out the trope when he calls Rep. Adam B. Schiff “shifty.” (The California Democrat is chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, which has been leading the impeachment inquiry.) Now, it’s shown up in the form of a Jewish character attempting to blend in among the wary members of a Christian family.
“Double Holiday” isn’t much better: It follows a Jewish woman named Rebecca (of course) as she plans a company Christmas party with her office rival to get a promotion. Predictably, the two “learn that while the traditions and celebrations are different, the feelings of holiday and celebration and family and togetherness are the same,” as the Hallmark VP put it. In the movie, Hanukkah stands only in relation to Christmas, not on its own terms. Indeed, it functions as an obstacle to the rest of the characters getting to celebrate as usual. Rebecca even has to set aside her Hanukkah plans to organize the party with her male, Christian counterpart — which she does to further her professional ambition.
Along with the upcoming Lifetime movie “Mistletoe & Menorahs” (in which a Christian toy company executive and her Jewish acquaintance teach each other about their respective holidays), these stories’ underlying theme seems to be: See, Jews and Christians aren’t that different after all! This takeaway is alarmingly basic, but the plot mechanics are even more insidious. The drama hinges on Jewish characters being compelled to observe Christmas, and the tension resolves only when these outsiders learn how to participate in or appreciate the dominant religious tradition. This isn’t Scrooge waking up after a long, bad dream and deciding to give his employee a break. Forced assimilation is a form of violence, not an adorable caper or a heartwarming meet-cute.
Bill Abbott, the chief executive of Crown Media Family Networks, which owns the Hallmark Channel, tried to defend these decisions. “It’s hard if we start to . . . make movies based off of specific holidays . . . because we don’t look at Christmas from a religious point of view, it’s more a seasonal celebration,” he said on the Hollywood Reporter’s “TV’s Top 5” podcast, explaining that the network wanted to attract “the broadest audience” possible. But Christmas specifically commemorates the birth of Jesus Christ each Dec. 25. It is not some secular, universal celebration of long winter nights. That a Hollywood executive could claim that Christmas is “neutral,” and holds a universal meaning for all viewers, proves just how all-encompassing and inescapable Christian traditions have become.
The sheer ubiquity of Christmas is exactly what makes these plotlines so implausible. It’s hard to imagine a Jewish character who wouldn’t know how to celebrate the major holiday of America’s dominant religion. We are bombarded by Christmas! TV ads, movies and Mariah Carey singles have prepared us for this situation, should it ever arise: We could decorate a pine tree and put presents under it; we know to leave milk and cookies for Santa; we know the words to all the Christmas carols by heart. It would be much more believable if a Christian character didn’t know how to celebrate Hanukkah, struggling with singing the words to a Hebrew song, lighting a menorah (light from left to right, but insert the candles each night from right to left) and reading the dreidel after it stops spinning and knowing whether to put the gelt — chocolate coins — into the pot or take them out.
Hallmark is far from avoiding controversy with these choices, as Abbott claimed in his interview. And it’s difficult to take these movies seriously as representations of interfaith families, when they consistently depict Jewish characters adopting Christian rituals, and so rarely honoring their own, in their own right. At their worst, these movies traffic in bigoted stereotypes at a time when anti-Semitic hate crimes are on the rise and elected officials are reading from “Mein Kampf” on the floor of Congress, as Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.) did in March. At best, they remind Jews, and all non-Christians, that we can join in the holiday spirit only if we capitulate to the mainstream. In the same way we have to go searching for the small shelf of Hanukkah decorations — like a dish towel with dreidels on it or a droopy “Happy Hanukkah” banner (bonus points if the name of the holiday is misspelled or the store display features boxes of matzoh) — among the endless aisles of Christmas lights, tokenizing media just reinforces the idea that we are niche, inconvenient and uninteresting.
I, for one, would prefer to have been overlooked by the network rather than handed down insulting content that treats me as an afterthought or as an obstacle to someone else’s celebration. All I want this holiday season is a movie that doesn’t conscript me into Christmas cheer. Instead, give me the low-stakes Hanukkah drama I’ve been waiting for all my life.