Who should Sara (and Jess, and I) date? Every night Sara and her family light Hanukkah candles together and have dinner with Daniel (Jake Epstein), their semi-orphaned childhood next-door neighbor, who is also renovating Sara’s optometry practice. Every night Sara receives a thoughtful gift from a secret admirer, with increasingly personal, Phantom of the Opera–style notes. Who could the admirer be? Could it be someone who, à la Sara’s optometry work, is right in front of her—someone who she just can’t quite see?
A quick note: If you are coming to Eight Gifts of Hanukkah via other great works of Jewish cinema—the Mel Brooks catalog, Barbra Streisand’s Oscar-winning Yentl, anything by the Coen brothers—this movie may not feel like a Hanukkah gift. However, if you would like to see sparks fly as a man hands a woman an old dreidel, strap in.
The true miracle of Eight Gifts of Hanukkah is that not only does it go out of its way to avoid reinforcing many Jewish stereotypes, it actively tries to subvert them. Sara isn’t gunning to marry a doctor, she already is one. There are lawyers and accountants in her life, yes, but her mom is a judge, and her niece dreams of being a rabbi. Instead of worrying about spinsterhood, her ear pressed up against her biological clock, Sara is aware that her suitors are obsessed with her. And when the question of “Shouldn’t you be having kids soon?” comes up, it’s addressed at Daniel. Intense communal pressure to reproduce, redirected at single men for a change? Hallmark is doing God’s work here.
Sara, seen with even more of her hanukkiahs
But look—I am an actual Jew, from Seattle, so I can say this: There are some stereotypes about Jews that are true. And one is the old saying, “Two Jews, three opinions.” Some Jews, I’m sure, would turn off the movie at the sight of Sara’s blue and white wreath. My mom walked past as I was watching and announced that she didn’t find Sara’s pronunciation of kugel believable. It is tricky to capture Jewish life on screen, and Jews are never going to agree on how we want to be represented. Perhaps this is because Judaism is between 3,000 and 4,000 years old, Jews are scattered across the globe, and Jewishness has been tragically and inextricably tied to suffering. So sometimes we just have to be glad that a nice Jewish story is being told, and forgive the fact that characters keep announcing that they are “Off to get some pastrami on rye!”
Jews can’t even agree on how to feel about non-Jewish actors depicting Jewish characters on screen. It’s tricky. On one hand, there’s no way to “look” Jewish—Jews have lived in all parts of the world, and nonwhite Jews are constantly and hurtfully excluded from mainstream depictions of Judaism. The closest the movie comes to this kind of representation is the voice of Nicolette Robinson, the Black Jewish Broadway actor who sings a gorgeous rendition of Maoz Tzur with her husband, Leslie Odom Jr. (listen above). On the other hand, particularly Ashkenazi Jews (Jews from Eastern Europe) have been demonized for our appearances for centuries, so casting non-Jewish actors as Jews can painfully reinforce the idea that Jews just aren’t beautiful.
So it feels meaningful that in the Hallmark Hanukkah movie, both romantic leads are played by Jewish actors. Lavi, Hallmark reports, “is an ambassador of The Los Angeles Children’s Hospital and the Make-A-Wish Israel Foundation. She also volunteers her time to Our Big Kitchen Los Angeles, a community-run Kosher kitchen that brings people together to assist the less fortunate.” Jewish parents, I’ll save you the time on this one: She’s already married.
Jenny Singer is a staff writer for Glamour. You can follow her on Twitter.