Trying to tell a Hanukkah story in the Christmas movie format is like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. While Christmas marks one of the most important holy days in the Christian year, Hanukkah is a relatively minor holiday that commemorates the ancient equivalent of a supply chain crisis, during which a single drop of oil in the Holy Temple lasted for eight nights. For thousands of years, the holiday was nothing more than a blip on the Hebrew calendar, but the forces of modern consumerism rebranded it into the Jewish alternative to Christmas, and an expectation of gifts and wintertime cheer soon followed. But despite advertisers’ best efforts to convince us otherwise, there’s no one way to celebrate Hanukkah — heck, there are sixteen different ways to spell it — which makes depicting it in the form of a cheesy TV movie uniquely difficult.
It’s been decades since Hanukkah first became a commercial holiday, but only recently did it make the move to Hallmark Channel and Lifetime. Just two years ago, in 2019, both networks released their first slate of Hanukkah movies, Hallmark’s Holiday Date and Double Holiday and Lifetime’s Mistletoe & Menorahs, all three of which notably do not contain the word “Hanukkah” in the title. Each of these TV movies featured Jewish characters and offered some representation of our customs and traditions, but they all presented Hanukkah as a holiday that exists solely in relation to Christmas, as if Jews haven’t been alternately celebrating and willfully ignoring this minor holiday since the 2nd century BCE.
While Lifetime has yet to follow up Mistletoe & Menorahs with a second Hanukkah movie, Hallmark’s “Countdown to Christmas” event has included one Jewish holiday film (out of 41 total) for the past two years, each of which has taken steps in the right direction when it comes to on-screen representation. Last year’s Love, Lights, Hanukkah! starred Mia Kirshner as Christina, a restaurant owner who takes a DNA test right before Christmas and discovers she’s Jewish. When she meets her biological family, Christina learns about Hanukkah and forms an unlikely bond with David (Ben Savage) that only deepens over eight nights. Love, Lights, Hanukkah! didn’t get the best reviews, but unlike Holiday Date, at least it wasn’t criticized for trafficking in anti-Semitic tropes.
This year Hallmark has finally ditched the Christmas connection altogether with Eight Gifts of Hanukkah, starring Inbar Lavi (Imposters and Lucifer) as an optometrist who begins receiving extremely personal Hanukkah gifts from a secret admirer. Sara is convinced that her anonymous suitor is one of the many guys she’s dating — which include a local celebrity chef and a reserved software developer — but in her quest to uncover his identity, she forgets about the man right under her nose: her brother’s longtime best friend, Daniel, played by Jake Epstein (Designated Survivor). Daniel grew up in the house next door, and in the aftermath of his parents’ divorce, he began spending almost all his time at the Levin house, becoming incredibly close to Sara’s father and late grandmother, Bubbe Rose. As a result, Sara sees Daniel as a brother-figure rather than a romantic option, but — wouldn't you know it — over the course of eight days, she comes to realize his potential and the power of their connection.
Lavi and Epstein strike an easy chemistry as these candle-crossed lovers, but the real star of Eight Gifts of Hanukkah is the Festival of Lights itself. The Hallmark movie depicts the holiday as an eight-day bonanza of significant events: throughout the week, Sara attends four dinners with her family, organizes a Hanukkah Hunt for local kids, goes to the Jewish Community Center for a menorah lighting, and oversees a fundraiser, the Mazel Ball, for the entire JCC. The decorations in Sara’s office and home are equally over the top, as she plasters her walls with menorahs, Jewish stars, and blue and white lights. If there’s any Christmas paraphernalia, it’s presented as an afterthought, much like a mall or a large hospital might throw up a small Star of David next to a 20-foot Santa installation. While its depiction of the holiday may be overexaggerated — no one can eat that much brisket — Eight Gifts of Hanukkah should be commended for its complete disinterest in making Christians feel comfortable, a trait that makes for interesting television, even if it puts the film at odds with its Hallmark counterparts.
Eight Gifts of Hanukkah’s other strength is its ability to recreate hyper-specific moments in American Jewish culture on-screen. Ahead of the Mazel Ball, Sara leads a meeting to discuss the event, but a woman named Myra holds things up with an endless string of complaints about the name of the event, the band — “A band of CPAs? Seriously?” she asks — and the group’s “Team Sara” allegiance. The scene is meant to show Daniel’s commitment to his crush, but it also gives the film an air of authenticity, as similar interactions could be (and probably are) playing out in synagogue community rooms across the country at any given moment. Whereas Hallmark’s previous Hanukkah outings felt like they were written by non-Jews just learning about the religion and its customs, Eight Days of Hanukkah is clearly produced by people within the community it depicts, and the movie benefits from this added layer of familiarity.
Three years ago, I wrote that Jews don’t have a Hanukkah movie canon because Hanukkah is an unimportant holiday that means many different things to different people around the world. While I still believe this — Hanukkah will never be Christmas, regardless of what the Coca-Cola or Hershey’s ads might imply — Eight Gifts of Hanukkah did chip away at my resolve a bit. If Hallmark and Lifetime are willing to let Hanukkah stand on its own, stories of Jewish cheer and festive miracles may yet one day earn a place alongside the likes of It’s a Wonderful Life and A Christmas Story.
Eight Gifts of Hanukkah premieres Friday, December 3 at 8:00 PM ET on Hallmark Channel.
Claire Spellberg Lustig is the TV Editor at Primetimer and a scholar of The View. Follow her on Twitter at @c_spellberg.