Review: Lifetime's "Mistletoes and Menorahs"
Last year, my friend Amy and her mom posted a Snapchat video breaking down what they call the “Christmas Talkie”: a basic cable holiday movie designed to tug at our heartstrings (called a “talkie” because it harkens back to the sappy Hollywood films of yore). A high-powered businesswoman (named Noelle or Holly) gets stranded in a small town and discovers the meaning of Christmas with the help of a plucky orphan, a scrappy dog, and a handsome local (also a veteran). Usually there’s an evil real estate developer and a kindly old man who looks like Santa Claus. Apparently, they’re not alone in noticing these tropes. Since then, we’ve obsessed about what a “Hanukkah Talkie” might look like.
We were understandably ecstatic—if a little anxious—when both Lifetime and Hallmark announced that they would feature Hanukkah movies in this year’s ever-expanding holiday lineup. What kinds of tropes and traps would these movies fall into? We decided to check out Lifetime’s Mistletoe and Menorahs, which airs Saturday, December 7, first.
This “talkie” is about, you guessed it, a go-getter toy-designer named Christy (of course) Dickinson (A Christmas Carol reference, says Amy). After bragging to a client, Mr. Berger, that she’s a “holiday expert,” Christy learns that he’s Jewish. Thus, she needs to learn about Hanukkah to impress him at his holiday party. Enter Jonathan, a Jewish history teacher who needs to learn about Christmas in order to impress his new girlfriend’s family. (Reading the synopsis over the phone, Amy said slyly, “I don’t know...I think they’re going to fall in love.”)
So after Thanksgiving, we sat down with our moms—experts on the Lifetime oeuvre—to find out. I also had a chance to chat with screenwriter Guy Yosub about his inspiration for this movie.
Eight Things We Love about This Movie
- The movie’s message that it’s important to experience the world from other people’s perspectives, and that both characters deserve to be with someone who supports them and their dreams. We’re here for that.
- This movie was written by an honest-to-goodness Jewish person in an interfaith relationship. Born in Israel, Yosub based the script loosely on his relationship with his wife, Juliana, who executive produced the film. Amy and her mom appreciated “the positive portrayal of interfaith families as part of normative American family life.”
- The movie managed to squeeze in a lot of accurate factual information about Hanukkah. (We’re always the first to say when Jewish stuff isn’t accurate; we are very irritating to watch movies with.) The characters even knew both blessings over the Hanukkah candles!
- The actor playing Jonathan, Jake Epstein, is adorable and believable as a real Jewish human, not a stereotype at all. It’s Christy who’s over the top with her Christmas cheer.
- What brings the characters together is “geeking out” over their respective holidays. They both love their traditions and enjoy teaching each other about their favorite customs. No one had to pretend to identify with a religion they did not, or give up their own religious traditions, which we hear is a big pitfall in the Hallmark movies. The characters simply want to impress someone of another faith by learning about their holiday traditions.
- Amy noticed that, at the beginning, all of the Christian characters wear red and green while all the Jewish characters wear blue and white, but “[Christy] transitions to blue as the show goes on, and there is a great scene where she takes off her red coat to reveal her blue sweater before she begins to wrap Hanukkah presents.”
- When I asked what was feminist about this movie, Yosub revealed that his degree in Feminist Theory in Cinema influenced how he wrote Christy’s arc: “I wanted Christy to be focused on what makes her happy in life, not on what she’s missing. Not that she needed Jonathan, but that he came into her life and made it better. It was important to me that he wasn’t the white knight that comes in and gives her the answer [to impress her client]. She is good at her job and that is why she’s going to get ahead.”
- Amy’s mom adds: "[Christy] is the real Hanukkah miracle. In eight days, she went out to eat, she went out with her boyfriend, she made big plates of latkes every day (latkes take a long time to make!), learned Hebrew, made a toy collection, made donuts, went to a tree farm, taught about Christmas, learned about Hanukkah, went to tinsel town, spent an entire day selling fruitcake, visited her parents, went to multiple parties and meetings, had long visits to the coffee house, and still worked her full time job. It's impossible to do what she did. That's the real miracle of Hanukkah in this talkie."
Eight Things We Don't Love about This Movie
- No one needs eight days to learn about Hanukkah. We both teach Introduction to Judaism: me at the synagogue, Amy at the university level. We could have taught Christy everything about Hanukkah in the time between the “meet-cute” and the “apology muffin,” with time leftover to create a playlist of all the decent Hanukkah songs and read Herschel and the Hanukkah Goblins.
- Conversely, we find it unlikely that an American Jew would need much instruction on Christmas. Amy points out that Christy asks Jonathan, “How much do you know about Christmas?" while surrounded by Christmas decor in a coffee shop. “How can a Jew be living in America in 2019 and not be overly saturated by the constant Christmas ‘cheer’? I’m a rabbi with four Jewish grandparents and I still know more Christmas carols than Hanukkah songs. Yosub himself pointed out that he’s met ultra-Orthodox Jews who watch Christmas movies.
- Amy noted that this film suffers from “Christonormativity,” and it might have been worth pushing Christy to explore why it is that, “when she hears [the client say] holiday, it doesn't even occur to her that he could mean anything [other than Christmas].” Several times, Christy responds to learning something new by saying, “That’s so random!” or “That doesn’t even sound like a real word!” Says Amy, “NO, these aren't random. You just aren't familiar with them. Your constant repetition of this phrase is a random microaggression.”
- While I like that Christy wants to study Hanukkah to prove herself to her client, I doubt anyone expected her to light the chanukiah and say the blessings (though she did a great job). All she really had to do to not embarrass herself was show up and not bring a ham.
- Amy and I are both part of interfaith extended families, so we’ve got no problem with a chanukiah next to a Christmas tree. But the Star of David tree topper is my personal pet peeve. Christmas and Hanukkah are two separate traditions that deserve their own space. Amy adds, “When given the Star of David tree topper, Jonathan says, ‘I had one of these as a kid in my room.’ I thought he didn't know what a Christmas tree was or how to decorate one? I can't stop laughing at the image of this little Jewish boy, cradling his Hanukkah tree topper in his bedroom, hoping someday he will understand what it is used for.”
- At one point Christy says, “Oh, so Hanukkah is all about family and community, right?” I’m sorry to be a Grinch, but no it’s not. While Jewish practice in general may be about family and community, Hanukkah in particular is about the fight for religious freedom (however problematic), rededication to our faith, and kindling light in dark times. Those messages are also worth fitting into a movie that is, at least in part, about Hanukkah.
- Who brings three sufganiyot to a Hanukkah party?! Amy adds, “Can we have a moment for the giant plate of pickles at the Hanukkah party? I mean, I love a pickle, but this was outrageous.”
- Apparently my mom likes her holiday romances, um, a little steamier. She lamented, “There’s only fifteen minutes left in this movie and they haven’t even kissed yet!” (For context, my mom’s review of Lincoln was “This movie needs a romance”).
Mistletoe and Menorahs isn’t perfect, but Yosub points out that it’s an important step in terms of “representation in a medium people already love.” While he hopes that one day there will be a movie entirely about Hanukkah, he knows that Lifetime movies are widely viewed and thus a great way to engage and educate Jews and non-Jews alike. “When I went to buy my wife’s engagement ring in [the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood in] Monsey [New York], I told this very religious woman what I was working on, and she teared up… because she loved Christmas movies. When my wife and I mentioned the project at a Shabbat dinner, our friends said, ‘It’s about time.’”
With that, we wished each other Chag Sameach. Yosub was on his way to New York to watch the movie with his mom.
Dr. Amy K. Milligan is the Batten Endowed Assistant Professor of Jewish Studies and Women's Studies and director of the Institute of Jewish Studies and Interfaith Understanding at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, VA. She watched this movie with her mom, Kathy. Amy and Leah have been friends since middle school. When Leah first invited Amy to her house for Hanukkah, thinking she didn’t know what it was, Amy responded, “Should I bring applesauce or sour cream?”