This year we got a true Hanukkah miracle: a good — no, I’d say great — Hanukkah Hallmark movie called “Hanukkah on Rye.” The movie stars two very good looking Jews, “Jane the Virgin” star Yael Grobglas, who beautifully pronounce Hanukkah with that Hebrew “ch” because, yes, she’s Israeli, and musical theater sensation Jeremey Jordan.
Part of the reason why this movie — about the children of two competing Jewish deli scions who unknowingly fall in love with each other through letters — is so good is because it feels effortlessly authentic.
Yes, it does use that traditional Hallmark holiday grandiosity (the way it crams Hanukkah decor and music into almost every single shot is honestly pretty impressive). But it’s also full of authentic Jewish recipes (even written in Yiddish), anecdotes about Jewish immigration, and traditions and references — from “Fiddler” to classic Hanukkah songs. And because the movie is about Jewish deli culture, it is inherently tied into Jewish American history, exploring the draw of immigrant foods and delis as historical places of respite and Jewish joy.
Another reason the movie is such a boon to Jewish representation is because most of the people we see onscreen playing these Jewish characters are Jewish, including Jordan, who grew up Jewish in South Texas. The actor told Kveller that he brought his Jewish pride and love for Hanukkah to the role.
The 38-year-old dad of one (he’s married to fellow musical theater maven Ashley Spencer) is a multi-talented star. He’s been in “Newsies,” “The Last Five Years,” “Joyful Noise,” and in TV fan favorites like “Supergirl” and “Smash” to name a few. He’s also in a rock band called Age of Madness.
Kveller caught up with Jordan a week before the movie came out. Since the (ever so delightful) interview was a pretty last minute calendar add, I’d only watched the first 30 minutes of the movie before we spoke — which meant that I had just gotten to the movie’s first reference to “Fiddler On the Roof,” which Jordan’s character had never seen. So naturally, that’s where we started.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
As a Jewish Broadway person, I assume you have seen “Fiddler On the Roof,” yes?
Totally yes. Have they made the reference yet?
That’s where I stopped. I was like, this is not believable — I know who Jeremy Jordan is!
Yeah, you have to suspend your disbelief that I am Jeremy Jordan.
Do you have a favorite “Fiddler” song?
Oh, you know, probably “Sunrise, Sunset.”
All right. A classic. Very good.
That’s just the one that pops into my head. But it’s beautiful, though.
Do you have a favorite Jewish musical?
I mean, if “Last Five Years” counts. That’s probably my fave.
Alright, I see what you did there.
If it doesn’t really count, you know, unfortunately, there are not a whole lot, although they’re always Jews or Jewish characters in a lot of shows. But I’ll go with “Fiddler,” which is the classic. It’s hard to beat that one.
I recently rewatched “Yentl” and it’s so great.
I did a straight play version of “Yentl” in college, and everybody was really disappointed when nobody was singing.
Oh no. I would be disappointed.
Yeah, it was the same story, there was just no singing. I was like, “Oh… interesting choice.”
Can you tell me a little bit about your relationship with Judaism and what being Jewish means to you?
For me, I grew up in a dual household. My mom’s side of the family is Jewish, and my dad’s not. But I grew up with my mom, and so we always celebrated the Jewish holidays.
Then she remarried and we kind of started mixing holidays. I always felt really special because I got to celebrate everything. For me, it was always way more family-oriented and food-oriented than anything else, which the movie shows a lot. And that’s what I love about Jewish holidays — Hanukkah specifically.
I grew up in South Texas. There weren’t a whole lot of Jews there. I always thought it was a secret special thing that I got to do. I never felt different — I just felt like an extra special thing.
Do you have a favorite Jewish food? One that you traditionally grew up with that you love?
Yeah, you know, we were always really basic. So I love a matzah ball soup. But I mean, who doesn’t love a good latke? And I don’t know if you count bagels as a Jewish food…
[interrupts indignantly] Yes, bagels are a Jewish food!
Perfect, well, then, count me in, bagels is my answer.
OK, so what is your favorite bagel topping?
I have been recently converted to an everything bagel person, which I never thought I would be because… that seems like a lot… but I’m a big fan. I’m not really lox person, so give me either basic cream cheese or like a bagel sandwich.
Like an egg and cheese on a bagel type thing?
Yeah. It has to be a good bagel or else it will just squish everything out.
What are some things about Jacob’s character that you identified with?
I mean, I really like his sense of humor, and how much he really loves and cares about his family, and always puts them first before himself. In the movie, he kind of has to, for the first time, put himself first.
He accidentally gets himself into situations because he’s trying to please everybody. He always wants to wait for the right time and make the perfect decision and do things in the right way, which is very much something I identify with, unfortunately, and something I also identify with is that it often blows up in his face. Sometimes you just gotta say what you actually want and be upfront with people instead of trying to play it perfectly because it’s not going to work when you try to do that.
What does making a Hanukkah movie mean to you, especially right now, when we’re talking a lot about antisemitism being on the rise. This movie celebrates Jewish love and Jewish joy and Jewish traditions — and American traditions.
Yeah, definitely Jewish American traditions! I don’t think we ever intended to make it a statement piece or anything like that. But I think anything that celebrates something that’s being persecuted in the world right now or sort of spoken out against in America in any kind of way is a great thing to have out there.
So, I’m so happy that we have a movie that is just full of love. There’s not even an ounce of negativity, at least in terms of the Jewish part — it’s all about celebration. And what I love the most about it, too, is we’re not teaching anybody — we’re just living in that world. It’s not like, “Here’s what it’s like to be Jewish.” We’re doing it. It’s totally normalizing it, which I think is really important for people, especially on a channel like Hallmark where all the other movies are with Christian people that are celebrating Christmas.
As much as I hope all the Jews come and flock to see “Hanukkah on Rye,” I imagine that a lot of the people watching are gonna be the normal Hallmark crowd that watch a lot of Christmas movies — probably majority Christian — and they can see the normalizing perspective of celebrating a different kind of way in the holiday season.
So I think it’s really important to just have it be what it is, and not try to make a whole thing of it. Just show people loving each other and having a good time.
I mean, a lot of people are watching Hallmark right now.
I’ve just realized this recently, because I just started doing Hallmark movies, that people just want to escape from a lot of what’s going on in the world, and [Hallmark] provides that in a positive way. There’s always a guarantee of coming out of this kind of a movie in a positive way. And if we can also include a positive experience of Judaism as well — of Jewish culture, more so than Judaism, I would say — then I think that that’s a win-win.
You grew up with both Christmas and Hanukkah. Now you’re a dad, so what are your thoughts about dealing with this season when Christmas just takes over everything?
It’s funny, because most Jews that I know don’t really care that much. It’s hard for me to say because I always had both in my life, and I’m married to someone who celebrates Christmas. And so we have both in our house.
But Christmas always takes over everything just because it’s so much a thing. That’s why I always said that Hanukkah felt more of like a spiritual family [tradition], because it wasn’t about the commercialization, and not even that much about the presents. It’s just more about the family stuff, and a lot of Jews that I know and I’ve talked to feel similarly.
I guess when you have little kids it can be a little bit difficult. Having them being jealous of their friends that get all the Christmas presents. But I don’t know…
Yeah, I come from Israel, so for me it’s very jarring because Christmas was not a thing.
My co-star Yael [Grobglas] is also from Israel. She’s like, “Hallmark has Hallmark-ified Hanukkah.” Well, they do the same with Christmas. In every shot, there’s something that reminds you of what movie you’re in, which is a very cute and very sweet choice that they make for all of their films to keep you in that mood.
But it does depart a little bit from the truth; you’re not going to see people decorating their whole houses with menorahs and Stars with David and blue and white everything — you might see a party like that once in a while, but that’s about as far as it goes.
So true. But it’s delightful to see it.
It’s fun. I think everybody’s entitled to celebrate whatever holiday they want to celebrate whatever way they want to celebrate — make it as big or as small as they want. And of course in our movie we make it big. Because why not? You know, it’s all about celebration and bringing people together. There’s usually nothing negative that’s going to come out of that.
What are some Jewish traditions that you’re excited to pass down to your daughter?
She’s 3, so we’ve started playing dreidel, and I’m not a cook but my co-star Yael has promised to teach me how to make the perfect latkes so we’re going to do that this year for the first time. And then just the sort of ritual of lighting candles. It’s just basic stuff when they’re little kids, always to just try to make it as fun as possible.
So, if you weren’t married… would you go to a Jewish matchmaker?
[laughs] Why not. If it guaranteed 100% success for a happiness and love forever after? Sure.
Is it true that it was your mom who got you into singing when she heard you singing ’90s pop music?
I wouldn’t say she got me into singing — I would say she shoved me into choir auditions.
I would say that’s a very Jewish mother thing to do.
Yeah, she’s like, “You’re good at this — do it.” Like, “I didn’t follow my dream so you do yours.”
That’s so sweet though.
I think it’s something I always wanted to do, and she probably could tell. But growing up in South Texas, as a young boy who wanted to sing, that’s like not the coolest thing that I could have decided to do. I was pretty athletic. I was a sporty kid, too. So it was easier to do that.
[But] I’m glad that I got coaxed into it. I don’t know who gets all the credit. I mean, I still had to go and do it. But yeah, she definitely encouraged me. Which was lovely of her, in retrospect. I’ll be sure to thank her on your behalf.
What does she think about you doing a Hanukkah movie?
It’s exciting to get to do this one for sure, especially for the relatives in my family that are Jewish-identifying very much all over the map.
It’d be nice to show my daughter one day, too, because it’s an exciting, different sort of thing than what I’ve done in the past. I’m sure she could watch it now — it’s not like there’s anything that would be untoward. Except, “Why did daddy kiss that lady up there?” But she thinks anybody that even remotely looks like they could be the shape of woman [is her mom], like she sees a picture of me and other girls and is like, “That’s Daddy and Mommy,” and I’m like, “That looks nothing like your mom.”
Three-year-olds are the best. I have a final Christmas Jewish question which is, did you know that most Christmas songs were written by Jews? What are your thoughts about that?
Well, that makes sense to me because I’m a theater person and most theater songs were written by Jews regardless if they’re religious or not.
I think the reason most Christmas songs are so popular is because they feel all-encompassing in terms of seasonal [aspects] and spreading joy and good cheer. And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. If you’re gonna create something that’s going to bring happiness to so many people every year at this certain time, that’s a win.
A win for the Jews! “Hanukkah on Rye” and Christmas songs! Anything else you’d like our audience to know about the movie?
Expect more Hanukkah, less rye. I think I mention rye bread once. We talk a lot of about latkes, but it’s more catchy than “Hanukkah: Apple Sauce or Sour Cream?”
But wait, applesauce or sour cream?
Sour cream. I mean in terms of latkes. If I’m just going to eat one by itself, applesauce.
The Jewish internet always gets in tangles about this question this time of year.
The crazy people are the ones that do both.
Yeah, that’s me.
Well, I’ve met one finally.
The sour cream/applesauce thing is more of an American thing. I grew up eating eating latkes with sugar. So when I tried them here for the first time, I was like, “Fine, I’ll try both.” I didn’t know what to do with myself!
Sugar makes sense, though. Because, that’s more akin to eating it with ketchup. Ketchup is basically just sugar.