You Need to Watch This Orthodox Jewish Hallmark Romcom ASAP – Kveller
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You Need to Watch This Orthodox Jewish Hallmark Romcom ASAP

"Loving Leah" stars Natasha Lyonne, Ricki Lake, Susie Essman and a very young Timothée Chalamet.


“He’s a rabbi, a religious one,” is how Jake, the protagonist of the 2009 Hallmark romance “Loving Leah,” describes his estranged Orthodox brother to his girlfriend, a fellow doctor, early in the movie. It seems like a bad omen for the way the movie will handle Jewish representation, especially because a scene preceding that shows said brother visiting Jake in a dream and looking very much like a stereotypical vision of an Orthodox Jew, a long, fake beard and all.

Yet the TV movie, which is currently available to stream for free on Xumo and through a Hallmark Now Subscription, is not only wonderfully meticulous about many of its Jewish details, it’s also incredibly charming. And it has an absolutely jaw-droppingly awesome cast: Susie Essman! Natasha Lyonne! Ricki Lake! A very young Timothée Chalamet!

Basically, I am about to tell you why you need to watch this Jewish Hallmark movie, asap.

The movie is based on a play by Jewish writer P’nenah Goldstein, who also wrote the screenplay, and was directed by veteran TV director Jeff Bleckner. It tells the story of a secular Jewish man, Jake, who marries his religious brother’s childless widow, Leah, on the basis of an old tradition known as a yibbum, or Levirate marriage, which is mostly no longer practiced. After Jake’s brother dies tragically from a heart attack, he is asked to perform a halitza, the traditional ritual absolving him and Leah from yibbum. Yet he feels unable to complete it. For Jake, who already feels plenty guilty for not keeping in touch with his sibling, it will mean fully abandoning the memory of his beloved older brother. And so, he ropes Leah, a secret movie buff who dreams of getting a college degree, into marrying him, with a promise that he will support her as they live as roommates.

We all know what comes next (I mean, the title of the movie makes it pretty clear, if nothing else!).

Jake is played by a very easy on the eyes Adam Kaufman, who really does feel like your average dark and handsome Jewish protagonist. Viewers might recognize him as Buffy’s douche-y momentary love interest, Parker, from early “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” days and Jack’s history-making first gay onscreen kiss in “Dawson’s Creek.”

Leah is played by Lauren Ambrose, four years after “Six Feet Under,” in which she played youngest sibling Claire Fisher, wrapped. While Ambrose isn’t Jewish, she is a perfect romantic hero, and there are echoes of Claire’s dreaminess and artsiness in the observant Leah that make her even more charming. Leah is a bit of an odd bird in her community, too. She sneaks off to watch movies, she wants to go to college and has dreams beyond being a wife.

Ambrose apparently took the role very seriously, meeting with Hassidic Jewish women to prepare, and you can feel that reverence in the naturalistic way she plays this role.

Leah’s overprotective mother, Malka, is played by Essman, while her sister, Esther, is played by Lyonne, a parallel world role for the Jewish day school dropout and a perfect fit for the actress’s heavy Brooklyn accent. Young Jake, in a flashback, is played by Chalamet in what was the iconic “Wonka” star’s second TV role. He is truly adorable:


Timothee Chalamet as Jake Lever in Loving Leah (2009) #timotheechalamet #timotheechalametedit #timotheechalametedits #timotheechalametpov #timothee #chalamet #beforetheywerefamous #youngtimotheechalamet #interstellar #callmebyyourname #ladybird #littlewomen #dune #wonka #wonkamovie #willywonka

♬ original sound – James Rader

Ricki Lake, who apparently brought the script to Hallmark, plays a Reform rabbi named Gerry Schwartz who is there for Leah when she moves away from her observant and insular Brooklyn community to the loneliness of Georgetown, where Jake works as a heart surgeon at a local hospital.

Essman’s Malka seems like a stern and scary Jewish mother at first, and a bit of Jewish stereotype, but she reveals herself in the movie as a true woman of heart, one who gives the best marriage advice — “Even in the best of marriages, problems don’t leave, people do” — and who understands the true essence of mother, who “is only as happy as her saddest child,” as she tells Leah.

While Essman, Lyonne and even Lake (who makes for a truly excellent rabbi) bring moments of levity, the movie leans more on the rom than it does on the com. The relationship between Jake and Leah builds slowly, but is full of dreamy glances and tension. Jake is not exactly a Nice Jewish Boy, trying to keep his relationship going with his non-Jewish girlfriend despite the marriage, even offering to take her on a trip to Jamaica, but he does redeem himself later by supporting and really being there for Leah. I very much appreciated the montage of them falling in love to the sounds of Michael Buble.

The Jewish details are all mostly there. We see Leah kashering his kitchen and putting up a mezuzah on Jake’s door, slowly filling her guest room with Judaica to make herself feel more anchored, and baking challah and cooking familiar Jewish foods. She takes Jake out on a first date to a kosher Chinese place. When it comes to mourning Benjamin, the movie also features the unveiling of the grave, and the tradition of putting stones on graves.

As a particular kind of Jewish viewer, it did feel strange that both Jake and Jake’s mother, who is labeled as Reform, know so little about Jewish ritual — but since they have so many questions to ask about the ways of Benjamin’s community, they do offer a more natural way for the movie to explain rituals to non-Jewish viewers.

When it comes to Jewish observance, Leah and Jake end up meeting in the middle. But there’s no judgement on both minimal nor full observance in the movie. It fully portrays them as life choices that work better for certain people.

Ultimately, this is a movie that cared deeply about doing right by the community it was portraying, maybe not to the minutia of every detail, but to fully humanize and paint a portrait of a community that takes care of each other, and where specific family members can accept, love and even admire those who choose a less traditional path.

That being said, it is still a Hallmark film, and it was sometimes hard to believe its general premise (would you really just marry your estranged brother’s wife and move her in with you?), though Hallmark romcoms almost always rely on elements that feel fantastical.

All in all, “Loving Leah” was a surprisingly enjoyable watch. The Jewish romance is sizzling. Ambrose is magical. The Jewish details are delightfully familiar. It’s a perfect way to celebrate Jewish love.

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