Yael Grobglas grew up celebrating Hanukkah – but not quite like this. The star of the newest Hallmark Hanukkah movie, “Hanukkah on Rye,” was raised in Israel, with somewhat different traditions from those embraced by American Jews.
For the movie, Grobglas threw herself into the mindset of an American Jew to play the character of Molly Spiegelman, the third generation behind the counter of the Gilbert’s Deli family business on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. After several years of living in in the US, Grobglas said she has grown accustomed to American Hanukkah traditions, although she pointed out that it “blew my mind” when she realized “the dreidels are wrong!”
Working on the film, Grobglas said, she had to balance her lifetime of knowledge of Jewish holidays with the newer American traditions she has picked up in recent years.
“For the movie, it was a bit tricky, because I had to sing the same prayers, but with a different tune,” Grobglas recalled. “It was a challenge throughout the movie to tone down my accent in Hebrew,” she said, noting her efforts to pronounce the traditional Hebrew prayers with an American accent – “which sounded pretty funny to me!”
Indeed, Grobglas’s more guttural pronunciation occasionally breaks through in the film, which is a sweet but silly entry in the Hallmark holiday canon. The movie plays out with a constant soundtrack of Hanukkah and Jewish music in the background, which feels over the top until you remember it’s the standard for Hallmark holiday fare.
Grobglas, who is best known for her star turn as Petra on the hit show “Jane the Virgin,” said that while “we all know and love Christmas movies,” she would love to see more Hanukkah films – and more Jewish holidays on screen overall.
“We don’t have enough,” she said. “I’d like to see movies for all the Jewish holidays.”
The actress said the film’s release at a time when vocal antisemitism has seen a notable spike – something Grobglas has spoken up about on social media – feels particularly fitting.
“I think it’s the perfect timing,” she said. “I just felt like this was meant to come out now – it feels very good to be able to represent [Jews] on screen at the moment.”
Grobglas said she has heard a lot of excitement about the film from her Jewish friends, “but I also love the idea that people who are not Jewish are going to get a glimpse into what Hanukkah is… this is a great chance for people to learn a little bit more about Jewish culture, about Jewish traditions, about how family is at the heart of the Jewish culture.”
And while “Hanukkah on Rye” isn’t perfect, it’s certainly come a long way – showcasing Jewish history, Jewish traditions and two Jewish leads played by Jewish actors.
“We had obviously, many, many Jewish people on set, and many Jewish people involved in the making of this movie,” said Grobglas. “But I also felt like even the people who weren’t Jewish who were there – either they did their research, or they knew about it from before.” “I felt like the film really captured how food is at the heart of really all our holidays,” said Grobglas. “That was definitely a big part of my household growing up – food was always in the center.”
In a welcome nod to the long and storied history of American Jewry, the characters in “Hanukkah on Rye” engage in several discussions about the difficult conditions most Jewish immigrants faced in Lower East Side tenements at the turn of the 20th century. “I learned a lot about it while making the film and I found it fascinating – I did not know about that before, that was new to me,” Grobglas noted.
The film’s emotional climax has little to do with Molly and Jacob’s romance (spoiler alert: it’s impossible to spoil a Hallmark movie), and is instead marked by the moment their grandmothers come to a realization about their shared Jewish history. “Think of all the miracles that had to happen for us to get here,” says Jacob’s grandmother, Esther. It’s a perfect Hallmark message that manages to be poignant despite the cliché, and is fitting not just for Hanukkah — but for most of Jewish history.