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The Schmooze

Hallmark is not making High Holiday rom-coms, and that’s fine by us

If you were holding your breath for a slate of High Holidays programming from the Hallmark Channel — well, just don’t.

I’m here to deliver disappointment. (Or maybe, relief.) It’s not happening. At least, not this year.

In an interview with the Hollywood Reporter, Wonya Lucas, Hallmark’s incoming chief executive, addressed the network’s spotty track record on inclusivity, saying she wants to tell more Jewish stories.

“Overall, I want more representation,” Lucas said. “There are other opportunities outside of Christmas to talk about the Jewish faith.”

But it remains unclear what those stories will be. Asked whether Hallmark was planning content around major Jewish holidays like Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Lucas demurred.

Lucas, a Black broadcasting executive who has spoken of being racially profiled in her own neighborhood and receiving death threats after taking high profile jobs, has an ambitious vision for Hallmark. The network has long peddled gently conservative nostalgia and is finally waking up to the fact that not all viewers are well-served by a month-long slate of movies about white, nuclear, heterosexual, Christian families. Besides discussing Hallmark’s forays into Jewish content, Lucas said she wanted to explore non-romantic family relationships like “sisterhood” and “motherhood,” as well as increasing diversity when it comes to casting. (Hallmark has long been notorious for consigning non-white actors to supporting roles.)

“There is a difference between representation — ‘the Black best friend’ — and authentic storytelling,” Lucas said. “We can go even deeper in representing the latter.”

At the moment, Hallmark needs that ambition. In 2019, Bill Abbott, Lucas’s predecessor as chief executive, said in a bizarre interview with the Hollywood Reporter that while Christmas has a “secular” feel, it would be “hard” to tell stories about Hanukkah or Kwanzaa because of their “religious point of view.” (Kwanzaa, unlike Hanukkah and definitely unlike Christmas, is a purely secular holiday.) A few weeks later, bowing to demands from conservative groups, the network removed four commercials featuring same-sex weddings from its “Countdown to Christmas” movie lineup. After backlash from LGBTQ advocates, Abbott issued a public apology; in 2020, he resigned.

2019 was also the year Hallmark debuted its first Hanukkah movies, which were widely pilloried for presenting their Jewish characters as clueless outsiders and compelling them to learn about Christmas rather than letting them grate their potatoes in peace.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, the movies also confirm stereotypes about interfaith marriage that abound within the Jewish community. All three movies involve Jewish characters falling for practicing Christians, forming families that embrace Christian tradition wholeheartedly while allowing Jewish ones to exist as a quaint sideshow. Basically, if you plugged the absolute worst tweets about interfaith marriage into a script-writing robot, you would get these films, which do not at all reflect the many genuinely lovely ways that interfaith families negotiate dual holiday celebrations.

Lucas seems atuned to that dissatisfaction. “When I came to Hallmark, a good friend of mine who is Jewish said that Jewish people are very upset with Hallmark,” she said, adding, “Don’t disrespect Hanukkah. Understand why that is important.”

Compared to assertions that Hanukkah is somehow more religious than Christmas, these are cheering words indeed — even if there’s no Rosh Hashanah romantic comedy in the words.

Irene Katz Connelly is a staff writer at the Forward. You can contact her at connelly@forward.com. Follow her on Twitter at @katz_conn.

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