Mark Egerman (board co-chair): If you’re reading this newsletter, then Hanukkah on Rye—the newest Hannnukah-themed Hallmark Christmas movie—is not for you. It’s not that people engaged in modern Jewish life (in any of its forms) can’t or shouldn’t watch it. But they should know that the film is nominally about Jews in the same way Toto’s “Africa” is about Africa or Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado is about Japan. Even though Judaism is as central to the plot as it is in Fiddler on the Roof, which Hanukkah on Rye tries and fails to play for a laugh, it’s hard not to feel like a voyeur while watching it.
This is essentially a Christmas-themed remake of You’ve Got Mail—itself an adaptation of a far more Jewish movie, Shop Around the Corner, which is itself an adaptation of Miklós László’s Parfumerie. In the past three years, Hallmark has incorporated Jews into a few entries in its annual barrage of new Christmas films. But while those earlier films find comedic potential in the fact that not everyone celebrates Christmas, Hanukkah on Rye technically ignores Christmas—it’s exclusively about Hanukkah and features exclusively Jewish characters, who pepper their speech with Yiddish—while replicating the entire structure of a Christmas movie.
The central tension of the film centers on a rivalry between two delis: Gilbert’s on the Lower East Side and Zimmer’s from LA, which is opening a new location next door. The LES has never looked more goyish; the movie was shot in Winnipeg, and there are a number of incredible moments when a character will point to a three-story building built in 1970 and say, “This used to be a tenement where my great grandmother lived.” But of course, none of this really matters, because the whole absurd setup exists just to fill out the standard Hallmark Christmas script, now with a new ethnic flair.
The central problem with the movie is that substituting Hanukkah for Christmas just doesn’t make sense. It’s a stretch to imagine that the deli takes people caroling each night of Hanukkah—especially given that they keep singing the second Hanukkah candle blessing for some reason. But the biggest howler for me was when the female lead’s parents admitted that the deli was in bad shape because of a rent hike and said they had refrained from telling her because they didn’t want to ruin her Hanukkah. This is a woman in her 30s without children. There is no Hanukkah to ruin; she’s fine.
The whole film is a mess: Lisa Loeb briefly appears and sings a new Hanukkah song, and here’s a wise Magical Negro character that would have been offensive even 30 years ago. The emotional climax (spoilers ahead) comes during a cook-off between the delis to see which makes the best latkes. When everyone realizes that they taste the same, the families discover that they all used the exact same recipe from their great grandmothers. For a brief moment it looks like the romantic leads might be second cousins. Sadly, no—their great grandmothers were simply (and incredibly unrealistically) friends on the boat over to Ellis Island. I guess the extended Hallmark Christmasverse just wasn’t ready for that.
Ari Brostoff (senior editor): In the 1980s, photographer Nan Goldin began taking pictures of her friends in New York’s downtown scene—the glamorous, doomed home of a generation of queer avant-garde artists and writers. She photographed people dressed fabulously at parties, people sick with AIDS, couples fucking, and her own bruised face after being beaten by an abusive boyfriend. Many of these images appear in her landmark 1986 photo diary, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency. Looking back at the series today, these images restore blazing life to a world largely destroyed by AIDS, and then by gentrification. Goldin’s gaze—painfully intimate but also stagey, romantic but unsentimental—was formative for me, as it was for so many others, in illuminating a version of the city gone before our own time.
Laura Poitras’s new documentary All the Beauty and the Bloodshed weaves together Goldin’s life as a photographer with the story of the struggle, both personal and political, that consumed her over the past decade. In 2014, Golden became addicted to painkillers after a surgery; after she recovered three years later, she founded a group called P.A.I.N. (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now). Their primary target is Purdue Pharma, which makes OxyContin and played a pivotal role in a massive increase in opioid prescriptions in the 1990s. One of the group’s main tactics has fused Goldin’s stature in the art world with her fight against Purdue. P.A.I.N. has publicly shamed the many museums that have accepted large donations from the Sackler family, which owned Purdue, in an egregious case of “artwashing”: For a long time, the Sackler family name was most familiar not for the deaths they caused, but for its prominence in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and other major cultural institutions.
All the Beauty and the Bloodshed faces the challenge of juxtaposing the mix of gorgeousness and repulsion in Goldin’s work as an artist with the unvarnished horror of the crimes she has highlighted as an activist. It succeeds miraculously, creating a portrait of pain and pleasure, artmaking and exploitation, worthy of Goldin’s own oeuvre.
Nora Caplan-Bricker (executive editor): My first job was as a fact-checker at a magazine that came out every other week. That meant that “close”—the final stages of finishing an issue—came around twice a month, and with it the inevitable night when all the checkers stayed at the office until 3 or 4 am, annotating drafts, eating cheap takeout, and growing increasingly slap-happy and unhinged. We would ship the magazine to the printer on Thursday, drag ourselves into work at noon on Friday, and wake up Monday to start the cycle again. A quarterly magazine like Jewish Currents is a different beast, however. Close isn’t a night or two—it’s a month-long stretch. During these sprints to finish an issue, it can be hard to unwind in the evenings.
This close, I found the perfect diversion in the genius Spanish-language comedy series Los Espookys, which follows a group of friends who decide to pursue their love of horror by starting a business that puts on paranormal spectacles. The show itself isn’t remotely scary: Its practitioners of fright are an exceedingly gentle group of misfits, played by co-creators Julio Torres and Ana Fabrega as well as Bernardo Velasco and Cassandra Ciangherotti. (Fred Armisen also has a role as Velasco’s character’s uncle.) I was inspired to watch it by the wave of online lamentations that I saw after HBO announced its cancellation earlier this month. As many have said in the past few weeks, it’s a shame to lose a show that’s like nothing else on television: a bilingual comedy that uses subtitles to enhance its humor; a story about queer millennials who just want to attain excellence at their one weird thing; a fractured fairytale where the deadpan punchlines always kill and there’s something liberating about the minimal stakes.
Sleep-walking through the last few days, the thing I’ve loved most about the show is its dreaminess: It takes place in a fictional Latin American country where everyone takes strange events in stride. A water spirit shows up wanting to watch a movie; a television news host displays signs of demonic possession; a haunted mirror ingests a diplomat. The candy-sweet color scheme lends a softness to the surreality. If you, too, find yourself on the edge of incoherence as the holiday break begins, you could hardly do better than to enjoy the two seasons in an all-too-short binge.
Mitch Abidor (contributing writer): The great Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi has paid dearly for having displeased the authorities of the Islamic Republic. Banned from making films, placed under house arrest for much of the past 12 years, and sentenced to jail time this past summer, he has nevertheless persisted, finding unique means of circumventing the ban. In his films This is Not a Film (2011) and Taxi (2015), rather than using standard film equipment, he has used his cell phone as a movie camera, circumventing the ban he lives under.
Panahi has always been fond of allowing reality to intrude into his fiction films. In his great film The Mirror (1997), the main character is a little girl making her way home from school on her own when her mother fails to pick her up. Almost halfway through the movie, the little actress rebels against working with Panahi—though after several viewings, I’m still not sure whether this turn is genuine, or if everything in the film is staged. In Offside (2006), he placed a group of women attempting to view a World Cup qualifying match in the stadium during a real game, making it impossible for the actors and crew to know how the film would unfold.
Panahi’s new film, No Bears, takes his circumventing of his ban and his mixing of fiction and reality to an even greater extreme. The film opens on a scene of a man and a woman meeting outside a café in Turkey and arguing over their possible flight to France. We soon learn that the scene we are seeing is being viewed by Panahi on his laptop, from a small Iranian town across the border. He is directing the film from his room, with his assistant guided by the shooting script as Panahi reviews the process and issues directions to the cast and crew. We’re never told why Panahi is in the nowhere town in which he’s rented a room from a poor but admiring local, who never calls him anything but “dear sir.”
It soon becomes difficult to tell just what in the film being shot in Turkey is part of Panahi’s script and what reflects the real collapse of an escape attempt, as the film script and the lives of the actors seem to intersect. Meanwhile, Panahi—who had taken photographs in the Iranian border town—becomes embroiled in a local squabble revolving around superstitions that determine young people’s mates at birth. He is ultimately forced to flee for Tehran, as tragedy engulfs everyone who has passed before his camera.
In all of Panahi’s previous films except for Crimson Gold (2003), even in the worst circumstances, there has been a persistent undercurrent of humor, and thus hope. No Bears is in a much darker register. It’s a film in which even seemingly nice people harbor evil, where fear reigns. The only hope is captured by the title: At one point, a local warns Panahi about walking down a certain street, telling him he will be attacked by bears—but he soon clarifies that this is merely a superstition.
Check out our last piece of the year, a Jewish Currents staff roundtable on Christmas, in which we debate the question: Is Christmas bad or good?
Remember that our Winter 2022 issue will be arriving in mailboxes soon! If you enjoy our newsletter and the recommendations you see each week in the Shabbat Reading List, subscribe to receive our work in print—and receive a free tote back as part of our subscription drive! Every subscription dollar we receive goes toward supporting our staff, producing the magazine, and building the Jewish Currents community.
And before you go: Editor-in-chief Arielle Angel wrote a forceful letter to the editor in response to The New York Times’ recent editorial on the new Israeli coalition, writing that the paper of record “offered a master class in how to offer nothing but hand-wringing.”
We’re taking the rest of the year off, so we’ll see you in 2023!