Eight miraculous nights but we can’t have one lousy holiday movie?
Last night I watched a bad Christmas movie. One of many in a full Amazon Video collection of low budget, low expectation holiday movies that got me thinking. The industry will make, and the people will watch, literally any Christmas movie. No matter how predictable the plot, cheesy the dialog, or hollow the characters. There are hundreds if not thousands of home-for-the-holidays stories but Google “Hanukkah movies.” It’ll break your heart.
If we can make Crappy Christmas movie after Crappy Christmas movie, we can make a Halfway Decent Hanukkah movie, too. I don’t have to wait for Adam Sandler, patron saint of creative Jews, I can write one myself. Therefore with great joy, and with deep love for time with family, I give you: Latka Actually. We’ll call it something else when we film it, but for now I need people to share this on Facebook.
The Weiss Family
Estelle, 86: Family matriarch, husband Wally died nine years ago following a brief illness. She will host her entire family for Hanukkah this year at her home in Rye, New York, because why should anyone spend on a hotel? We finished the basement.
Becca, 62: Estelle’s eldest, sold a vacuum cleaner attachment idea to the US Patent office in the 1998 and doesn’t really need to work, but sells skincare on a commission basis because she’s a people person. Married to Michael, mother to three girls, Sophie (34, unmarried), Kayla (30, engaged to Kyle, who is not in attendance), and Tess (22, in her last year of college). Tess was supposed to be a boy but it’s fine.
Davey, 59: Estelle’s middle child, a serial entrepreneur, of sorts. Married to Karen, who is not Jewish, and who is his third wife. He has no children but Karen brought her two dogs, Pepper and Piper. Bichon Frises.
Toby, 54: Estelle’s youngest, married to Evie, father to twin boys, Wesley and Wiley (20, both driving in from Cornell). Toby is an architect with a very elite firm in New York and has been sending his boys a monthly “bill” for their expenses since they were eight. You know, so they learn about life.
Michael, 64: Becca’s husband, hates onions.
Karen, 39: Davey’s wife. Seasonal allergies.
Evie, 50: Toby’s wife. Couples therapist.
Arthur, 88: Estelle’s brother, a widower. Daughter Ruby lives in the desert and works as an acupuncturist, no one in the family has seen her since the early 00s. He lives in a nursing home near Estelle and is accompanied by Jane, his private nurse.
Matzah Ball: Estelle’s 17-year-old Persian cat. Blind.
Our story opens with a giant sack of potatoes meeting the bottom of a shopping cart with some velocity. We hear Sophie on the phone with her mother, her sister Kayla is pushing the cart. They’re in Brooklyn, shopping for last minute items before making the drive up to their grandmother’s house in Kayla’s steel gray Prius.
“Ma, what do you care if the potatoes are organic or not? You raised us on frozen fish sticks and Kraft mac-n-cheese it’s a miracle I’m not radioactive at this point.” The date is December 23rd, for once the eighth night of Hanukkah will coincide with Christmas Eve. The cart also contains an uncomfortable amount of canola oil and bag of yellow onions. Sophie rolls her eyes at her sister in reference to her mother’s nagging, and tosses a package of bacon into the cart, for spite.
On a northbound train, we see Toby and Evie squished together among their coats and baggage, migrating like all city geese at the holidays. Next to them open-mouth sleeps a young girl in her early twenties who is using her scarf as an anxiety blanket and clearly has not brushed her hair for quite some time. Across from them sits a couple, Ken and Edward, and their well-behaved but incredibly stern looking Boxer, Dorian.
Evie points her phone at Toby to show him a photo she’s just received from their twins, who are almost in Rye and will be picking up their parents from the train. Toby, who hasn’t been sleeping well lately, is attempting to rest and doesn’t bother to open his eyes.
“We’ll see them in 20 minutes and I know what they look like. If they text us a reimbursement for their tuition expenses, wake me up.”
“Wiley looks thin.” Evie has always been an overprotective mother. She makes a mental note to monitor Wiley’s caloric intake and confirm that Wesley has been taking his IBS medication. Both of the boys are pre-law.
Dorian emits a low growl. Toby opens one eye.
Davey, Karen, and Karen’s dogs are in a Lyft from the train station to Estelle’s. Karen looks uncomfortable, as she would prefer to stay in a B&B for a bit of privacy, but Davey has assured her they’ll have a room to themselves on the 1st floor with an adjoining bath that once housed his mother’s mother prior to her death and there’s nothing to worry about.
Davey, who has a reputation for asking his family for money and failing to attend any of his nieces Bat Mitzvahs, has always been the Fredo of the family. Karen likes him because he makes her laugh and she was tired of going to her office functions by herself. She’s a very successful marketing exec in the beauty industry. She has a prenup, don’t worry.
Pepper has unrinated on the floor of the Lyft but Davey shoves Karen out of the car before she can say anything so they’re not charged extra. Davey hasn’t had a real income within in the calendar year. The Lyft driver is considering grad school.
Becca and Michael have actually been living with Estelle in her finished attic since October, due to their home renovations in Chappaqua. Their three daughters will be sleeping in a bedroom on the second floor and sharing a bathroom with their aunt Evie and uncle Toby. Evie and Toby’s boys will be in the basement.
Estelle, convinced at all times she is dying, repeatedly attempts to give her jewelry away to all her female blood relatives. She’s been doing this for seven years. Becca is in the kitchen having just received an order of pizza for everyone. They’ll eat a real dinner tomorrow night. The order contains one large pizza for every family member in attendance plus three extras should anyone stop by. The leftovers will be frozen and forgotten about until next June when the freezer in the garage gives out. Michael is unloading multiple cases of wine from the back of his SUV and storing them in the laundry room. He has a flask of whiskey in his sock.
The laundry room contains the following items: a washing machine, a dryer, a cabinet full of liquor that was purchased between 1963 and 1997 but never opened, a drawer full of individually packaged wet wipes, a spare refrigerator, and 46 boxes of Hanukkah candles but one of the boxes is inexplicably filled with Shabbat candles instead.
Sophie and Kayla arrive, having picked up their youngest sister Tess at La Guardia airport on the way. Tess has very clearly been crying and is on the phone with Delta airlines, who has lost her luggage. She will receive it back at Northwestern University one month later, the wheels will never work again and the suitcase will contain someone else’s topical medication for psoriasis.
“Tessy, kneidelach, don’t worry—you’ll take clothes from Grandma.” Estelle adores her granddaughters, and has always found her grandsons to be distant and ungrateful shits. She blames Evie. Evie knows this. Estelle quickly casts off a scarf she’s been knitting and wraps it around Tess’ throat. It is chartreuse. Estelle takes a cocktail ring off her right hand and shoves into Kayla’s fist.
Davey and Karen come into the kitchen from depositing their luggage in their room that Karen has noticed smells potently like a vintage store. There are moth balls hidden throughout the room and a Glade Plug-In from 2002 in an outlet. She is introduced to her nieces, who she’s never met, and compliments Sophie on her cashmere sweater. Karen’s dogs immediately take a shine to Michael. Becca unloads the dishwasher and turns all the glasses in her mother’s cabinets upside down and places them into militant rows.
Toby, Evie, and their boys are the last to arrive, Sophie and Tess immediately drag their twin cousins down to the basement because they assume they have marijuana. They are correct. Kayla, who is secretly pregnant, unpacks groceries and distracts her mother and grandmother by asking about synagogue gossip while glaring at her sisters as they steal down the stairs.
Estelle’s menorah is at seven candles at this point, absolutely cemented to the kitchen counter with wax from the previous six nights. Becca has brought her own menorahs, all made by her children when they were young. She’s placed them atop tinfoil to protect the surface below. The entire north end of the kitchen is a fire hazard but no one expresses concern. A challah rests under a stained dishtowel nearby. Estelle will make two more tomorrow, just in case.
Michael takes the pizza boxes outside to the garbage, where he finds Davey secretly getting stoned with the twins. They all make eye contact, freeze, and Michael walks back into the house to talk to Toby about how Davey hasn’t filed federal income taxes in three years.
Inside, Estelle and Becca are pondering aloud, and in front of her, why Sophie is still single. Tess, now wearing her grandmothers pajamas in addition to the chartreuse scarf, pours a glass of wine to the rim and hands it to Sophie, who has promised not to tell Estelle that Tess is a lesbian.
“See, Tessy has her whole life ahead of her, but Sophie, it’s time bubbalah. You can’t put it off forever! You’ll come to shul with me Friday, we’ll meet people.” Estelle kisses Sophie on the head, drops a bracelet in her lap, and shuffles in gold house slippers into the kitchen to make a cup of Sanka. Sophie looks down at her phone to a notification of new message on Tinder. It’s some guy’s dick.
Josh Rosenbloom is an excellent family attorney who went to Hebrew school with Sophie and has a house in Pleasantville but no children. Becca mentions that she ran into Josh Rosenbloom’s mother at the dry cleaner earlier that week and that he and his shiksa wife, no offense to Karen, finalized their divorce over the summer.
“Mother how is that information relevant to me?”
“I’m just saying.”
Kayla is on FaceTime with her fiancee Kyle, who is home for Christmas with his family in Dallas. They haven’t set a date for their wedding and will eventually end up eloping following the birth of their forthcoming son, who they’ll name Simon, after a rather nasty email chain between their parents regarding funding for and location of the wedding. Kyle is an engineer and a Capricorn. He’s not Jewish but it’s fine.
Michael has finished his flask and is asleep in a chair with his neck at a concerning angle. Becca looks at him with the disgust that only comes with 36 years of marriage. Estelle took a sleeping pill with her Sanka and gave two to Toby, who who is Estelle’s favorite child. Evie has been teaching Karen the basics of Mah Jong in the kitchen for the last hour, and they’re making very little headway. No one has noticed that Kayla keeps pouring her wine down the sink.
One by one everyone goes to sleep, the twins are the last awake, eating cold pizza in the light of the refrigerator at midnight. Matzah Ball the cat licks herself in the corner.
Estelle and Becca have been awake and cooking since 6AM, though Estelle’s been up since five turning all her glasses right side up. Estelle prepares her famous brisket and Becca is Googling a recipe for Tsimis that will be better than her mother’s. Sophie and Kayla join them around eight for coffee and to flip through Estelle’s file folder of coupons to remove the expired ones. The phone rings and Estelle answers it, it is a wall-mounted phone with a cord.
Becca mentions aloud that Josh Rosenbloom emailed to tell her he’d finished the updates to her will that she asked for (Becca must have forgotten to mention she’d retained his services), and that he’d bring over a physical copy for her signature at some point during the day, at her request. Sophie and Kayla eye each other over their coffee mugs, both of which were printed to commemorate Wesley and Wiley’s Bar Mitzvah. The theme was hockey.
Michael, who is observing his father’s Yahrtzeit, returns from synagogue around 10am, much to the joy of Pepper and Piper, who immediately pee. He retrieves his laptop from his work bag and announces that he’s heading upstairs to do some work. We will not see him again for the duration of the movie.
Becca, who is wearing head-to-toe unmatching leopard print by the way, is preparing a kugel for that evening. She gathers ingredients from the fridge and notices a container of dried parsley that doesn’t belong in there. She places it back with all the spices in the spice rack that she’s reorganized by color. It isn’t really dried parsley.
Karen has been dragooned into the annual family latka competition, though she’s never seen, eaten, or certainly made a latka in her life. Naturally, she will end up winning. This will upset Evie very much, as she is the reigning family champion four years running. She will be curt to Karen for the remaining six years of her marriage to Davey. Estelle and Karen will remain in touch.
Kayla walks Karen through a basic latka recipe as Tess drags herself into the kitchen, now also wearing one of her grandmother’s robes. Tess plunks herself down on a stool in the corner and we hear a loud crunch. She lifts up the stool cushion to reveal a piece of Matzah that was hidden as an Afikomen in the spring and never found. All present shrug and return to their duties.
Toby, the twins, and Davey are all outside playing a game of Horse while simultaneously stacking firewood for Estelle and bagging massive piles of wet leaves that are corroding the side of the garage. The garage contains the following items: 27 pieces of empty luggage from the late 70s, boxes of Toby’s highschool yearbooks that are completely water damaged, a very old highchair, three nonfunctioning lawn mowers, and Wally’s old Cadillac Fleetwood Brougham V8 Coupe.
A tall, handsome man walks up a comically long driveway and approaches the group. Pepper and Piper trail after him like bridesmaids. It is, of course, Josh Rosenbloom. Becca, who has been watching out the kitchen window for him all morning, bursts out of the house in a cloud of Chanel №5 and welcomes Josh inside.
“Joshy sit right down I’ll get you some coffee—it’s freezing out there and that’s not a real coat. You’ll get a bigger one this week when they’re on sale with the After Christmas mishegass.”
Josh searches through his work bag for Becca’s revised will, the changes to which were entirely non-consequential, of course. At the same moment Sophie enters the kitchen to refill her coffee. She was last in line to shower and has just finished. She is wearing a sheet mask.
“Sophie look who’s here! It’s Josh Rosenbloom!”
The sheet mask expresses a look of horror.
Josh is far more attractive than Sophie remembers, most likely because she was in love with Eric Cohen until she went away to college. Eric Cohen was, of course, gay. Sophie slowly peels the sheet mask off of her face.
“Hey, Josh—great to see you. Thanks for helping Mom with the thing.”
“It was my pleasure, happy to help your family any time. How have you been? You’re in Brooklyn now, right?”
At this point Becca grabs Tess by her scarf and drags her out of the kitchen while motioning to Kayla and Karen to make themselves scarce. Evie just kind of melts into the laundry room.
Sophie, who’s forgotten she has wet hair, no makeup, and is wearing a piece of light purple Old Navy Performance Fleece she found in a closet when she was cold, chats up Josh for around 15 minutes before he unfortunately has to leave to pick up more dill and apple sauce for his mother. Sophie is sad to see him go, Josh would also prefer to stay. Becca appears as if summoned from the deep.
“Joshy, you’ll come back for dinner! We make the latkas at seven and we’ll sit down by nine. I hate to eat that late but no one cares about my heartburn. We’ll see you then?”
Josh agrees to come by following his own family Hanukkah dinner, his sister the OBGYN is in town from Tampa and they don’t get along. His mother has also remarried his old soccer coach and it’s weird. Becca supervises the exchange of Josh and Sophie’s phone numbers and walks him to his car, presumably implementing FBI-level interrogation skills. She makes a mental note to make another kugel more tailored to Josh’s preferences.
Inside, Toby is condemning the twins for their cell phone usage and demanding to know why they’ve come up short in their part-time job searches. Wordlessly, they walk away from him and into the kitchen to hug their mother, Evie is making Israeli salad with their dried parsley. They exchange a horrified look, but say nothing. Wesley pockets the parsley and they both sprint to the basement.
Sophie, Kayla, and Tess are preparing latka components in an assembly line fashion. Sophie is shredding onions while wearing ski goggles. Karen is printing out multiple recipes for latkas on Estelle’s printer, which hasn’t contained green or yellow ink for two years.
The female members of the family are bringing in all the dishes to the dining room table before calling the male members of the family in to eat. Kayla makes a mental note that this is not how things will function in her family.
The dining table contains the following items: six almost-empty salad dressings, three of which expired in the fall, salt and pepper shakers Estelle received for her wedding and are completely indiscernible from each other until their contents are shaken out, a large lucite water pitcher with two half-moon ice cubes floating in it, matching plates and silverware apart from one seat at the table that is using a plastic seder plate Tess made for Estelle when she was eight because one good plate broke three years ago.
Sophie can’t remember if the kugel is for dinner or dessert and tries to find her mother to tell her the answer. She opens the door to the garage to find Becca getting stoned with the twins. Sophie silently shuts the door and goes back in the kitchen.
The doorbell rings, reverberating around the house and failing to hit the last note as if the chime has run out of breath. It is Arther, Estelle’s brother, being wheeled in by Jane, who hands Arthur’s coat to Tess. Jane and Tess will marry eight years from now in a small ceremony in Queens.
“Estelle!” Arthur yells this as if she’s about to fall off the deck of a ship.
Estelle greets Arthur and he is wheeled to the dining room table where he sits at the head opposite his sister. Everyone kind of looks around at each other like they’re supposed to bless something before they eat but no one remembers the prayers from Hebrew school so Estelle just commands, “Eat!”
The twins nervously watch the Israeli salad being passed around. Nobody ever remembers Kayla and Sophie are both allergic to cucumbers so they abstain, but essentially everyone else partakes in edibles without their knowledge. The twins make a mental note to pack and load their car after dinner.
Karen, attending her first Hanukkah dinner, asks if anyone in the family can speak Hebrew. Sophie says she can still read the prayerbooks at shul, Kayla says she forgot most of it after she aged out of summer camp, and Tess, who is now wearing her grandmother’s matching set made of purple windbreaker material, says “I can count to 19.” The food is delicious, everyone agrees.
The doorbell rings again, everyone looks around and waits for Toby to make his “maybe it’s Elijah” joke, which he does, and because they are all stoned now, this time it’s funny. Jane answers the door. It is Josh Rosenbloom, who has brought sufganiyot which is a word you can Google if you want to. They’ll give Sophie violent diarrhea the following day, but she’ll say nothing.
Davey and Toby are talking about their old Star Wars toys from childhood while using very animated hand gestures. Evie is trying to get a stain out of Wiley’s hoodie from four years ago. Arthur and Estelle have broken into song, and Becca won’t stop hugging Josh and petting his coat like a chinchilla. Karen is crying.
Sophie, humiliated by the state of her relatives, seeks solace in her sister. She mouths “WHAT THE FUCK” to Kayla. Who ponders for a moment, has an inkling of what might be going on, and glares at the twins, who bolt from the room at impressive speed.
Moments later, the entire room becomes deeply haunted by various pieces of Judaica on the walls of the dining room, and migrates to the kitchen where the lakta competition is set to begin. Everyone takes their places at their designated deep fryers and pans and starts to giggle. Sophie, who instantly foresees a group visit to the emergency room, commands everyone out of the kitchen immediately, and tells them she’ll make the latkas herself. Kayla assists her sister by luring the entire stoned family into the living room with a plate of cookies shaped like dreidels.
Josh rolls up his sleeves and tells Sophie to give him instructions as sous chef. The pair proceed to make six dozen latkas in record time and delivers them to a now starving crew of high Weisses in the living room. It is, as you’d imagine, a sight to see.
Toby is very invested in training Matzah Ball to change the television channel with the remote. Estelle is sitting at a card table throwing gelt into the air like Scrooge McDuck. Evie is under the impression that Karen’s dogs are the spirits of her long-dead parents and Arthur is referring to everyone in the room as Susan.
Following the latka consumption, everyone is somewhat able to exchange gifts. Cut to a the living room floor no longer being visible beneath the wrapping paper. Evie is teaching Karen how to neatly fold it into squares to be used again next year. It helps if you cross out the name on the tag, too.
Becca has taken one of the gifts intended for her husband and gives it to Josh instead. It’s an LL Bean half-zip and fits pretty well, actually. Davey gives Karen a tube of bathtub caulk with a promise to get around to that to-do list she’s written for him and Karen gives Davey a pair of leather gloves the dogs will destroy before New Years.
Josh, unexpectedly, gifts Sophie with a photo of their 5th grade Hebrew school class, framed. Becca takes a photo of Sophie unwrapping it with her phone. Estelle says she has something for Toby, she just has to go get it from the closet. Estelle opens the linen closet in the hallway to find Tess making out with Jane.
Estelle runs screaming into the living room exclaiming, “for what are there girls kissing next to my good sheets from Bloomingdales?!” Sophie lets Josh know in no uncertain terms that it is time for him to leave. Tess tries to calm down her grandmother while Jane begins readying Arthur to leave, although he’s still stoned and won’t stop taking off his socks and trying to wear them as a necktie. Becca reveals to everyone that she’s having an affair with her nurse practitioner Carl, and Toby farts extremely offensively. Davey runs out of the house, steals Wally’s Cadillac, and resurfaces a week later in an Atlantic City jail. The twins let everyone know their mother accidentally put weed in the salad. Kayla vomits on her own shoes and says, “I’m pregnant.”
A slow-pan of the aftermath the next morning catches the sunrise light glistening over the tops of wrapping paper piles and cooking oil left to sit on the stove. The dogs are asleep in the cat’s bed and the cat is, for some reason, sitting inside the empty dishwasher. We see the twins on the couch drinking coffee and reviewing the newspaper for movie times.
The family all shuffles out into cars, Tess now wearing a mohair sweater of her grandmother’s with a Star of David on it, and they go see a movie together at a local theater with very uncomfortable springs in the seats. The family all sits together in a long row, Estelle puts parsley on her popcorn.
Following the movie, the family all have lunch together at a local Chinese restaurant with white linen tablecloths and free fried noodles in bowls on the table. We see them laughing together and enjoying each other’s company while Becca overfeeds Kayla giant pieces of broccoli.
Back at home, the family cleans up last night’s maelstrom, and Josh comes over to say goodbye to Sophie. The two make tentative plans for New Year’s Eve in Manhattan. Josh is wearing his new sweater. They remark on the aftermath and vow to say nothing of how much wrapping paper Karen has secretly thrown in the garbage or the fact that Estelle’s glaucoma is massively improved.
Josh, ever the nice Jewish boy, suggests, “Next year in Jerusalem, right?”
Sophie looks around at her meshugennah family.
“Anywhere but here.”
Sophie and Josh will engage in a mild, text message-based flirtation for the next six weeks, after which Josh will realize Valentine’s Day is coming, freak out about the idea of an actual relationship, and send Sophie one-word responses on five-hour delay for three days until she gets the point. Sophie will remain single until age 43, when she’ll meet a Brazilian businessman on a flight to Palm Springs. They’ll marry, she’ll conceive a daughter at 44, and they’ll remain madly in love until Eduardo’s death in 2059. Becca will have coffee with Josh’s mother once a week for six years until their local coffee shop shuts down and becomes a spa for pets.
Happy Hanukkah. The end.