Jewish mistletoe: Meet the Jewish writer of Christmas classics

How Gary Goldstein became the go-to screenwriter for feel-good Christmas films.

 A SCENE FROM ‘Hitched for the Holidays.’ (photo credit: Hallmark)
A SCENE FROM ‘Hitched for the Holidays.’
(photo credit: Hallmark)

A nice Jewish boy from Long Island, Gary Goldstein didn’t plan to become the go-to screenwriter for Christmas-themed romantic comedies. That’s just the way the dreidel fell.

The Los Angeles resident who grew up in a normative Conservative household, and whose new first novel – The Last Birthday Party – features a Jewish leading character, has enjoyed a successful, varied career as a writer for TV, film and the stage.

However, he’s developed a niche, primarily for the Hallmark network, in creating light holiday fare like Forever Christmas, Mr. 365, Angel of Christmas and the perennial favorite, Hitched for the Holidays, a fish-out-of-water romantic comedy that is perhaps the first US holiday film in which Hanukkah played a major role.

“I wrote it as a big, New York romantic comedy with a really fun script about a Catholic guy and a Jewish woman who meet online because they don’t want to be alone for the holidays. They decide to be each other’s dates when they have to visit their parents and they have to pretend to be each other’s religion,” said Goldstein from his Laurel Canyon home recently.

Hilarity ensues when the male lead, played by Joey Lawrence, attends a Hanukkah party and blows out the candle on the menorah, and when the female love interest (Emily Hampshire) has to pretend to be an expert in trimming a Christmas tree.

 GARY GOLDSTEIN (credit: David A. Lee) GARY GOLDSTEIN (credit: David A. Lee)

Goldstein’s original pitch was rejected, (“It was a little before Christmas movies were a thing”) but he kept at it and a few years later showed it to a Hallmark rep who suggested a few changes and bought the screenplay.

“They liked the fact that it covered both holidays,” he said.

Over time, he was hired to write more holiday fare, including the adaptation of a book called Angel of Christmas. Goldstein also bought the film options to another book, Mr. 365 about a man who celebrates Christmas every day of the year.

Within the American melting pot, he doesn’t find anything strange about a Jewish writer conjuring up Christmas stories for the holidays.

“It’s actually fun. As a Jewish person who didn’t grow up celebrating Christmas, but being around people who did, I sometimes felt left out. Now it’s enjoyable writing about it from an adult perspective,” said Goldstein.

“The most fun is when you can mix cultures in a story and people can learn from each other. Someone who isn’t Jewish can learn about Hanukkah and a Jewish person can learn about Kwanzaa.”

Goldstein admits that he sort of fell into the Christmas screenplay genre, but says that it’s not a great leap from what he was already doing.

“Writing Christmas movies are no different than writing a romantic comedy, there’s just more Christmas in them. They’re fun to write, light and entertaining, and they can be charming.”

“When someone comes to me and says ‘I want to write a screenplay but don’t know what to write about’ I say ‘write a Christmas story,’” he said, adding that some 140 Christmas or holiday movies were produced this year alone between all the networks and streaming options.

Goldstein, who worked in film publicity after graduating from Boston University, moved to California in the late 1980s and began pitching screenplays. But it took a number of years until he sold his first script – an episode of the iconic 1990s teen sitcom Saved by the Bell.

“I’ve written a trillion things and to this day, everyone is most impressed by that,” said Goldstein.” It was the episode ‘Save the Max’ when the kids uncover an old radio station in the basement of the school. I went to the taping, and it was unreal to see sets that had specifically been created because I invented them and wrote about them.”

Goldstein continued perfecting his craft, writing more scripts and screenplays and enrolling in a writers’ boot camp course, which he eventually taught for several years. Little by little, he began getting some options bought, had a couple indie films made and eventually got into the TV movie industry. He ended selling his first screenplay in 2009 to Hallmark, a “high concept comedy” called The Wish List.

“I rewrote it for them to make it more family friendly and it came out great. Hallmark then hired me to do a bunch of romantic comedies and that evolved into the Christmas movies.”

Comfortable within his film industry niche as well as writing stage plays and reviewing films for The Los Angeles Times, Goldstein began entertaining other challenges – specifically writing a novel. However, the book publishing field was foreign to him.

“If I’m going to write a screenplay on spec, I know what to do with it. I have access to people. With books, it’s like ‘where do you go? What do you do?’ It seemed overwhelming.”

But a little investigative work allayed those fears, leaving him just with the fear of actually writing.

“I always thought I wouldn’t have the time to do it. Then I read some advice from a writer. If you start writing a page a day on January 3, by the end of the year, you’ll have the first draft of a book, maybe more. I can do that, I thought.

So two months before the coronavirus pandemic began in January 2020, Goldstein started writing, and the result was The Last Birthday Party, about Jewish film critic Jeremy Lerner, who loses his marriage, his job, and the use of his right arm just days after the 50th birthday party he begged his now ex-wife not to throw him.

“I wanted to write about midlife – how we make choices as we get older and how other choices are thrust upon us – and what kind of perspective you have on life at a certain age.”

“I think that 50 is a watershed moment and the story kind of spun out from there. There is some autobiographical element, but Jeremy as a person is not completely me.”

Goldstein found the experience a big change from screenplay writing.

“The storytelling is similar – that classic story structure is emblazoned in my head. But movies are about saying the most with the least amount of words.

In the book, on the other hand, you are the camera, to create and explain what people are seeing. In a book, you need to write about what the people look like, what the food tastes like. It was a little more liberating than a screenplay.”

Although he didn’t write the book with a movie in mind, Goldstein has heard from critics, readers and friends that he has a great film or limited TV series on his hands.

“When I was writing, I wasn’t thinking about that, I was just writing authentically about what I know best. However, once the book was done and I was happy with it and it got out there, I realized that, yes, this could make a great movie.”

That process of finding a home for it has begun, but Goldstein is also busy working on another Christmas screenplay for next year and he just signed a publishing deal for his second novel, The Mother I Never Had.

He finds the whole journey gratifying.

“I’ve received wonderful feedback, and that’s the payoff – being able to have your work connect to people and helping them see themselves in what you write.

“I love the journey and process of doing it along the way and reaching people and making them laugh.”

Or, as they say in Long Island, ho ho ho.