Larry Weinstein was coming from a Hanukkah party five days after the holiday officially ended and was on his way to meet his family for Christmas eve dinner at Sea-Hi Famous Chinese Restaurant in Toronto when he hopped on a call with The Times of Israel to discuss his latest documentary film, “Dreaming of a Jewish Christmas.”
The documentary explores the Diaspora experience of Christmas, focusing on the Jewish songwriters who created some of the holiday’s most memorable songs.
Weinstein makes the argument that stereotypical efforts to not celebrate the Christian holiday — like dining in a Chinese restaurant — have ultimately become just as much a part of the Christmas experience as Santa Claus and tree ornaments.
In this nearly hour-long documentary, the Oscar-nominated filmmaker whimsically tells the Jewish history of Christmas, weaving interviews and history through fictional scenes and musical numbers from a staged Christmas dinner in the same restaurant where Weinstein dined this Christmas Eve (or should we say, erev Yom Tov).
Jewish songwriters such as Irving Berlin, Mel Tormé, Ray Evans and Gloria Shayne Baker seemed to have all the right words to capture the spirit of Christmas in the early to mid-20th century. But this, according to Weinstein, should not be surprising at all.
It was the ultimate expression of young immigrant Jews, or children of immigrants, to write the great Christmas songs. Not as expressions of their Jewishness, but of their American-ness. To this day, these now classic Christmas songs capture the yearning to connect and find the comfort within the community, said Weinstein, which no one more than a young Jewish immigrant hoping to assimilate would understand.
Jews also wrote Christmas songs out of necessity. Just as the banking or film industry had a heavy Jewish presence in the early 20th century due to exclusion from other fields, so too was songwriting seen as a profession that Jews could access. Christmas songs had a built-in market, the documentary explains.
Songs such as Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas” or “The Christmas Song” (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire) written by Melvin Tormé also secularized the holiday’s themes for generations to come, the film said. These Jewish songwriters weren’t talking about Baby Jesus on the manger but snow and silver bells — more universal winter tropes.
The film contains anecdotes based on cheerful jingles with melancholy backstories. One of those is in the discovery of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer’s Jewish roots.
“Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer had a very shiny nose,” goes the song. “And if you ever saw it, you would even say it glows. And all of the other reindeer used to laugh and call him names. They never let poor Rudolph join in any reindeer games.”
In 1939 Jewish writer Robert May created the Rudolph character for a Christmas coloring book based on his own childhood experience. Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer is the story of a young Jewish boy growing up in the United States who ultimately comes to be accepted for who he is, says music journalist Robert Harris in the film.
While tearing up in the film, Harris connects Rudolph’s plight to the struggle of American Jews for generations.
“Jews were always storytellers, always a musical people,” Weinstein told The Times of Israel, pointing out that many children of cantors became famous songwriters, such as Harold Arlen, who wrote “Stormy Weather,” or Irving Berlin.
“It’s Christians who sing these songs but it’s the Jews with the nostalgia,” he remarked.
Though Jewish, Weinstein celebrated Christmas with his family while growing up. They hung up stockings in the den, got Chinese take-out and Weinstein says he believed in Santa Claus far longer than most of his peers.
“We grew up in a Christian neighborhood. My parents didn’t want us to feel excluded. We would have felt awful if we didn’t do it,” he said.
Weinstein sees no problem with Jews taking on Christmas traditions beyond the traditional Chinese food. In fact, he said, because Judaism is so much about inclusiveness, having an element of Jewish heritage in one’s family is enough to connect them to the tradition, but with “more flavor.” Weinstein’s wife is Greek-Orthodox and they celebrate Jewish and Christian holidays in their home.
Weinstein ultimately believes that the message of both his film and Christmas, now more timely than ever, is one of inclusivity.
“It’s about fighting divisiveness. It’s a very anti-Trump message,” he said.