Dreaming of a Jewish Christmas

What would Christmas be like without iconic Christmas songs such as White Christmas, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Sleigh Ride or Chessnuts Roasting on an Open Fire?

Larry Weinstein asks this intriguing question in his film, Dreaming of a Jewish Christmas, whose world premiere takes place on the Documentary Channel on December 3 at 8 p.m. CBC TV will screen it on December 7 at 9 p.m.

Weinstein leaves us with the thought that this winter holiday is hugely enhanced by these cheerful and uplifting songs.

Interestingly enough, as he points out in this exuberant and schmaltzy documentary, the most popular Christmas songs were written by Jewish Americans like Irving Berlin, Mel Torme, Robert May and Howard Arlen.

The sons of East European immigrants who landed on the shores of the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, they were instrumental in inventing the genre of secular Christmas songs, which are so popular today.

As Weinstein adds, their stellar contribution to the spirit of Christmas should not come as a surprise.

In the first half of the 20th century, American music was dominated by Jewish composers. Naturally, some turned their talents to the lucrative Christmas market. And so Americans who celebrated Christmas were treated to beloved songs such as Silver Bells, It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year, and Do You Hear What I Hear?

Weinstein’s tribute to these Jewish composers partly takes place in a well-known Chinese restaurant in northern Toronto, where a substantial proportion of Jews live. His choice of locale is logical, since an astonishing number of secular Jews tend to spend Christmas day watching a movie at a theater and enjoying a festive meal at a favorite Chinese restaurant.

In an amusing news clip fit for the occasion, Ellen Kagan, the US Supreme Court judge, is asked at a Congressional hearing what she does on Christmas. “Like all Jews, I was probably at a Chinese restaurant,” she replies, a smile creasing her face.

Weinstein develops his theme through a variety of means.

Two waiters in the Toronto Chinese restaurant — professional singer Roger Feng and actor Gaston Poon — break into song and dance. The chefs in the kitchen, wielding sharp knives, join in the fun. Archival footage of Jews arriving in America, the Promised Land, constitutes an important segment of his film. Vintage photographs of famous Jewish song writers also appear.

Canadian stars such as Tom Wilson (Blackie & The Rodeo Kings) and Steven Page (Barenaked Ladies) put in endearing appearances. David Wall (The Bourbon Tabernacle Choir) and Aviva Chernick sing their hearts out in signature performances of  Christmas tunes.

Comedians Jackie Mason and Mark Breslin (of Yuk Yuk fame) deliver pithy observations about Christmas and Chanukah, while Grammy-Award-winning musicologist Rob Bowman and music journalist Robert Harris pay homage to Jewish composers who shaped our society’s conception of Christmas.

In short, Dreaming of a Jewish Christmas takes a fresh and jaunty look at this holiday.

About the Author
Sheldon Kirshner is a journalist in Toronto. He writes at his online journal, SheldonKirshner.com