Film Reviews

Review: ‘Dreaming of a Jewish Christmas’

Larry Weinstein’s doc-musical Christmas carol celebrates the Jewish composers behind beloved Yuletide songs


Dreaming of a Jewish Christmas
(Canada, 55 min.)
Dir. Larry Weinstein

Don’t let Adam Sandler’s The Chanukah Song fool you: the Jews sure know how to write a good Christmas carol. Larry Weinstein (Our Man in Tehran, Leslie Caron: The Reluctant Star) playfully chronicles the unsung Jewish history of the holidays in Dreaming of a Jewish Christmas. The doc dives into a history that many viewers might have heard in passing or anecdotally, but never received at length. It’s the story of Christmas carols written by Jewish musicians. Carols like The Christmas Song and White Christmas were penned and tuned by writers such as Mel Tourmé and Irving Berlin who probably didn’t go to midnight mass or sit up waiting for Santa. At a time when the mere thought of saying “Merry Christmas!” sends political correctness alarms a-blazing, Dreaming of a Jewish Christmas makes the happy holiday inclusive in its own warm and peculiar way.

Dreaming of a Jewish Christmas invites a host of experts and talking heads to discuss how the Jews wrote the songbook for celebrating the birth of Christ. Some of the songs, like the ever-popular “The Christmas Song,” merely started as riffing about images of winter and warmth, while the story of Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer offered an allegory for inclusion with its story of a misfit creature and his unique nose. Weinstein shows that some of these beloved carols have complex histories, like Noël Regney and Gloria Shayne Baker’s Do You Hear What I Hear? which began as a prayer for peace in the wake of the Cuban Missile Crisis, became a Christmas mega-hit after being released during the holidays, and went on to be covered by everyone from Bing Crosby, Whitney Houston, and Carrie Underwood for bargain bin holiday albums for decades to come. The songs might be simple, but their stories are not.

The talking heads explain how the creation of secular songs penned by Jews afforded an act of inclusion by which writers inserted themselves into the customs and celebrations of the Christian majority. The film offers a wealth of archival material and history yarns to situate the carols within the larger history of the Jewish diaspora and marginalization within America. These songs offer an entry point into mainstream culture and, as one or two experts note, a profitable way for Jewish composers to make a living by writing ditties for the eggnog-swilling majority. The self-deprecating film finds an appreciable dose of humour by characterization this dual act of artistic expression and survival as a very Jewish thing to do.

The film also gives a nod to the traditions that people make of their own while being excluded from mainstream yuletide celebrations. Weinstein sets much of the action within a Chinese restaurant—in fact, the same Chinese restaurant in which his family dined every Christmas—to show the creation of new rituals. The film playfully explains how Jewish families frequented the two businesses that were open on December 25th, movie theatres and Chinese restaurants, to make a holiday of their own that coincidentally brought members of non-Christian cultures together.

The film stumbles somewhat when one of the talking heads tries to fire a charge of cultural appropriation against the Christians for celebrating Christmas. While it’s important for the film to situate the celebration of Christ’s birth within the context of his Jewish identity, the argument that the Christians stole Christmas needs a lot more than a sensationalist soundbite to suffice. (His math also seems off by noting “thousands” of years of cultural appropriation.) It’s an odd note in an otherwise inclusive film that admirably finds common ground for celebrating the holidays.

The doc illuminates elements of holiday spirit that transcend religion, since it doesn’t matter whether one prays to Christ, Allah, Buddha, Meryl, or nobody at all to appreciate the messages of family and community invited by these songs. Dreaming of a Jewish Christmas acknowledges the increasing secularization and commercialization of Christmas, but shows how the spirit of the holiday endures, if not strengthens, if one looks deep within the message.

Dreaming of a Jewish Christmas pays tribute to the chosen people who defied their outsider status and covertly inserted themselves into mainstream tradition. It’s only fitting, then, that Weinstein chronicles this history of Jewish Christmas songs by composing a carol of his own. Dreaming of a Jewish Christmas unfurls as a truly unique hybrid musical—a playful lark of a movie that pays homage to cheesy Christmas specials while subverting them with a personal touch. Servers and kitchen staff belt out Christmas carols while serving heaps of egg rolls and fried rice in merry theatrical numbers. Concert-style performances by artists like Kevin Breit, Aviva Chernick, Tom Wilson, and Dione Taylor insert the film into the tradition of holiday specials like Rita MacNeil’s Christmas at Home with an unabashedly Jewish flavour. Weinstein also finds an appreciable multicultural cast of performers to illustrate the greater diversity of cultures that come together during the holidays whether for fruitcake or Chow Mein. Christmas is all about togetherness and this holiday doc-musical captures the universal notes of acceptance and inclusion embodied in the Yuletide spirit.

Dreaming of a Jewish Christmas screens at Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema on Sunday, Dec. 3.
It airs on CBC documentary channel Dec. 3 at 8pm and on CBC Dec. 7 at 9pm.