Could any 20th-century American Jew, no matter how famous, compare to Moses?
For Philip Roth, the answer was yes, and that Jew was composer Irving Berlin. In his novel, “Operation Shylock: A Confession,” Roth writes that Berlin, in his megahit “White Christmas,” secularizes the birth of Jesus; the song “turns Christmas into a holiday about snow.” While that quote does not appear in Larry Weinstein’s new documentary, “Dreaming of a Jewish Christmas,” the sentiment underlies every frame of the film.
The winner of a coveted People’s Choice Award at the Hong Kong Jewish Film Festival earlier this month, “Dreaming of a Jewish Christmas” will be screened Sunday afternoon, Dec. 2, at the Morris Museum in Morristown.
Set in a Chinese restaurant (where else?) on Christmas Eve, the film shows how many of the most iconic Christmas carols — from “The Christmas Song” (“Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire”) and “Silver Bells” to “The Little Drummer Boy” and “White Christmas” — were created by Jewish composers who helped to universalize the holiday as a part of American culture. The film incorporates live performances of many of the songs, including a Yiddish version of “Winter Wonderland,” and culminates in a rousing hora danced by the restaurant’s waiters and patrons.
Weinstein, who grew up in Toronto in a mostly secular Jewish home, has made many well-regarded documentaries, including “Inside Hana’s Suitcase,” about a group of Japanese schoolchildren who try to solve the mystery of a suitcase that was saved from Auschwitz.
In an interview, Weinstein told NJJN that before Jews started writing them, most Christmas songs were “like dirges, not like tunes that reflected someone’s birthday.”
Indeed, as the film shows, Christmas songs, along with Christmas trees and decorations, were banned by the Puritans, both in England and in the American colonies, in the late 17th century. Christmas carols, which arose out of a kind of populist rebellion against church doctrine, were thus to some extent already a secular form when immigrant Jews arrived in America. Shut out of many other occupations, the musicians among the newcomers realized that they could tap into a large market by penning songs about the seminal Christian holiday.
Berlin’s “White Christmas” — first performed in 1942 by Bing Crosby on NBC’s Kraft Music Hall radio show (and then later, of course, in the film “Holiday Inn”) — went on to become the most popular single of all time, with 100 million copies sold to date.
In an interview last week, the filmmaker suggested that because Jews had been oppressed throughout history, Christmas as a subject must have been especially appealing to songwriters like Berlin, Mel Tormé, Johnny Marks, and others.
“They came from a persecuted people,” Weinstein observed. “Who appreciated family, warmth, and survival more than these guys did?” He noted that while there are also a plethora of Christmas songs written by non-Jews, “few have staying power compared to the ones composed by Jews.”
Rob Kapilow is one of the musicologists who appears in the film. A composer and conductor in his own right, Kapilow places the songs in historical context. He told NJJN that the Jewishness of these carols inheres, paradoxically, in their lack of overt Jewish content. When they were trying to fit into American life, Kapilow said, “the first thing that Jews did was to deny their Jewishness.” Nevertheless, a song like Marks’ “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” recorded by Crosby in 1950, is about an animal who is at first laughed at for being different from the others, only to become a hero without sacrificing what makes him stand out. The character, according to Kapilow, is “an outsider desperately trying — and succeeding — to become an insider.”
For Kapilow, understanding the background of the songs is impossible without delving into the cultural moment in which they were created. For example, “Do You Hear What I Hear?” was written by Gloria Shayne Baker (with lyrics by her then husband, Noël Regney) in October 1962, at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, when nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union seemed imminent. Baker, who had lived next door to the Kennedy family in Brookline, Mass., when she was a girl, wrote the song as a plea for peace. Released just after Thanksgiving, it went on to sell tens of millions of copies. It is the only song featured in the film that has overtly Christian lyrics.
One of the film’s producers, Liam Romalis, said that after a recent screening of the film at Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel in South Orange, a woman in the audience thanked him for restoring her faith in humanity. The film, he said she told him, is about a place where outsiders can find a home. She and others asked how they could persuade their children and grandchildren to view the film as a way to learn about the history of Christmas traditions.
For, as assimilated as these Jewish songwriters were, Romalis said, “it’s impossible to shed your Jewishness. It informs everything that you do, in both overt and subtle ways.” Because Christmas music is so ubiquitous, he added, “we don’t think about it much — it’s like musical wallpaper.” Learning about the Jewish contributions to this form “gives people a deeper window into the way in which an immigrant group can actually create the culture and mythology” of the place in which they have been transplanted.
Romalis said that another audience member compared the film to the hit Broadway musical “Come From Away,” about the residents of a small Newfoundland town who took care of thousands of stranded airline passengers in the days after 9/11. Both the film and the musical are, he quoted her as saying, “about the larger sense of community that is formed among people when it doesn’t matter where you come from” but where everyone is accepted and embraced for who they are.
Ted Merwin covers theater for The New York Jewish Week, NJJN’s sister publication.
If you go
What: “Dreaming of a Jewish Christmas”
Where: Morris Museum, Morristown
When: Sunday, Dec. 2, 3 p.m.
Tickets: $15, $10 for members, $12 for children
Contact: Call 973-971-3706 or visit morrismuseum.org/film
After the screening, holiday treats will be served, and renditions of Christmas carols featured in the film will be played on the museum’s reproducing piano (part of the Murtogh D. Guinness Collection of Mechanical Musical Instruments and Automata). Visitors can come at 2 p.m. for a Guinness Collection demonstration (for $3 more, including admission to the entire museum).