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Documentary uncovers the Jewish connection to Christmas music

film

Dreaming of a Jewish Christmas, complete with chop suey

On the Chinese restaurant set of the new documentary, The Jews Who Wrote Christmas

The Jews Who Wrote Christmas is an offbeat documentary about the Jewish songwriters responsible for so many of the Christmas holiday songs.

It's April, and Larry Weinstein is filming in a Chinese restaurant, but the director is still dreaming of a white Christmas – just like the ones the Jewish people used to know.

"There's something very innocent about these songs," says the filmmaker, speaking about hit Christmas carols such as Irving Berlin's idyllic White Christmas, one of the songs featured in the new documentary The Jews Who Wrote Christmas. "There's a naiveté, a beauty, a warmth."

The film, currently being shot in Toronto, is an offbeat documentary about the Jewish songwriters responsible for so many of the holiday chestnuts that contribute to a seasonal soundtrack for Jews and gentiles alike. The restaurant taken over by crews, cameras and singers today is Sea-Hi Famous Chinese restaurant, a chicken-ball bastion and time-resistant landmark in a Bathurst and Lawrence neighbourhood that is otherwise dominated by delis, bagel shops and wig boutiques.

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For The Jews Who Wrote Christmas, set to premiere on CBC in December, Weinstein plans to speak with music historians and other talking heads about the phenomenon of Jewish tunesmiths such as Sammy Cahn, Jule Styne, Mel Tormé, Johnny Marks and Berlin, the chosen people of Christmas cheer.

But the scenes being shot now at the Sea-Hi are dreamy dramatizations set in the early sixties – the era Weinstein remembers as his wonder years. The sequences involve Silver Bells and other sing-alongs, and a Jewish boy's Technicolor recollections of egg foo yung yuletides.

It's a flurry of activity at the restaurant, where the schedule is rushed. "There are two things you should never see being made," whispers co-producer Jason Charters. "Sausages and Chinese-Jewish musicals."

Weinstein and a crew are co-ordinating a complicated scene involving a Yiddish version of Winter Wonderland – "valgern zikh in vinter vinderland" – that ends in a hora. Each uninterrupted take is met with a collective exhale. "Filmmaking is a race against time and reason," says the other co-producer, Liam Romalis. "It's like jumping out of an airplane. Every cell in your body tells you not to do it."

Film crews took over Sea-Hi Famous Chinese restaurant, a chicken-ball bastion and time-resistant landmark in a Bathurst and Lawrence.

Charters and Romalis are the duo behind Riddle Films, a company that specializes in performing-arts films, with such titles as 2012's Bruce Cockburn: Pacing the Cage to its credit.

It's a curious thing, the Jewish connection with a Christian celebration and narrative. Most people are not even aware of it. In 2008, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer was pulled from a kindergarten Christmas show in North Carolina when a Jewish mother objected to the song's "religious overtones." Did she know the song was written by a Jewish songwriter (Johnny Marks), and that the reindeer not allowed to join in any reindeer games could be a stand-in for an immigrant's experience?

In 2011, the Globe and Mail published an article by Robert Everett-Green on the Jewish songwriters who penned a canon of holiday ballads and toe-tappers that are among the most successful and durable pop standards of the 20th century. Along with the article, the newspaper commissioned singer-songwriter David Wall to write and perform a new dreidel-friendly seasonal song. The tune, Christmas Ditty, carries a hummable chorus that became the inspiration for the documentary now being filmed: "If we can write for Elvis and the best, we can write a Christmas ditty and be blessed."

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The last bit about being blessed gets to one of the themes of The Jews Who Wrote Christmas: The tale of immigrant outsiders (Jewish songwriters) being accepted as important players in the American pop-culture mainstream.

"It's about creating a mythology about America," says Wall, whose Yiddish Winter Wonderland is part of the documentary. "I think it's a nostalgia about Americanism."

Weinstein, a prolific documentarian who specializes in musical subjects, was born in the Bathurst-Lawrence area in 1957 and grew up in Bayview Village. "I believed in Santa Claus longer than any of my Christian friends," he says with a chuckle. He remembers dinners at the Sea-Hi and other Chinese restaurants, such as Lee Garden and Sai Woo.

"It's very personal to be here, in this building," says the director, who describes the documentary as surreal and affecting. "The whole neighbourhood knows what we're doing, and they've embraced it."

For the most part, the holiday hits the film discusses are a nod to warmer, family-gathering times.

As for the commercialism of the Christmas season and the role the annual songs played in it, Weinstein waves it off. "There's a cynicism and a skepticism – I get it. But I'm rejecting it."

While Weinstein holds to the gentler-time mythology, there were those of the era who recognized the seasonal superficialities and the genuine scariness of the time. The hit carol Do You Hear What I Hear?, for example, was written by married couple Gloria Shayne Baker and Noel Regney, whose song (which tells the story of the nativity) was a plea for peace during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis.

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That Christmas classic is one of the six featured in The Jews Who Wrote Christmas. According to Toronto's Aviva Chernick, who sang the song for the film, her scene was an affecting experience, and not because of any wistfulness. "The day we shot Do You Hear What I Hear?, the room became a refuge for all of us. I think we all recognized the timeliness of the song, as a response to the chaos of the world outside we have no control over."

Still, for the most part, the holiday hits are indeed a nod to warmer, family-gathering times. Said the little lamb to the shepherd boy, "Do you hear what I hear?" We hear the soundtrack to a winter wonderland, and we hear the shrimp chop suey at the Sea-Hi tastes just like it did 50 years ago. The Jews not only wrote Christmas; they froze it in time.

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