Tom Wilson and Kevin Breit performing in the film
Tom Wilson and Kevin Breit performing in the film

Dreaming Of A Jewish Christmas

So what is a dream Jewish Christmas?

According to a new Canadian TV musical special, it involves a large and loud family gathering at a Chinese restaurant on Christmas Day. No turkey in sight and the only stuffing is in the egg rolls, but there is undoubtedly plenty of merriment and music.

This setting is the primary locale for Dreaming Of A Jewish Christmas, a thoroughly entertaining and educational exploration of a fascinating seasonal music subject. Did you know that the vast majority of the popular Christmas songs we all know and love were penned by American Jewish composers? 

Irving Berlin's "White Christmas," is regarded as the world's best-selling song, with Bing Crosby's version selling over 100M copies and other versions another 150M plus; Mel Torme came up with "The Christmas Song,"  Johnny Marks wrote "Rudolph, The Red-Nosed Reindeer and "Run Rudolph Run,"  while Ray Evans and Jay Livingstone co-wrote "Silver Bells," and the list goes on.

Further adding to the cultural mix at play here, it has taken Canadian filmmakers, musicians and singers to bring the topic to vivid life. Produced by Toronto's Riddle Films, written by Jason Charters, and directed by Larry Weinstein, Dreaming Of A Jewish Christmas features strong and original renditions of Christmas classics by such artists as Steven Page, Tom Wilson with Kevin Breit, Aviva Chernick, Dione Taylor, David Wall, and Lemon Bucket Orkestra.

They perform inside a Chinese restaurant (and, in Wilson's case, outside in an alley) in an environment that looks way more fun and festive than our traditional Christmas shindigs. Here, even the Chinese waiters and kitchen staff break into song.

These scenes are intercut with informative comments on the Jewish songwriters who wrote our Xmas soundtrack, from the likes of Jewish comedians Jackie Mason and Mark Breslin to musicologist Rob Bowman, composer Ben Sidran, and famed attorney Alan Dershowitz.

A performance highlight in Dreaming Of A Jewish Christmas is vocalist David Wall's Yiddish version of a holiday classic, "Vinter Vinderland." Known for his work in The Bourbon Tabernacle Choir and Flying Bulgar Klezmer Band, Wall is considered an authority on Jewish music.

In an interview with FYI, he explains that "the fact that Jewish-Americans wrote the majority of what we call pop Christmas songs is a topic that has been something of an obsession of mine. It is a bizarre historical anomaly."

"Back in 2010, I was commissioned by The Globe and Mail to write a song about it, called 'A Christmas Ditty.' I worked at Jazz FM 91 in Toronto, and I also did a show about Jews writing all these Christmas songs, and I believe that inspired the producers of the film."

Wall is a genuine enthusiast of Christmas music. "I sing at a church every Christmas Eve, doing Christmas songs," he says. "In my personal opinion, from Bach to Nat King Cole, the music of Christmas outshines the music of Hanukkah!"

The film's director, Larry Weinstein, tells FYI that even though he was brought on board once the project was underway, this was a subject that had long appealed to him. "I was always really aware of this whole phenomenon of these great Christmas songs being written by Jewish composers. I loved the irony of it."

"The producers, Jason Charters and Liam Romalis, were presenting a trailer they had done with David Wall for something that was then called The Jews Who Stole Christmas. I saw it and I was so jealous, thinking that this was a film I'd have loved to direct."

The two producers did, in fact, have Weinstein in mind for the film. "They didn't think I'd say yes, but when they asked I was so happy and I immediately agreed," says Weinstein, who calls Dreaming Of A Jewish Christmas  "a beautifully collaborative project. Jason and Liam were saints as producers, and they did most of the interviews too."

Weinstein acknowledges that balancing the different elements in Dreaming was a real challenge. "It is a hybrid film. You have the dramatic conceit of this family going to a Chinese restaurant in the '60s, but also the music video thing, and then so much documentary material and different kinds of people speaking. I wondered if it'd be ill-fated, but it has recently been shown to a couple of audiences in Vancouver and Calgary and the response was so warm."

Weinstein was undoubtedly the right man for the job. His extensive filmography is heavily-weighted towards music themes, and such titles as Ravel’s Brain, Beethoven’s HairMozartballs, and September Songs: The Music of Kurt Weill, have earned international acclaim. The latter film featured such musical heavyweights as Elvis Costello, Lou Reed, Nick Cave, and PJ Harvey. He has also filmed documentaries on Shostakovich, Schoenberg, John Weinzweig, Andrea Bocelli, Harold Arlen, and many more.

He explains that filming of Dreaming Of A Jewish Christmas "was primarily done in March and April. The final performance, by Tom Wilson, was in May, but the elements co-operated. "Amazingly, the night was so cold you could actually see Tom's breath. We had fake snow on the ground, so maybe the air was tricked."

He also laughingly notes that "they say it is a pagan thing that Christmas is Dec. 25th and that if you look at the Bible literally the birth was probably in March. So we actually filmed this during the real Christmas, says the atheist Jew!"

The film has its world broadcast premiere on the Documentary Channel on Dec. 3, with the main CBC-TV network airing it on Dec. 7 at 9 pm. 

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