After we got home from our requisite Chinese meal on Christmas Day, Barbara and I watched the requisite movie: in this case the Canadian documentary Dreaming of a Jewish Christmas.
If you’ve never heard of it, go find it and see it! (We saw it on PBS.) You’ll find out why American Jews go to Chinese restaurants on Christmas, and you’ll learn why the majority of Christmas songs were written by Jewish composers.
A few words about each of these two topics:
- First of all, there are at least two compelling explanations for the Chinese food at Christmas. The more straightforward one is simply that Chinese restaurants are among the few that are open on Christmas Day (also hotel restaurants, if you live near a hotel, but they would spoil the story). The more interesting explanation is that there is a solidarity between Jewish and Chinese people because both were outsiders when they came to America. As one of my ABC students said to me, “My parents are upset that I’m dating a non-Chinese boy, but they say ‘at least he’s Jewish, which is second best.’”
- Second, as a teen I had been astonished to learn that White Christmas was written by a Jewish composer. (When did you first learn that?) I was much older when I learned that there are two types of Christmas songs: the traditional carols, mostly written by Christians and celebrating the birth of Jesus; and the 20th-century songs, mostly written by Jews and celebrating winter and Americanism. If you listen to these Christmas songs, you will notice no mention of Jesus, an omission which of course can make them offensive to some religious Christians but also makes them acceptable to Jews. Also, BTW, it wasn’t until I was an adult that I learned that the narrative of White Christmas doesn’t take place on Christmas Day nor in an area where there is snow: it was a ballad for American soldiers far from home in 1942, such as my dad who was stationed in Australia and New Guinea. That’s why it’s dreaming of a white Christmas. But you probably learned that long ago.
Finally, a few words about the documentary. Filmmaker Larry Weinstein started making movies (home movies, of course) as a preteen and never looked back. This documentary re-creates some scenes from Weinstein’s childhood, including amazing footage of an over-the-top celebration at a huge Chinese restaurant in Toronto, and features interviews with Jackie Mason, Ophira Eisenberg, Jennifer 8. Lee, and many others. There’s even a good but brief discussion of how Jewish immigrants changed their names in order to fit in (with a nice visual of this process in the case of Jewish composers), and they managed to avoid even the slightest hint of suggesting the erroneous claim that this happened at Ellis Island.