Toronto’s Chinese restaurant, Sea-Hi on Bathurst St., has been transformed into a “vinter vonderland” . The red walls are festooned with Christmas lights and decorations. A fully decorated Christmas tree graces the room and Jewish diners fill the tables. It’s become a film set for the Jews Who Wrote Christmas, a musical documentary about the Jewish songwriters whose Christmas songs have become iconic symbols of the holiday.
Why a Chinese restaurant? Why the Jews? “Because every year the Jews go for Chinese food, usually followed by a movie,” explained the producers, Jason Charters and Liam Romalis of Riddle Films, an award winning company dedicated to the performing arts and culture. Director is Larry Weinstein. All are Jewish and live in Toronto.
The documentary which is being billed as a 1960’s period piece, tells the story of a group of Jewish songwriters, including Irving Berlin – White Christmas and Sammy Cahn – Let it Snow, who wrote the songs that are now an integral part of the Christian holiday.
Rudolph the Red-Nosed reindeer, written by Johnny Marks, is really the story of a boy’s feeling of exclusion and being different, especially at Christmas, growing up with few Jews in a small American town, Weinstein explained. The red nose represents the age old symbol of anti-Semitic stereotyping. “He turned an iconic graphic liability into a source of power.”
“Christmas is so ubiquitous, every Jewish kid feels somewhat excluded,” Romalis said. “But the Jews can enjoy Christmas more than the Gentiles -there’s no pressure, it’s a day off, Chinese food and a movie.”
Winter Wonderland, composed by Felix Bernard, is the grand finale I saw being filmed. It was translated into Yiddish by author/comedian Michael Wex.
The documentary has already been sold to seven other international broadcasters; NDR in Germany, NRK in Norway, ORF in Austria, SVT in Sweden ARTE in France, RSI in Switzerland, YLE in Finland. It will have its world broadcast premiere on CBC and CBC’s documentary channel in December.
“I really believe this is going to be a unique and fresh take on something people are overly familiar with,” Romalis said with a grin. “We’re having fun with it.”
Doris is a multimedia journalist with many years of experience. She has worked in radio, television and print journalism and writes on a variety of topics, especially the crucial issues in Canadian and Jewish life.