Dreaming of a Jewish Christmas (2017)

Dreaming of a Jewish Christmas is a Canadian documentary/musical ostensibly chronicling the influence several Jewish songwriters had on the holidays. I say "ostensibly" because - somewhat appropriately - the documentary itself seems to go through an identity crisis. It's difficult to summarize what the final product is, since it feels like the purpose and core idea must have changed a few times during production.

I'll back up. This opens with a quick introduction from the filmmaker, Larry Weinstein, who grew up fascinated by Christmas, a holiday he never felt like he could participate in. But from the start he lets us know this isn't quite accurate: his family had Christmas traditions built around avoiding the obvious trappings. He briefly explores the roots of the traditional Chinese meal enjoyed by many Jewish families at the holidays.

A little too briefly, frankly. This is an interesting topic in itself, but Weinstein glosses over the history. This is going to be a recurring theme of this review, incidentally: the documentary touches on several fascinating figures and ideas, only to abandon them.

He moves on almost immediately to the main part of the documentary, discussing the Jewish songwriters who crafted the majority of classic Christmas songs. Again, he touches on biographies but doesn't go in-depth. To be frank, the content feels like it's limited to facts you could probably find skimming Wikipedia articles.

A lot of the time saved by not going into more depth is instead used for a series of multicultural reimaginings of classic Christmas songs, which...

Okay. Most of these are honestly pretty freaking great - I'm going to have to look into whether they're available online. They're dramatically transformed takes on holiday classics, which is far rarer than it should be. The music is absolutely one of the high points to this documentary.

But let's talk the thesis, because it had one. The thesis is that Jewish songwriters - mostly Irving Berlin - effectively invented the idea of secular Christmas.

The end of the documentary contradicts this and introduces the idea that there's always been a secular Christmas, and that the holiday fundamentally predates Christianity. This is almost an afterword, though, which structurally seems to undermine a lot of what came before. Only that's a good thing, because that stated thesis just doesn't hold water. It's difficult to overstate how influential Irving Berlin was, but they managed it.

In short, the documentary concludes at the point I think most educated holiday enthusiasts start at: the realization this really isn't a religious holiday. Furthermore, it revolves around revelations I'd consider elementary as though they're fairly profound. Start to finish, the documentary sort of feels like that gag in Clerks 2 when Jay asks someone if they knew Jesus was Jewish. Yes, even before the documentary reminds you of just that fact.

Yes, we all knew that, just like we know he wasn't born on or around December 25th, the Puritans outlawed Christmas, most classic Christmas tunes were written by Jewish songwriters, the Golden Age of superheroes was almost entirely created by Jewish writers, and--

Wait. Why was there an aside about superheroes in the middle of this thing?

Regardless, there aren't a lot of new ideas here, and I think the revelations the filmmaker thinks are new are ideas many of us were exposed to a long time ago: Christmas as a secular if not pagan holiday, holiday traditions emerging from diverse cultures and religions, and the notion that any version of Christmas is a legitimate form of celebration. These are all valid claims (I'll certainly defend them all), but they're kind of old hat.

At least they are if you're used to celebrating the holiday.

At the beginning of this review, I said I thought this had a bit of an identity crisis. That's because, while this doesn't have a lot of educational value to those of us familiar with Christmas, it works far better as a journey a Jewish man goes through to come to terms with a celebration that fascinates him despite being raised to reject it.

It's the story of coming to peace with Christmas, not as a religious holiday, but as a kitschy, fun festival.

I'm not sure whether it was intentional, but this documentary sort of reads like a primer and an apology for Christmas, created by a Jewish filmmaker for a Jewish audience. If you're coming to this material without a background in the holiday, this might be a great introduction, tying Jewish experiences and cultural heritage to Christmas's history.

Even if you're not, I'm tempted to recommend this for the music alone. It's a fun little documentary, provided you can overlook the fact that the ideas aren't at all deep, and there aren't a lot of surprises.