Magazine article Moment

Dreaming of a White Hanukkah

Magazine article Moment

Dreaming of a White Hanukkah

Article excerpt

Have you ever noticed that American Christmas movies are bursting with Jewish talent? Take 1954's White Christmas, one of the most beloved films because of its eponymous song. The song's writer was, of course, Irving Berlin, the Siberian-born son of a cantor, who wrote some 451 popular hits. He was in California and homesick for his family in New York when he wrote the "melancholy East European" tune in 1940, says Philip Furia, author of Irving Berlin: A Life in Song. Although he didn't celebrate Christmas as a child, he fondly recalled an Irish friend's scrawny Christmas tree that "towered up to heaven" on the Lower East Side.

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The Jewish credit roll doesn't end with Berlin. It's no secret that the director, Michael Curtiz, who also directed Casablanca; the three screenwriters, Norman Krasna, Norman Panama and Melvin Frank; and co-star Danny Kaye were Jews. Not surprisingly, they gave the story a Jewish twist, interprets David Desser, co-author of the book American Jewish Filmmakers. The movie can be seen as a tale of how a Jewish GI (Danny Kaye), becomes integrated into mainstream American life after the war through his friendship with his former captain, played by Bing Crosby, who "by then," says Desser, "was the man perhaps most associated with a kind of genial Christmas spirit."

The great Jewish film moguls of that era were well-known for avoiding subjects that might provoke anti-Semitism; they longed to be "real Yankees," according to Desser, and preferred to project an idealized vision of an assimilated American people onto the screen. These "Jewish immigrants seemed to have a knack for creating this universalist dream factory," remarks film producer Tom Teicholz. "They were in the entertainment business, not the religion business."

At the same time, their romantic, sentimental movies just so happened to remove Christ from Christmas. Philip Roth summarized the situation in his novel Operation Shylock: A Confession. His narrator observes, "God gave Moses the 10 Commandments, and He gave to Irving Berlin 'Easter Parade' and 'White Christmas. …

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