Christmas came early this year -- Nov. 7, when New Line Cinema released "Elf," the family-friendly comedy that, as of this writing, has earned more than $156 million (see story, p. 19). Another surprise is the success of the far-more-cynical adult offering "Bad Santa," which had a production cost of $18 million and, since its Nov. 26 release, has earned more than $43 million. These are Christmas films that, you could say, are good for the Jews. Both are written and directed by persons of the Jewish faith. "Elf" is directed (Jon Favreau), written by (David Berenbaum) and has stars (James Caan, Edward Asner) who are Jewish -- a rare trifecta, particularly for a Christmas film -- a feat that parallels the success of the 1954 "White Christmas" (Michael Curtiz, Norm Krasna and Danny Kaye, respectively).
Accordingly, you might wonder, as I do, in Carrie Bradshaw fashion: Did the Jews invent Christmas movies, or is making Christmas movies a way for Jews to reinvent themselves?
I grew up in a family where Christmas made my parents nervous. As December slid toward January, we were inevitably on edge, listening hard for the sound of pounding hooves or polished jackboots goose-stepping down the avenue that would announce the coming pogrom. Or maybe that was just me and my imagination. My Holocaust-refugee parents never really talked about their feelings.
In any event, I have a love/hate relation with Christmas -- I like the spirit, the feeling of fellowship and the parties. But all that enforced cheer and caroling and people drinking too much makes me uncomfortable, even when I'm one of them. Let's be clear about one thing: if eggnog were that good, people would drink it year-round. Still, as best I can, as a 21st-century Jew, I try to feel the love at Christmastime.
Growing up, our own Christmas ritual was simple: we got up early, wandered up Fifth Avenue (no crowds) to see the windows at Saks and the other stores (which were closed, so no shopping) and then we made our way to an afternoon movie.
This brings us back to Christmas movies. So many of them, so many made by Jews. On the one hand it would be easy to explain the phenomenon as "just a job" -- just "working for the man." But let's face it, 100 years ago in the nascent film industry, as Neal Gabler's "Empire of Their Own," makes clear "the man" was circumcised.
In the history of the Jewish Christmas movie, I discern three separate periods, each revealing of its era. The first is the age of "the dream factory," where Jewish immigrant movie moguls, eager to leave the Old World behind, became more American than the Americans: names changed, customs changed. For that first generation, creating Christmas stories was an affirmation of their ability to put a gloss on the mainstream culture and sell it to itself.
At the same time, the movies codified a secular version of Christmas as a picture-perfect event, complete with fireplace, stockings, mistletoe and children scurrying about -- part Norman Rockwell, part Currier & Ives. It was assimilation in the purest sense -- not as it is so often portrayed, as an attempt to deny their own past -- but proof of how well they understood American culture. It was aspirational. They were creating what they thought America hoped to see when they looked in the mirror.
The second phase is epitomized by "White Christmas," both the song and the movie. In the 1920s and 1930s another wave of Jewish émigrés came to Hollywood. They, too, changed their names. Many of them also left their past behind. They were mainly directors and actors, among them Billy Wilder, Leslie Howard and Michael Curtiz, who not only directed "Casablanca" but "White Christmas" as well. "White Christmas" was first born as a song written by Irving Berlin (né Izzy Baline in Siberia) for the 1942 film "Holiday Inn." Wishing for an idealized world, "I used to know" that's "merry and bright," the lyrics are, at the same time, wistful, hopeful and all-inclusive. The song was so popular (it is one of the most popular songs of all time), it spawned a movie of its own.
The movie "White Christmas" pairs "Der Bingle" Bing Crosby with the very versatile Kaye in a romantic musical comedy about two World War II veterans who achieve success in show business and then success in love. Its message is not religious, but universal.
Curtiz presents the world as it was and as it should be. Curtiz, like Berlin, was often critiqued for having no signature style. But for Curtiz and Berlin's generation, being able to work successfully in any number of styles was a virtue unto itself. Making a Christmas movie was not about assimilation, it was about versatility. Curtiz had already assimilated back in Hungary when he first changed his name from Mano Kaminer to Mihaly Kertesz (a more Hungarian-sounding name). The jump from Kertesz to Curtiz was itself a testament to having an identity that was easily translated -- that worked, literally and figuratively, in any culture. America was the land of freedom, and it was a country where you could do anything, even make a Christmas movie.
We are now in phase three. Born in America, the second-, third- and fourth-generation of Jews in Hollywood were raised during a time when institutional anti-Semitism had all but disappeared and where assimilation was not so much a goal as a norm. The melting pot has given way to the multicultural quilt -- and religious choice is as varied as the combo plates on a Chinese menu. Although Jews are still making Christmas movies, the reasons for doing so are as diverse as the movies made.
In the past, Jews played the non-Jewish roles. Today, in a sign of how Jewish culture has permeated popular culture, last weekends' No. 1 hit, "Something's Got to Give" has Diane Keaton playing a Jewish woman and Frances McDormand plays her sister. Oy!
For its part, "Elf" harks back to the "secular" Christmas movie. It is about Santa, reindeer, the joy of song -- it is about "the Christmas Spirit." The carpenter of Nazareth gets nary a mention. "Elf" leaves the "Christ" out of Christmas. Favreau does appear in one scene as a doctor and lest you think he has completely forsaken the Maccabees, there is a menorah on the shelf behind him.
More to the point, Favreau has now joined the club of directors whose movies have broken the $100 million barrier. Success is power. Today's Hollywood belongs to no religion -- save a corporate one. The first generation owned the studios. Today they are owned by corporations and controlled in great part by non-Jews. Although there are many Jewish executives, they are merely employees, serving at the whim of the marketplace and their masters. According to lore, the Jews in ancient Egypt built the pyramids -- but does anyone consider the pyramids Jewish? Nonetheless what is remarkable about this era is that filmmakers can now express how uncomfortable Christmas makes them. Last year, Larry David, our poet laureate of discomfort, milked his resentment of Christmas into a hysterical and embarrassing episode of "Curb Your Enthusiasm," called, "Mary, Joseph and Larry."
Still nothing prepared me for "Bad Santa," written and directed by Terry Zwigoff, a movie where the self-loathing hits toxic and keeps going. There are some very funny bits, and there also some moments when you just can't believe what you just heard or saw on screen. Yet, there have been no major protests concerning this desecration of holiday traditions -- most likely because the attack is on the secular Christmas, not the religious.
Finally, the 21st century has been witness to a landmark event: the release of the first animated Chanukah feature-length movie, Adam Sandler's "Eight Crazy Nights." Personally, I find Sandler's cretin-savant aesthetic endearing because, although his mind may be trapped in adolescence, his heart inevitably is in the right place. That and he's wicked funny. So phase three, it turns out, is about options. When we turn on the television or go to the multiplex, we the see the ghosts of Jewish Christmas movies past, present and future. These represent the world as it might be, as we wish it was and as it is -- both good and bad. There have always been and will always be Christmas movies and, in a true democracy, Jews will continue to make them, just as non-Jews will make films from Jewish material. And each film will, for each generation, serve as a sign of how far we have come, and of where we are at. Happy Holidays.
Tom Teicholz is a film producer in Los Angeles. Everywhere else, he's an author and journalist who has written for The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Interview and The Forward. His column appears every other week.