December 25, 2003
A Gift From Santa’s Jewish Helpers
In the sleeper hit "Elf," Buddy (Will Ferrell) is a lovable childlike oaf, raised by elves, who returns to New York to find his real father and spread Christmas cheer. It's a hip, witty, charming fairy tale that, like much of Christmas cinema, was created by Jews.
"Apparently I'm following in a grand tradition," said screenwriter David Berenbaum, 33, who shares religious roots with director Jon Favreau, actors James Caan (Buddy's dad) and Edward Asner (Santa Claus).
In decades past, such movies reflected filmmakers' longing to belong to a popular culture that excluded Jews, Favreau said. But for the "Elf" filmmakers, who grew up in more tolerant times, the outsiders' perspective isn't part of the mix. Instead, the writer and director drew on childhood memories of Christmastime, which included TV viewings of classics such as "It's a Wonderful Life." They feel "Elf" reflects their affection for a beloved American holiday, not a Christian one.
Berenbaum ("The Haunted Mansion"), was raised in a Reform Philadelphia home where a menorah shared space with a Christmas tree. While Chanukah was a religious holiday, Christmas was strictly secular: "It was never about Jesus, it was about Santa Claus," the wry, friendly writer said with Buddy-like enthusiasm. "It was about the buildup of excitement and anticipation, which peaked when I got to run downstairs in my pajamas on Christmas morning, and there were presents and I was shocked and awed and there was wrapping paper all over the place."
For Berenbaum, a cinephile who made Super 8 films as a kid, the season was also about watching movies such as "Miracle on 34th Street" and "A Christmas Story."
He remembered the films -- and the holiday spirit -- when he was 25, living in Los Angeles and cheerful but broke in December 1995. The New York University film school graduate had relocated from Manhattan and was renting a cheap apartment and loading trucks, among other odd jobs, while struggling to sell screenplays. He felt a bit like a fish out of water, especially while experiencing the holiday season in a city of perennial sunshine and palm trees.
Watching Christmas movies, many of which are set in New York, reminded him of home; he especially related to the "fish out of water" story depicted in the animated TV special "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer."
"It's about a misfit trying to find his place in the world," said Berenbaum, who was also trying to find his place.
Nor is it coincidental that the fictional Buddy is searching for his father: "My dad passed away when I was 9, so it's a theme I often work around," he said.
The parent-child theme, as well as the holiday connection, drew Favreau when he read Berenbaum's hilarious but poignant script in 2001. The actor-director -- previously known for edgy, independent films such as "Swingers" and "Made" -- grew up in an interfaith family in New York. His Italian Catholic father attended parochial schools; his Jewish mother, Madeleine, was so inspired by a B'nai B'rith camp that she convinced her parents to keep kosher in their Bronx home.
While neither family was initially thrilled by the interfaith marriage, all of Favreau's grandparents regarded Christmas as an important holiday. His Jewish grandfather had observed it since procuring gifts for his younger siblings so they didn't feel left out of Yuletide fun while growing up with a single mother during the Depression.
"When I was growing up, we'd have the traditional Christmas Eve dinner with my Catholic grandmother, and then Christmas morning would be lox and bagels with my Jewish side," Favreau said.
The holiday represented a joyous family time -- until Favreau's father revealed some shocking news a few days before Christmas 1979. Madeleine Favreau had been admitted to the hospital for what 12-year-old Jon thought was an ulcer; she had kept her leukemia a secret from most people.
"My father pulled me aside and said, 'Put on something nice, we're going to the hospital,'" the director recalled. "I said, 'What's the big deal?' And he said, 'Your mother is going to die today or tomorrow.' And I went in, and she had gone."
Afterward, both sides of the family banded together to make sure Favreau -- who had dropped out of Hebrew school to pursue acting -- became a bar mitzvah.
"But Christmas went from a very happy time of the year to a very traumatic time," he said. "Over the years, I felt like I had not only lost my mother, I had lost Christmas."
Time helped, as did the Jewish tradition of naming one's child after a deceased loved one. (Favreau, who is married to a Jewish doctor, has a 2-year-old, Max, and a 7-month-old, Madeleine.)
But his mother's death "had affected my view of Christmas," he said. "I'd been looking for a Christmas movie, to allow me to deal with my with my issues." When Elf came along, he added, "I did little things to hook me."
When Buddy flips through his late mother's yearbook, the camera lingers on Madeleine's picture. Favreau -- who's also written a Chasidic gunfighter movie -- moreover reworked the story to make it "a little more tender," and an homage to New York after Sept. 11. Yet he drew on all the same cinematic inspirations: Buddy's money-obsessed father is a kind of modern-day Scrooge; a lavishly decorated department store references "Miracle on 34th Street" and the quaint Elf village draws on "Rudolph."
To play the irascible but warm-hearted Santa, Favreau cast gruff TV icon Asner ("Lou Grant"), who did not grow up celebrating Christmas.
"That was what the 'other people' did," the 74-year-old-actor told The Journal. For Asner, who was one of few Jews in his Kansas City school, the holiday reinforced his feeling of being "the outsider."
"Everywhere there were Christmas lights and Christmas trees, and I'd go to school and everyone was singing Christmas carols, which were gorgeous to hear," he said. "I would sing, too, except I'd keep my mouth shut whenever we got to 'Jesus Christ.'"
But Asner curtly dismisses those who ask why a Jewish actor is portraying Santa.
"Forget the identification with Christmas," he said of "Elf." "The film inculcates a spirit of togetherness, which is priceless, especially during these terrible times."
Favreau and Berenbaum, too, have fielded the "Why is a nice Jewish boy making a Christmas movie" question. "Relatives ask, 'So when's the Chanukah film coming out,'" said Berenbaum, who did write and direct an Internet Jewish parody of the Budweiser "whassup" ads, "Shalom." "And I'll say, 'Well, you know, Chanukah doesn't have the same cinematic tradition as Christmas.'"
Although "Elf" revolves around the Yuletide season, Favreau -- who keeps a Jewish home -- feels it has Jewish values. "The holiday captures what is best in Judaism," he said. "It's about selflessness, charity and the community coming together."
"Elf" is now in theaters. Â