A Christmas Film With Jewish Values
In "Elf" Jewish filmmakers reinvent Christmas as an American holiday.
was so inspired by a
B'nai B'rith camp
that she convinced
her parents to keep
kosher in their
• n the sleeper hit Elf
Buddy (Will Ferrell) is a
lovable, childlike oaf,
raised by elves, who
thrilled by the
returns to New York to find his
real father and spread Christmas
all of Favreau's
It's a hip, witty, charming fairy
tale that, like much of Christmas
cinema, was created by Jews.
holiday. His Jewish
"I'm following in a grand tradi- Will Ferrell, left, and Jewish director Jon Favreau have some fun on the set of "Elf" "When I was growing
up, we'd have the traditional Christmas Eve dinner with my Catholic grandmother, and then Christmas
tion," said screenwriter David
morning would be lox and bagels with my Jewish side," Favreau said.
observed it since
Berenbaum, 33, who shares reli-
procuring gifts for
gious roots with director Jon
his younger siblings
Favreau and actors James Caan
He remembered the films — and the holiday spir-
(Buddy's dad) and Edward Asner (Santa Claus).
it — when he was 25, living in Los Angeles and
In decades past, such movies reflected filmmak-
feeling cheerful but broke in December 1995.
ers' longing to belong to a popular culture that
The New York University film school graduate
"When I was growing up, we'd have the tradition-
excluded Jews, Favreau said. But for the Elf film-
had relocated from Manhattan and was renting a
makers, who grew up in more tolerant times, the
cheap apartment and loading trucks, among other al Christmas Eve dinner with my Catholic grand-
mother, and then Christmas morning would be lox
outsiders' perspective isn't part of the mix.
odd jobs, while struggling to sell screenplays. He
and bagels with my Jewish side," Favreau said.
Instead, the writer and director drew -on child-
felt a bit like a fish out of water, especially while
The holiday represented a joyous family time —
hood memories of Christmastime, which included
experiencing the holiday season in a city of peren-
Favreau's father revealed some shocking news
viewing classics such as Its a Wonderful Life. They
nial „sunshine and palm trees.
days before Christmas 1979. Madeleine
feel Elfs setting reflects their affection for a beloved
\Vatching Christmas movies, many of which are
Favreau had been admitted to the hospital for
American holiday, not a Christian one.
set in New York, reminded hini of home; he espe-
what 12-year-old Jon thought was an ulcer; she
Berenbaum ( The Haunted Mansion) was raised
cially rela t ed to the "fish out of water" story
in a Reform Philadelphia home where a menorah
depicted in Rudolph. "It's about a misfit trying tcy-•' had kept her leukemia a secret from most people.
"My father pulled me aside and said, 'Put on
shared space with a Christmas tree.
find his place in the world," said Berenbaum, who
nice, we're going to the hospital,"' the
While Chanukah was a religious holiday,
also was tryin'g to find his place.
"I said, 'What's the big deal?'
Christmas was strictly secular: "It was never about
Nor is it coincidental that the fictional Buddy is
mother is going to die today
Jesus, it was about Santa Claus," the wry, friendly
searching for his\father: "My dad passed away
or tomorrow.' And I went in, and she had gone."
writer said with Buddy-like enthusiasm.
when I was 9, so is a theme I often work
Afterward, both sides of the family banded
It was about the buildup of excitement and antic- around," he said.
to make sure Favreau — who had
ipation, which peaked when I got to run downstairs
The parent-child theme, as well as the holiday
out of Hebrew school to pursue acting —
in my pajamas on Christmas morning, and there
connection, drew Favreau when he read
mitzvah. "But Christmas went from a
were presents and I was shocked and awed and there
Berenbaum's hilarious but poignant script in 2001.
of the year to a very traumatic
was wrapping paper all over the place."
The actor-director — previously known for
the years, I felt like I had
For Berenbaum, a cinephile who made Super 8
edgy, independent films such as
I had lost Christmas."
films as a kid, the season was also about watching
Made — grew up in an interfaith family in New
movies such as Miracle on 34th Street and A
York. His Italian-Catholic father attended
parochial schools; his Jewish mother, Madeleine,
CHRISTMAS FILM on page 70
Jewish Journal of Greater Los