The documentary Dreaming of a Jewish Christmas was recently in the running for an International Emmy Award


The Jews who made Christmas magic

Liam Romalis, BA’92, is the co-producer of Dreaming of a Jewish Christmas, an award-winning documentary that explores how many of the most iconic and beloved Christmas songs were created by Jewish songwriters.

Story by Elaine Smith

November 2018

Around this time of year, it’s practically impossible to escape Christmas songs. You’ll hear them on the radio, in the elevator, in the grocery store, at your neighbourhood café. The very best of them feel like familiar old friends.

Many of the most loved Christmas songs, the classic tunes that have helped to characterize Christmas for generations, originated from a surprising source – Jewish songwriters.

White Christmas, Winter Wonderland, Let it Snow, The Christmas Song, Do You Hear What I Hear, Silver Bells, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer – all crafted by gifted Jewish songwriters including Irving Berlin, Mel Tormé and Jay Livingston.

It’s a story that is entertainingly told in the award-winning documentary Dreaming of a Jewish Christmas, produced by Liam Romalis, BA’92, and his partner Jason Charters.

The film was a recent finalist for an International Emmy Award – one of only 44 productions worldwide selected to compete for the 11 prestigious prizes.

That recognition has reaped rewards. The BBC in the United Kingdom, the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) in the United States and NHK in Japan have since purchased the screening rights, and the CBC will be rebroadcasting the film on December 2. The film also won a coveted Czech Crystal at the Golden Prague International Television Festival recently, honoured as the Best Documentary Program.

The film highlights some of the Jewish songwriters from immigrant families who wrote many of the most popular Christmas songs. For many of these writers, it was an opportunity to showcase their belief in the American dream. The music also reflects their own backgrounds and experiences. These songs tend to be secular and inclusive – opening up Christmas for everyone. One of the most beloved songs, Rudolph, offers a sympathetic portrayal of an initially mocked outsider who is eventually admired for his unique abilities.

Romalis and Charters came up with the idea of the movie and hired Canadian Screen Award winner Larry Weinstein to direct it. “I’m very proud of this film,” Romalis says. “It’s an outsider’s story of immigration and given how polarizing that topic is, especially south of the border, it has a very timely, inclusive and universal message.”

Dreaming of a Jewish Christmas also playfully explores the complicated relationship many Jews have with one of the central Christian holidays of the year. There’s some envy (and a grudging affection) for all of the traditions, and knowledge that they can’t participate in the religious aspect of the festivities. Instead, Jews have created alternative ways to celebrate the family aspect of the season: A movie and a meal at a Chinese restaurant, for example. The latter provides the film with an opportunity for a lively collection of singing, dancing waiters.

Romalis, the child of two McGill alumni, credits his days at McGill for starting him on the path to filmmaking. He majored in English with an emphasis on film and communications. He joined forces with Sam Ball, BA’91, a friend from his undergraduate days who now runs a San Francisco production company, to make his first independent film, Pleasures of Urban Decay. It told the story of cult favourite cartoonist Ben Katchor and had its first major screening at the Sundance Film Festival in 2000.

“It was a big deal for us,” Romalis says. “That friendship, formed at McGill, launched my career.”

Another key moment was the chance to take on a research job with Ron Mann, one of the biggest names in Canadian documentary film.

“It was a great education,” says Romalis. “I had a ringside seat for everything. I learned the ropes: developing ideas, what financing a project really looked like, along with exposure to shooting and editing.”

In 2002, Romalis and Charters launched Riddle Films, which specializes in producing arts-focused films and videos.

“Arts are our passion, so those are the projects we gravitate toward, but we didn’t create Riddle Films with that mandate,” Romalis says. “We are passionate about the arts, however, so we have an unspoken pledge to support artists and arts institutions.” They have a few ongoing clients, as well as a series of projects both in production and development.

“I love the creativity,” Romalis says. “It still surprises me that people give us money to produce the films we make. It’s like giving a kid the keys to a candy store.”

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