In the sleeper hit “Elf,” Buddy (Will Ferrell) is a lovablechildlike oaf, raised by elves, who returns to New York to find his real fatherand spread Christmas cheer. It’s a hip, witty, charming fairy tale that, likemuch of Christmas cinema, was created by Jews.
“Apparently I’m following in a grand tradition,” saidscreenwriter David Berenbaum, 33, who shares religious roots with director JonFavreau, actors James Caan (Buddy’s dad) and Edward Asner (Santa Claus).
In decades past, such movies reflected filmmakers’ longingto 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 onchildhood memories of Christmastime, which included TV viewings of classicssuch as “It’s a Wonderful Life.” They feel “Elf” reflects their affection for abeloved American holiday, not a Christian one.
Berenbaum (“The Haunted Mansion”), was raised in a ReformPhiladelphia home where a menorah shared space with a Christmas tree. WhileChanukah was a religious holiday, Christmas was strictly secular: “It was neverabout Jesus, it was about Santa Claus,” the wry, friendly writer said withBuddy-like enthusiasm. “It was about the buildup of excitement andanticipation, which peaked when I got to run downstairs in my pajamas onChristmas morning, and there were presents and I was shocked and awed and therewas 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 hewas 25, living in Los Angeles and cheerful but broke in December 1995. The New York University film school graduate had relocated from Manhattan and wasrenting a cheap apartment and loading trucks, among other odd jobs, whilestruggling to sell screenplays. He felt a bit like a fish out of water,especially while experiencing the holiday season in a city of perennialsunshine 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” storydepicted 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 searchingfor his father: “My dad passed away when I was 9, so it’s a theme I often workaround,” 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. HisItalian 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 keepkosher in their Bronx home.
While neither family was initially thrilled by theinterfaith marriage, all of Favreau’s grandparents regarded Christmas as animportant holiday. His Jewish grandfather had observed it since procuring giftsfor his younger siblings so they didn’t feel left out of Yuletide fun whilegrowing up with a single mother during the Depression.
“When I was growing up, we’d have the traditional ChristmasEve dinner with my Catholic grandmother, and then Christmas morning would belox and bagels with my Jewish side,” Favreau said.
The holiday represented a joyous family time — untilFavreau’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 Jonthought 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 bigdeal?’ And he said, ‘Your mother is going to die today or tomorrow.’ And I wentin, and she had gone.”
Afterward, both sides of the family banded together to makesure Favreau — who had dropped out of Hebrew school to pursue acting — became abar mitzvah.
“But Christmas went from a very happy time of the year to avery traumatic time,” he said. “Over the years, I felt like I had not only lostmy mother, I had lost Christmas.”
Time helped, as did the Jewish tradition of naming one’schild 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 mywith my issues.” When Elf came along, he added, “I did little things to hookme.”
When Buddy flips through his late mother’s yearbook, thecamera lingers on Madeleine’s picture. Favreau — who’s also written a Chasidicgunfighter movie — moreover reworked the story to make it “a little moretender,” and an homage to New York after Sept. 11. Yet he drew on all the samecinematic inspirations: Buddy’s money-obsessed father is a kind of modern-dayScrooge; a lavishly decorated department store references “Miracle on 34thStreet” and the quaint Elf village draws on “Rudolph.”
To play the irascible but warm-hearted Santa, Favreau castgruff TV icon Asner (“Lou Grant”), who did not grow up celebrating Christmas.
“That was what the ‘other people’ did,” the74-year-old-actor told The Journal. For Asner, who was one of few Jews in hisKansas 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 weregorgeous to hear,” he said. “I would sing, too, except I’d keep my mouth shutwhenever we got to ‘Jesus Christ.'”
But Asner curtly dismisses those who ask why a Jewish actoris 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 niceJewish boy making a Christmas movie” question. “Relatives ask, ‘So when’s theChanukah film coming out,'” said Berenbaum, who did write and direct anInternet Jewish parody of the Budweiser “whassup” ads, “Shalom.” “And I’ll say,’Well, you know, Chanukah doesn’t have the same cinematic tradition asChristmas.'”
Although “Elf” revolves around the Yuletide season, Favreau — who keeps a Jewish home — feels it has Jewish values. “The holiday captureswhat is best in Judaism,” he said. “It’s about selflessness, charity and thecommunity coming together.”
“Elf” is now in theaters. Â