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by Jordan Hiller


 Surviving Christmas(2004)
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At this point it couldn’t possibly matter what anyone in my position would write about the goofy Ben Affleck vehicle Surviving Christmas. It has been maligned by critics as the perfect compliment to Gigli (not a positive thing), and begrudged by audiences to the same fate proving Bennifer may not have been the problem. The movie appears to be the developmentally disabled kid brother to Billy Bob’s Bad Santa which delighted audiences, turning the holiday movie on its heads by being unabashedly naughty. Surviving Christmas can’t decide whether it wants to be naughty or nice and therefore the end result is a sometime funny story, but with a severe multiple personality disorder that Affleck’s gamesmanship and effortless charisma cannot overcome. Affleck’s character, a rich, young, fast-talking mogul without a moral foundation is an absurd creation and the script provides no plausible insight into his motivation for – and here’s the plot folks –renting a blue-collar Chicago suburban family to spend the holidays with. I would go into it further and tell you that Catherine O’Hara and James Gandolfini are solid as the rented mom and dad and that a belly laugh or two are wrung from the highly improvised upon screenplay, but that still won’t answer a very important question and one more worthy of this web page: Why are we discussing a Christmas movie on a Jewish website?

On December 24, 1966, headstones in Jewish cemeteries near Buenos Aries were desecrated. Last year on December 25th in Petah Tikvah, a suicide bomber killed four. During the middle ages, a pogrom could be expected at yuletide.

My not so subtle point being that Surviving Christmas was not always just the title of a harmless diversion at your local multiplex. For many years throughout Jewish history, it was a sincere hope, a prayer uttered from hidden rooms under floor boards. While others dreamed of a white Christmas, Jews had nightmares of a red one. So what of it? We don’t generally fear pogroms today and the day usually passes without incident. Should we take the “that was then this is now” attitude and simply enjoy the magic of It’s a Wonderful Life, the warmth and humor of Home Alone, and the good cheer of “The Santa Clause.” Are all these good natured flicks just another slice of Americana that Jewish Americans can enjoy guilt free like baseball, The Dukes of Hazard, and Otis Redding? Or is there something inherently wrong with a Yid spending the time and money participating in a Hollywood spectacle that celebrates the birth of Jesus and the holly, jolly season that goes along with it.

Being a liberal minded individual and a fan of the human intellect, I must begin by slaying a poor but possibly raised argument that there are dangers and risks involved in these movies. Regardless of the given films’ quality and however sappy and saccharine the joy to the world message promoted is, no Jew is going caroling after seeing A Christmas Carol (Muppet and Mr. Magoo versions included). No Jew is going on a Christmas Vacation after renting Nation Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, or buying stockings to stuff after watching Bobcat Goldthwaite shine in Scrooged. We can safely assume that the Jew extracts from the movie the universal message – be a decent person and appreciate what you have – and discards the religeo-symbolic by-products.

The bottom line is since some of these movies are excellent, beautiful, and touching, they are not worth missing just because we don’t happen to celebrate the holiday. We’re not dropping our heritage just because Mara Wilson has big eyes and Arnie slugged a reindeer. After all, is the movie really about anything fundamentally Christian? Hasn’t Christmas become more of a cultural phenomenon than religious holy day?
But this does not take care of our subtext question, nor does it fix a separate, always hovering issue: By going to a Surviving Christmas, are we simply acting too “goyish”? That seems to be the catch-all deterrent when our sages want to make a certain act inexplicably wrong. We shall see about this soon. First, the subtext question: Should a Jew find himself, even in the most unassuming way, somehow attuned to or involved in the Christmas Spirit? Would that association somehow betray the martyrs lost in the days when, and in the places where our Christian brothers and sisters were a bit more, let us say, aggressive? Are we making light of something deadly serious?

I have a vivid memory from my first year in high school. A wise-guy in my class who evidently was aware of the calendar came in to our Chumash class one December day and announced “Good Yontif”! Some people laughed. It took me a while because I didn’t know it was Christmas day but once that became clear I found the humor. Our rabbi leaning on his shtender in the front of the room, red beard gnarled, wild eyes behind thick glasses, was fuming. “Do you know how many Jews were killed on this day”, he roared, “Today is a day where it was the only excuse needed to murder Jews.” The tirade sobered me, yes, and I appreciated his point that it should not be a celebratory day for us, but I didn’t feel like I, because of that unfortunate history, needed to avoid and abhor all things Christmas. Why? Because there is a tremendous range between the Jew who places a tree in his home alongside the menorah and one who disdains the day with a deep animosity.

Today, I find myself in the middle. It is impossible to be a modern person and escape the pervasive reality of that particular season. But here is the kicker as alluded to earlier, and this is really why we can feel okay humming along with “Let it Snow” as John McClain yippee kayas his way to victory. Forget that, as Jews, we are taught that Christianity is a bogus religion compiled from other existing religions (mainly Judaism) and marketed to the rebel Jews and heathens of the day. Christmas, or at least the Christmas on film, has lost its sanctity due to the commercialization of whatever its essence once was. The day, like it’s token movies, merely represents an ideal that mankind as a whole wishes to achieve – peace on earth and goodwill towards men. In other words, we need to separate the old Christmas from the new. There is the old savage Christmas, which was born from the original strain where fear and intolerance was the hallmark of Christianity. Where the church was horribly corrupt and merciless. That day should in a sense be remembered and considered with a serious heart. At the same time there is a second, completely fake, yet infinitely more palatable and attractive Christmas. The one we are accustomed to. This is the one where Jewish producers make movies written by Jews and starring Jews that make us all feel warm and fuzzy inside while some guy in a fat suit bellows ho ho ho. Who can’t dig that?

This also allays any worries about corrupting the Jewish soul with what would incorrectly be deemed avodah zarah, or more often, just “goyishness.” The metaphysical complications have been consciously and categorically removed by Columbia Pictures. Warner Brothers has taken the Christ out of Christmas.

So don’t feel badly this season if you find yourself aboard the Polar Express or spending some time with the Krunks. There is no shame, only a sharing of our humanity. You do have a business knowing who you are and where you’re from, but that goes without saying and applies to every aspect of a Jew’s life. Also, if you find yourself knowing more words to that counting song beyond “and a partridge in a pear tree”, consult your local rabbi.

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Reviews by Jordan Hiller

Surviving Christmas

The Grudge

Vanity Fair

Door in the Floor

Before Sunset

Spider-Man 2

White Chicks

The Day After Tomorrow

Super Size Me


Never Die Alone

Eternal Sunshine 

The Passion  


Hiding and Seeking:  Faith and Tolerance after the 


The Ten Best Films of 1993 

The Statement

Big Fish

Hebrew Hammer

Forget Baghdad

The Missing

Master and Commander

Kill Bill

Trembling Before G-d


Veronica Guerin

Pieces of April


Bubba Ho-tep

Casa De Los Babys


American Splendor


The Holy Land

Return from India

The Shape of Things

City of Ghosts

Anger Management


The Guys

Assassination Tango

Gaudi Afternoon


Nowhere in Africa

Foreign Sister


L’chayim, Comrade Stalin
part 11

part 2


Divine Intervention

The Pianist

Best films of 2002 1992

8 mile

Punch Drunk Love


Gaza Strip

The Kid Stays in the Picture


Minority Report



Spring Movie Preview 2002

Panic Room

The Oscar Preview 2002

Royal Tenenbaums

Harry Potter

The Man who Wasn't There

From Hell

Training Day

Hearts in Atlantis

Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back

the others

Planet of the apes

Jurassic Park III


Shrek & Atlantis

The Mummy Returns

Enemy At the Gates


Exit Wounds

15 Minutes

You Can Count on Me

The Mexican

Down to Earth

Meet the Parents

Golda's Balcony HERE

Tribeca FIlm Festival 2004

Photo Gallery HERE

Film Reviews:

Coffee and Cigarettes

Super Size Me


The United States of Leland


Tribeca FIlm Festival 2003

Daily Coverage: HERE

Photo Gallery HERE

Film Reviews:

A Breach in the Wall

Every Child is Born a Poet: The Life and Work of Piri Thomas

Paper Chasers

Resisting Paradise

MC5: A True Testimonial

Sweet Sixteen

The Shape of Things

Yossi and Jagger

Persona Non Grata

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