Seasonal Song Covers Religious, Cultural Bases

Dec. 14, 2020

By RUTH SCHWEITZER

Just in time for the festive season: The Toronto-based comedy duo of Roula Said and Maryem Tollar has released a hilarious new, all-purpose holiday tune, Arab Ladies Sing Christmas Carols Written by Jews.

In part, the song is the ladies’ response to COVID, with its prohibitions against gathering and the lockdowns, Tollar said. “We just wanted to put out something funny and fun to put a smile on people’s faces,” she said.

What they and many others have noticed is that the children of Jewish immigrants on New York’s Lower East Side in the early 20th century wrote many of the Christmas classics.

Jewish songwriters wrote secular holiday songs for Jews and Christians. Johnny Marks’ Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer could be seen an expression of the desire to be accepted by the mainstream.

Famously, Irving Berlin (born Israel Beilin) wrote White Christmas. Recorded by Bing Crosby in 1942, it became, at least according to the Guinness Book of Records, the best-selling single of all time.

Jewish songwriters tended to celebrate the holiday season rather than the birth of Jesus, with subjects like snow (Let It Snow!, written by lyricist Sammy Cahn and composer Jule Styne), or an evening spent in front of the fireplace (The Christmas Song) by Robert Wells and Mel Tormé – both Jewish.

Both Canadians of Arab descent, Said and Tollar said they could relate to the feeling of being an outsider. Said grew up in a predominately white suburb of Toronto in the 1970s and ‘80s during the “Paki bashing” era. When Tollar’s family immigrated to Canada in 1969, they were only the second Egyptian family to settle in Halifax.

Said and Tollar – the duo is known as FAOC, or the Friggin’ Arab Orchestra Company – have added a new dimension to the tradition of the holiday song by being who they are. Said is from a Palestinian Christian family and Tollar has a Muslim background.

Said related that ever since she learned many Christmas songs were written by Jews, she’d wanted to record some of them. Instead of recording Christmas standards for this year’s holiday season, though, the duo decided to write a new tune.

“This year, with COVID, and Maryem and I living in a shared house, we developed this comedy schtick that came out of our friendship,” Said noted. “It seemed like the right time to do this little brainchild of mine, and it occurred to me that it would be fun to actually write our own song.”

The music of Arab Ladies Sing Christmas Carols Written by Jews could have come out of the Great American Songbook. The ladies’ song references past Christmas tunes and they sample riffs from several of them. But their lyrics are contemporary – COVID and cannabis are mentioned – and the song is inclusive, reflecting Toronto’s diversity.

Tollar learned Christmas songs while singing in her school choir. “I totally love them and know them very well,” she said.

People who grew up without Christmas celebrations may relate to Tollar’s account of how, as a child, she felt left out of the seasonal excitement and tried to recreate the holiday for herself.

“One year, my parents had a Christmas tree in their house and the next year they thought it’s not a good idea because that’s not our religion. I was so sad. I remember praying to Santa Claus, telling him I believed in him and I knew he would make Christmas happen for me,” she said.

“And of course that didn’t happen. And my cousin who lived with us, she felt sorry for me. So she bought me a little plastic Christmas tree and I would wrap my own toys and then unwrap them at Christmas.”

The unofficial tradition of Jews eating Chinese food on Christmas merits a mention in the song, as is Honest Ed’s, the now-demolished bargain store at Bathurst and Bloor. The song concludes with Said and Tollar bantering about the store, where Said and her husband, David Buchbinder, purchased their wedding rings.

Recording the effort was a family affair: It was arranged by Buchbinder, who plays trumpet, and Maryem’s husband, Ernie Tollar, plays additional piano. The couples’ children contributed, too, with Joska Tollar on bass and Laila Buchbinder on guitar.

Said, a singer, dancer, actor and poet, co-leads the funked up Arabic-Roma band, Nomadica, whose first recording, Dance of the Infidels, was nominated for a Juno Award. She creates music for dance performances and theatre, and runs the Om Laila Studio, where she teaches Arabic dance.

Tollar is a renowned vocalist whose voice has been heard on the theme of CBC’s television series Little Mosque on the Prairie and A.R. Rahman’s Bollywood hit, Mayya Mayya. She performs with several Toronto musical groups, including Al Qahwa and Turkwaz. Tollar won the inaugural 2019 Johanna Metcalf Prize for Performing Arts.

Arab Ladies Sing Christmas Carols Written by Jews  will premiere on Facebook Dec. 20 at 7 p.m.

https://www.facebook.com/events/2853347698280607?active_tab=about

It is also on YouTube at:

The song may be purchased on Bandcamp at:

https://faoc.bandcamp.com/releases?fbclid=IwAR3scixqK0ukHC7EAjIuv2h_R1zcsJtFaK_XagS2Mr1v-OpnFVkCwWrihBA

Jewish Community Critical of Quebec’s Rejection of Hanukkah Gatherings

Nov. 24, 2020

By JANICE ARNOLD

MONTREAL – Community leaders say it is unfair that the Quebec government is denying Jews the right to celebrate Hanukkah in the same manner as has been granted to those who observe Christmas under new pandemic rules.

Many in the community find it galling that a government that places such a high value on secularism appears to be privileging Christian tradition in its relaxation of the ban on private gatherings.

When asked by the media about the decision, Premier Francois Legault replied that the lifting of the prohibition on gatherings during four days around Christmas will not be similarly applied to the holidays of other faiths. The eight-day festival of Hankukah begins December 10th.

Rabbi Reuben Poupko, co-chair of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs-Quebec, said Jews should be allowed to get together for the first four days of Hanukkah, observing the same rules that have been set for Christmas.

Rabbi Poupko montreal
Rabbi Poupko

“It is bewildering that the government would prioritize the holiday of one faith community over the others,” Rabbi Poupko said. “I think equality and common sense would demand that every religious community in Quebec be treated fairly and a similar indulgence be extended to each of them.”

Rabbi Poupko, spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Israel Beth Aaron, noted the government did not show any flexibility during the High Holidays. The Jewish community did not ask for any, and it abided by the rules, he said.

Legault, along with Health Minister Christian Dubé and the province’s public health director, Dr. Horacio Arruda, announced on Nov. 19 that Quebecers will be allowed to gather at home in groups of up to 10 people from Dec. 24-27.

But the premier asked that they enter a “moral contract” under which they minimize their physical contact with anyone outside their household for one week before and one week after that period. Although 14 days is the standard quarantine length, public health officials said symptoms of COVID typically appear five to seven days after infection.

Schools are to close two days before they were scheduled to do so, and the government is asking employers to allow personnel to work at home where possible to enable them to comply with the two weeklong isolation periods.

Elementary schools will reopen on Jan. 4 as planned, but high school students will not return to class until Jan. 11 because coronavirus transmission in this age group is higher, authorities say.

This suspension of the ban on private gatherings is contingent on no spike in cases occurring beforehand. The province is seeing an average of close to 1,200 new COVID cases daily, higher than in the first wave.

B’nai Brith Canada said the government should have consulted the Jewish community and other minority religious groups when establishing pandemic rules that impact their practices.

“The Quebec government must take the needs of minority communities, including the Jewish community, into consideration and work pro-actively with these communities prior to the lifting or imposition of unilateral COVID restrictions. There must be no favouritism. The premier must be the premier of all Quebecers,” stated Toronto-based B’nai Brith CEO Michael Mostyn.

Since the beginning of October when the Montreal region entered a partial lockdown, later expanded to much of the province, the rule has been that no one can enter a household who does not live there, with a few exceptions like elder care or tradespeople.

Gatherings outside, such as in a backyard, are also prohibited. That ban has been extended to Jan. 11, at least.

Rulebreakers may face a fine of $1,500 per person.

Previously, the limit had been six people after Montreal went orange under the province’s colour-coded alert system on Sept. 20. 

Houses of worship are permitted to have 25 people inside at a time.

Legault said a “concentration” of time was necessary to make an easing feasible, and the days chosen represent what most Quebecers want. Public health officials added that the days from Dec. 24 to 27 also are in the middle of the school break and most workplace shutdowns.

“We are in a critical situation,” Legault said at the Nov. 19 press conference. “We can permit gatherings during four days only and we say that the majority of Quebecers would be happy that those four days be at Christmas.”