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

Trump’s Muddled Foreign Policy Examined at FSWC Event

Nov. 13, 2020

By STEVE ARNOLD

Donald Trump did not make the world safer for Jews, or anyone else, say two prominent officials who worked directly with the soon-to-be former American president.

John Bolton
John Bolton

John Bolton, former national security advisor to the president, and David Petraeus, former director of the CIA and retired four-star general, told a Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Centre event on Nov. 9 that Trump’s often incoherent foreign policy did nothing to counter the threats of terrorism, a nuclear Iran, or Chinese aggression.

The speakers were the feature attractions at FSWC’s State of the Union fundraiser. They told their virtual audience that while the Trump era did produce some promising results, such as the Abraham Accords peace agreements between Israel, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, the safety of the world remains threatened.

David Petraeus
David Petraeus

The Middle East agreements, they said, were more driven by domestic politics in the Arab world than by American leadership.

“Both of these agreements reflect changes that are tectonic in their effect in this region,” said Bolton, adding that the move to peace could be attributed to a decreased concern over Palestinian issues, rising concern about a nuclear Iran, and concerns about American staying power as an influence in the region.

Those forces will result in more peace agreements “sooner rather than later.”

Petraeus, who commanded American military efforts in both Afghanistan and Iraq, said that another major piece that brought the deals together was Israel’s agreement to halt settler incursions into disputed land, at least temporarily.

“There are lots of pluses here, it is clearly a positive step forward,” he said. “The question is, can it stick? There’s not much else here for the Palestinians.”

Petraeus added those small gains are the best that can be hoped for now. Anything more will have to wait for new leadership in Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

“Now isn’t the time to be swinging for the fences,” he said. “This is the time to hit singles and doubles, no home runs.”

There are also potential benefits to the region from some parts of the so-called Deal of the Century, Petraeus noted. Among those are the creation of a 25-mile long tunnel between the West Bank and Gaza Strip; allowing travel between the regions without having to pass through Israeli checkpoints; ideas about developing the Red Sea-area Egyptian Riviera that could bring economic benefit to Palestinians; and Israel’s prospects of becoming an energy superpower through the development of natural gas.

That’s all in addition to potential benefits from Israel’s already strong, and growing economy.

“The start-up nation is becoming the scale-up nation,” Petraeus said.

Bolton added a political restructuring in the region is needed.

Rather than the one or two-state solutions that have been so bitterly debated for years, he suggested a three-state deal that would see the Gaza Strip become part of Egypt while Israel and Jordan jointly rule over the West Bank.

Hovering over those potential promises, however, is the continued threat of Islamic terrorism.

Bolton said the radicalization driving some young Muslims to strap bombs to their bodies in the hope of killing Israelis is continuing to spread through both the Sunni and Shiite branches of Islam.

“The West seems to forget how deeply religious feeling can go toward motivating political action,” Bolton said.

That concern is heightened, he added, as American and allied troops are pulled out of Afghanistan, leaving room of Taliban terrorists from Pakistan to return to the region.

The soldier and the security advisor both said China remains a particular concern to world peace, one Trump failed to handle.

“There was simply no coherent Trump Administration policy on China,” Bolton said. “China is a huge question we have to face and we are not ready for it.”

Beyond seeking trade deals to sell American grain to China, Bolton said the Trump Administration ignored China’s growing economic strength – a strength he said is based on stolen intellectual property and is used to build a military machine.

How the situation changes once President-Elect Joe Biden takes office in January is an open question, they said.

“Right now there’s just no clear indication of where Biden wants to go,” Bolton said.

Despite Trump’s current allegations of voter fraud, both agreed the transfer of power will take place.

“It will happen, but there may be some wild rhetoric first,” Bolton said. “A president has to operate on the basis of facts, but this president does not.”

The State of the Union event raised $3.3 million.