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A Very Gay, Jewish Christmas

The Rankin-Bass animated specials are yuletide staples, so why do they look Jewish and sound gay?

Liel Leibovitz
December 13, 2012
DreamWorks Classics
DreamWorks Classics
DreamWorks Classics
DreamWorks Classics

Rankin and Bass: If their names aren’t familiar, their work surely is. Turn on your TV set this time of year, and you’ll see it, playing in an endless loop: Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Frosty the Snowman, The Little Drummer Boy, Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town, and other animated Christmas specials. Rudolph, for example, debuted in December of 1964; it drew a whopping 50 percent of the TV-watching audience.

Most of the Rankin-Bass films were shot in the duo’s distinctive stop-motion animation style, with traditional animation of snowflakes projected in the background to create the illusion of infinite flurries. Rankin and Bass called this technique “animagic,” and to me, watching longingly as a child in Tel Aviv, it felt just like that. In Israel, December was usually warm enough to hit the beach. But not on television: Television was made in America, where December was peaceful and snowy and everyone cheered for a fat and jolly dude in a red suit who loved kids and brought them presents. The more of Christmas I saw on television, the more I wanted to take refuge in this winter wonderland, far from my desert country and its anxieties.

When I ended up moving to New York, just a few weeks before Christmas in 1999, I treated myself to a big and boxy TV set and tuned in to watch the shows I’d so deeply revered as a child. This, I thought, was how December ought to be: The weather outside was frightful, I was nursing a cup of hot cocoa, and any moment now cartoon Santa would appear. Soon, he did. Unfortunately, so did Hitler.

Watching Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town, the Rankin-Bass 1970 classic narrated by Fred Astaire and starring Mickey Rooney as the voice of Kris Kringle, I was struck by a fact that had somehow eluded me as a child, namely that the film’s villain is a Lederhosen-wearing, German-accented despot named Burgermeister Meisterburger who rounds up all the toys and burns them in the town’s square. His goons, dressed in Prussian army uniforms, stare impassively at the flames. A step or two away, a gaggle of kids, most of them dressed in tatters, look on with horror. A few scenes later, all the children, now forbidden from playing, are placed into forced labor scrubbing stockings.

In case the allusions to the Holocaust weren’t blunt enough, there is also an elderly man, the Winter Warlock, hiding in the woods. He is skeletal, and his beard is long and scraggly and white. He is voiced by Keenan Wynn, the son of Ed Wynn (born Isaiah Edwin Leopold), one of Vaudeville’s brightest stars. Wynn Jr. makes the character, who later asks to be known simply as Winter, sound like Albert Brooks on a chicken soup binge, a graying Jew who is all self-doubt and shtick and exasperation and kindness.

I let my cocoa grow cold. How could I have missed the painfully obvious fact that my beloved escapist cartoon was essentially about a struggle between a sadistic Bavarian dictator and a kindly old Jew, with Kris Kringle stepping in to save the day like a red-clad, ho-ho-hoing Oskar Schindler? And if I missed this yuletide Nazi, what else did I miss? It was time to revisit Rankin and Bass’ oeuvre and find out. Here is the perfect spot to pause and say that the practice of scrutinizing cartoons in search of larger political meaning is a time-honored tradition that is usually practiced by crazies, kooks, and zealots. It takes a special kind of maniac to see the Smurfs, say, as nothing more than an allegory of Communism, although they all live in a collectivist village and that gentleman in the red cap and the beard does look remarkably like Papa Marx. And only a grim mind sifts through the animagic and sees nothing but the horrors of recent Jewish history.

Still, the stop-motion spherical characters speak for themselves, and what they say isn’t pretty: “I can’t work like other men,” croons Ben Haramed, the antagonist of another Rankin-Bass hit The Little Drummer Boy. “The devil steals my heart away. … Gold and silver on my mind, mischief in my soul.” If you haven’t seen the movie, here, roughly, is the plot: A small boy wearing a yarmulke flees his house after his family is slaughtered by a tribe of desert nomads. He is eventually collected by two men, Ben and Ali. Ben wears a kaffiye, and Ali looks only slightly less ridiculous in a fez. Both have large, Semitic noses and carry curvy swords. They are greedy, cunning, murderous, and embody just about any other stereotype traditionally assigned to Arabs in mindless American entertainment. Of course, they abuse their boychik, making him play his little drum in the streets of Jerusalem. And of course he escapes, eventually taking comfort in the glory of the newborn Christ. Ben and Ali, however, are awarded no such mercy. Even cartoon Arabs, apparently, understand only force.

With so many strands of specifically Jewish, anxiety-inducing themes, the obvious question occurred: Were Rankin and Bass Jewish? Was this another manifestation of the Berlin Syndrome, in which Jews dream of a white Christmas and end up writing the holiday classics? The evidence, alas, was inconclusive, and attempts to contact the two or anyone who had worked with them proved fruitless. Of the little that’s publicly known about Rankin and Bass, we can probably assume that Arthur Rankin Jr. was not lighting the Menorah come December: He is the grandson of Harry Davenport, an actor who specialized in playing kindly, goyish dads and doctors, most famously Dr. Meade in Gone with the Wind, and the son of movie actor Arthur Rankin. Neither was Jewish; nor, apparently, were their spouses. About Jules Bass little is known, except that he grew up in Philadelphia, nearly died of scarlet fever as a teenager, moved with his family to New York as a young adult, got into advertising, and met Rankin. With no strong indication that either producer was Jewish, where, then, did all these distinctively Jewish themes come from?

One explanation is that the movies became Jewish by osmosis. Among the talented men working on Rankin and Bass’ specials were artists like Jack Davis (better known for his irreverent work in MAD Magazine), Paul Frees (born, in Chicago, as Solomon Hersh Frees, and wounded in Normandy on D-Day), and Paul Kligman (a Romanian-born immigrant to Canada). All of them had a distinctively Jewish sensibility, which is frequently visible and audible in Rankin-Bass productions.

And then there’s Romeo Muller, the duo’s perennial writer. Six-foot-two, and more than 300 pounds, Muller started out as an actor before settling down at his desk to write whimsical holiday tales. He might have been Jewish—he was born in the Bronx and lived on Long Island and had a last name that could go either way—but among the legions of Rankin-Bass fans online, another identity-related question matters more.

Muller, some dedicated websites note, had never married and had no kids; and he gave us Hermey, a friendly and effeminate elf, an aspiring dentist, and Rudolph’s pal. “You wouldn’t mind my red nose?” Rudolph asks the elf in one memorable exchange, to which Hermey replies, “Not if you don’t mind me being a dentist.” The same movie features the Island of Misfit Toys, where playthings who don’t quite fit in go to be together; their song has the following lyrics: “A jack-in-the-box waits for children to shout/ ‘Wake up! Don’t you know that it’s time to come out!’ ” Whether or not Hermey is short for hermaphrodite is subject to fierce speculation; what’s a bit more obvious is that he sounds like Sean Penn channeling Harvey Milk, a voice that, to most viewers, leaves little doubt about its bearer’s intended sexual orientation.

I’m still planning on watching the Rankin-Bass specials this Christmas—they’re hard to avoid—but it will not be the same. They’re no longer about blissful escape. They’re about persecution, animosity, anti-Semitism, and the other burdens of history—and the eternal goyishe yearning for a happy gay Jewish Christmas.

Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.