Video spoof turns Brandon Walker into a celebrity
Video about Jews eating Chinese food on Dec. 25 has earned many YouTube fans -- and a few kvetches as well
As he squeezes interviews between concert rehearsals, funk band
practice and music theory lessons, Brandon Walker, Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community
School's mop-topped band teacher, is every part the overnight
In the halls, girls warble lyrics from Walker's celebrated song, "Chinese Food on Christmas," which has scored more than 500,000 hits on YouTube. Teachers rise and applaud in the faculty room. Students warn: "'Mr. Walker, don't set foot outside [the classroom] or you'll get attacked by groupies.'"
"Chinese Food on Christmas," inspired by a college songwriting assignment, is Walker's humorous lament concerning the annual Jewish dilemma of what to do on Christ's birthday:
I eat Chinese food on Christmas
Go to the movie theater, too
There just ain't much else to do on Christmas
When you're a Jew.
The video narrative follows a gloomy Walker as he meanders from his home, overlooked by Santa, to an empty Hunt Valley Mall. He finally finds his way to the China Best restaurant in Owings Mills, where Walker joyously greets fellow members of the tribe.
As a rock band of faux Hasidic Jews jams to Walker's song, with playful forays into a Middle Eastern minor scale, the crowd chows down on lo mein and dances to "Hava Nagila." Revelers hoist a beaming Walker onto a chair and carry him around the room as if he were a bar mitzvah boy. The video comes to a rousing close when China Best's owner, Mary Kuan, does a little dance with hands thrust into the air before the rapturous guests enfold her in a happy throng.
Fame came fast after Walker's home-grown music video went up on YouTube on Dec. 1. "At first I was all sad ... and then you rocked it out and showed your Jewish pride!" enthused one poster to the video Web site.
A novelty find among the usual seasonal trimmings, the video is an ideal holiday brite that has drawn media attention from G4 TV to Jdate.com to CollegeHu mor.com, not to mention Dr. Demento and HD News, which has scheduled a tag along with Walker this week. On Christmas Day, the Senator Theatre, the North Baltimore movie house where "Chinese Food" was partially shot, will screen the video.
Not everyone is charmed by Walker's video. There is plenty of pesky YouTube and MySpace vitriol about the scene when a car full of Hasidic Jews slams to a halt to retrieve a coin on the street. In another scene that critics say reinforces the stereotype of Jews as cheap, Walker and friends sneak a bottle of Manischewitz wine, kosher snacks and a Big Gulp into the Senator before a movie.
You may cringe. You may laugh. You may cringe and laugh. So is it satire or anti-Semitism?
One skeptic weighed in on YouTube: "It's one thing to have religious guys dancing around. ... That's funny. But I don't see how showing the car stop to get out and pick up the coin DISPELS a myth? It keeps it going."
For Walker, 24, instant matinee idol at the Orthodox Jewish day school in Pikesville and member of the Owings Mills Jewish community, the controversy is an opportunity. "I'm happy it opened up all of this dialog," he says.
The infinite gray area where self-parody and racism cross paths is a gold mine for a thinking Jew, he suggests. Just as the Torah opens itself up to a multitude of interpretations, so does the lesson of the coin.
On a YouTube post, Walker explained that "Chinese Food on Christmas" employs "outrageous scenarios" to show "just how silly and ridiculous our stereotypes can be. Jews are one of the most charitable cultural groups in the world."
The video "was meant as a joke, although we absolutely understand why it would upset some people," says Rachel Werner, assistant regional director of the Anti-Defamation League's Washington regional office. "The general tone of the video does not imply that there was malevolence or an intent to perpetuate negative images."
At Beth Tfiloh, which enrolls preschool through high school students, Walker's video has mainly received kudos. "The school community is loving it," says Zipora Schorr, the school's director of education.
Schorr welcomes questions raised by "Chinese Food." Beth Tfiloh "is an environment that encourages questioning and encourages discussion," she says.
Had the video been "the slightest bit disrespectful, I would have killed him," Schorr says of the winning band teacher.
Walker composed "Chinese Food" for a songwriting class at James Madison University, from which he graduated in 2005. Every artist needs a Christmas standard, the instructor told the class.
"I wrote from my own experience," he says. "It just came out."
Last year at this time, the classically trained pianist posted a video on YouTube of his solo performance of "Chinese Food" that spawned a strong fan base. But members of Walker's college rock band, Midnight Spaghetti & the Chocolate G-Strings, saw potential for something with a little more ambience.
Walker contacted Justin Beckenheimer, a Towson University film student and co-founder of Stratatek Studios, to see if he would be interested in a video collaboration. Though busy, Beckenheimer said yes, and waited until the last minute to storyboard the song. "I pretty much sat down on my bed and listened to [Walker's song] for four or five hours in a row and wrote down ideas."
Meanwhile, Walker ordered two rabbi costumes online, found yarn at Michael's that would make perfect side curls for Hasidic Jews, and recruited his mother Laura Walker, to play his bubbe, the video grandmother who serves up a platter of latkes.
Beckenheimer, 21, and his partners, Charlie Anderson and Andrew Sadtler shot and edited the video within two days over Thanksgiving weekend.
Beckenheimer, who is Jewish, got the video's jokes. "My partner Charlie was born and raised Catholic and he really didn't understand the Jewish humor."
I told him, "'Come on, man, let's just do it. We'll get a lot of publicity.' Now he's glad he did it," Beckenheimer says.
In less than three weeks, "Chinese Food," which cost about $800 to produce, has brought a windfall of attention.
Fans have downloaded a free ring tone from the song on brandonwalkermusic.com and so far, Walker has sold about 20 copies of the sheet music on line for $4.50 apiece. To keep up the momentum, he announced that he would be composing and posting a new song monthly on his Web site.
With his affinity for catchy hooks, Walker hopes to be a professional pop song writer. He plans to attend the ASCAP conference in Los Angeles next year, where he will distribute a demo CD of his compositions.
Ultimately, Walker wants to remain in Baltimore. That is where "all the people I love are. There's no need to be so far," he says.
And Walker, never a devout Jew, may also come closer to his faith - at least, he says, to its spiritual qualities. "I started meeting with a rabbi once a week," Walker says. "We talk philosophy."
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