25 Essential Jewish Movies: bangitout.com

At bangitout.com Jordan Hiller writes about films from the perspective of their relevance to Jewish culture. In December 2009 he completed a series on “25 Essential Jewish Movies,” a curious list including not only films that offer substantial insights into his faith community, but also films with peripheral interest, admitted poor quality, or even title he finds particularly offensive or annoying for reasons relating to faith.

Perhaps the rationale for omitting such films as Ushpizin, Munich, or Defiance (while including The Unborn or Go For Zucker, for example) is simply that he’d already written about them. Maybe “Another 25 More-Or-Less Jewish Movies” would have been more apt a title. But I’m picking nits: it’s a fun list, and I’ll provide links to his other pieces at the bottom of the article.

1. Fiddler on the Roof (Norman Jewison, 1971)
“With each musical number, another integral and eternal aspect of Judaism is pondered, explored, and expressed with passionate flourishes. With Matchmaker, the so-called shidduch crisis comes to mind. To Life evokes our most elemental prayer in this world; to recognize that every organic instant is a nes and cause for celebration. But likely the most memorable tune and performance from the entire nearly three hour epic is Israeli actor Chaim Topol as Tevye’s rendition of If I Were a Rich Man. No single song encapsulates the wild tempest of the Jewish experience better. Not many compositions can at the same time convey a deep longing for God, a saintly faith-based approach, a melancholy sort of optimism, and a turgid existential philosophy, all while being essentially about a pitiable monetary necessity. ”

2. Schindler’s List (Steven Spielberg, 1993)
“Some might argue that Schindler’s List is not a Jewish film. It is technically about a heroic gentile who risked much to save Jews, and secondarily about a demonic regime that slaughtered our people unreservedly and without conscience. There are Jews in the movie, most prominently a tactful accountant played soulfully by Ben Kingsley, but Jews mainly function as referents for either gracious saving or heartless destruction.”

3. Waltz With Bashir (Ari Folman, 2008)
“Besides the phenomenal artistic and narrative achievement of Folman’s movie, the outlying issue the film raises is one often heard and discussed. Can Israel fight its wars, exist as a confident and secure nation, while at the same time maintaining a “Jewish” code of morality. Are Israelis ever permitted to acknowledge guilt or shame over their actions without either compromising the integrity of the nation or risk being dubbed apologists? Which is the lesser evil? Can the men and women killing and dying for the country and muddling through war after war emerge sane after all they are required to see and do? Can we indeed grant them the solace of confession? Can a country without an inch to give ever apologize?”

frisco_kid 4. The Frisco Kid (Robert Aldrich, 1979)
The Frisco Kid has the feel of an artist’s charmingly naive youthful indiscretion. One would think that the cinephile fantasy pairing of Gene Wilder and Harrison Ford as unlikely traveling companions in the old west, where the former plays Avram Belinski, a Polish Rabbi, and the latter, Tommy Lillard, a bank robbing bandit, would be possible only as a fortunate quirk, a providential misstep in the early, unsteady careers of both. . . . The almost impossible to believe truth is that The Frisco Kid hit theaters in 1979. Gene Wilder had already been a household name from such classic comedy gems as Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein, and Silver Streak. . . . The entire civilized world recognized Mr. Ford as laser for hire rake Han Solo. . . . Robert Aldrich was a sixty year old professional veteran filmmaker credited with directing over thirty films including The Dirty Dozen, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, and The Longest Yard.”

“I mention all this . . . so that when anyone watches or re-watches this joyful little movie in wonder, they can adequately marvel at the uncommon innocence and unselfconscious humility of it. . . . One would guess that since the movie is so thematically off the grid and clearly close to someone’s heart, that the men behind it would be Jews seeking to express a fondness for their heritage. Not the case. Aldrich, nor writers Michael Elias and Frank Shaw are members of the tribe.”

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5. A Stranger Among Us (Sidney Lumet, 1992)
“An interesting story revolving around the shocking murder of a young chasid who works in New York’s Diamond District. The investigation is conducted by Detective Emily Eden, a troubled soul in need of substance. . . . Without clichéd protests or patronizingly comedic montages, she winds up undercover as a chasid and living with the Rebbe’s family. . . . Though the crime’s resolution is excitingly handled and surprising enough, such temporal trifles pale in comparison to the mysteries A Stranger Among Us seeks to explore. Like the mystery of a tremendously warm, divinely invigorating Shabbos, or the mystery of our devotion to God who we do not see over human beings who may be right in front us.”

6. Homicide (David Mamet, 1991)
“If you read Mamet’s The Wicked Son (2006), his stream of consciousness rant about anti-Semitism, Jewish destiny, and our eccentric God, you would know that Mamet, not easily discernable as a Jew based on his work (unlike, say, Woody Allen or Neil Simon), is quite smitten with his Judaism. Despite a professional choice to write mainly about other topics, Judaism consumes him. So much so and with such passion and zealousness that it appears in his personal life he constantly walks the line between crusader and madman. . . . Watching the film is truly like experiencing the ebbs and flows of Mamet’s raging inner storm. Sometimes his pulp, clever writing takes over, sometimes his Jewish compulsions win the day. The effect is jarringly uneven. We are asked to believe a range of premises just before they are discounted by a drastic, unsubstantiated turn of events.”

7. Brighton Beach Memoirs (Gene Saks, 1986)
“One preeminent Jewish dilemma raised by Mr. Simon is that of assimilation. While the Jerome’s are by no means religious (though Mrs. Jerome encourages her husband to go to shul and pray when the flurry of tribulations arrive), there is certainly an overarching message of ‘We are better off keeping to ourselves.’ Simon does somewhat present a counterargument, but the well established law, as was undoubtedly impressed upon him, remains.”

8. Yentl (Barbra Streisand, 1983)
“Barbra Streisand, as writer, director, producer, vocalist, star, and all around supernatural force behind the adaptation of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s short story about a young independent Jewish woman who poses as a male yeshiva student to fully realize her love of Talmud, deserves all the credit and all the blame for the charming yet disturbing, courageous yet shallow, poignant yet somehow uninvolving film experience that is Yentl.”

9. A Serious Man (Joel & Ethan Coen, 2009)
A Serious Man not only acutely conveys an abundance of data about cultural and religious Judaism, it undoubtedly will be a very different audience experience for Jews and then for everyone else. Different to a point which makes it difficult to comprehend how a non-Jewish viewer would relate to the material. It’s like trying to surmise how a non-Jew would react to a steaming bowl of chulent.”

10. The Prince of Egypt (Brenda Chapman, Steve Hickner, Simon Wells, 1998)
“If DreamWorks were more confident and less wary of Disney’s shadow, The Prince of Egypt would undoubtedly have been a better movie. When trying to be something it is not, the film wanders aimlessly like Hebrews through the desert. But it is those thrilling instances of purity (“Rameses! Let my people GO!”) which shine on, haunt, and remain with us after the closing credits. As Jews, we are inclined to constantly seek out inspiration in order to keep our faith through this Diaspora, and The Prince of Egypt, missteps and all, is a more than valid resource. Next Passover/Easter, when The Ten Commandments is solemnly aired to mark the season, avoid it like the plague and make The Prince of Egypt a bold new tradition.”

11. Once Upon A Time In America (Sergio Leone, 1984)
“We get De Niro, James Woods, William Forsythe, and other mean looking gentile actors portraying characters with the names like David Aaronson, Max Bercovicz, Phil Stein, and Patsy Goldberg. These soulless Yids are then put through the motions of mob movie standards, with their polished, respectable façades barely hiding the bloody chaos of political corruption and precarious tooth and nail survival. But is that it? Is there no greater comment in relation to what Jews bring to the organized crime table? So they hang out in a restaurant where stars of David decorate the glass windows and they avoid attending services to burn and pillage the neighborhood. Are such atmospheric details (or indicators) the final word on Judaism for Leone and his movie (which was based on the novel The Hoods by Jewish gangster Harry Goldberg)? The answer is yes and no.”

12. Inglourious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino, 2009)
“When the elderly orthodox couple in front of me on the ticket line for Quentin Tarantino’s latest was asked what movie they were interested in seeing, I experienced a moment of depraved glee. The man – white shirt, black pants, white beard, big black velvet yarmulke, placid face straight off a Rebbi card – was compelled to answer the box office attendant, “Two for Inglourious Basterds, please.” Hence the first hint that Tarantino’s so called “Jewish Revenge Fantasy” had awakened something extraordinary in a people. Yes, the theatre filled up with a diverse crowd, plenty of young folks simply looking for a wicked starburst of entertainment, but there was also a remarkably unconventional Jewish presence. Groups of older, possibly European immigrants who surely passed on Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction. Modern orthodox couples with their teenage and adolescent children who likely did not organize similar family outings to Kill Bill Volumes I and II. It was evident that Inglourious Basterds had achieved religio-cultural requirement status among many Jews, like Schindler’s List did when it came out in 1993. Jews were being drawn to it like moths to a flame.”

“It seems from the buzz emanating from Jewish enclaves that Basterds has been unofficially deemed an important film (“Did you see it yet?”), whether as an educational endeavor (exemplified by the chaperoning of children way too young for the content), a potential source of pride, a necessary cathartic release, or quite possibly just another one of our many chukim. And it accomplished all this, I contend, with audiences never fully realizing what the film was essentially supposed to be about or the filmmaker’s intention.”

“Whether art can transform into something it was not originally meant to be based on the beholder’s perspective leads us to the obvious follow-up question: Does Inglourious Basterds live up to a people’s widely varying and arguably irrational expectations? Is it the fulfillment of a holy commandment that some are hoping for it to be?”

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13. Operation Thunderbolt (“Mivtsa Yonatan” Menahem Golan, 1987)
“If not for some minor (but moving) Judaic references and the fact that the events depicted actually occurred, Operation Thunderbolt would have been considered just another example of the many similar low budget action flicks produced in that distinct era. It would never have received an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film or, more importantly, evolved into the Jewish summer camp/ fast day staple which it has become (along with its red blooded 1977 American version, Raid on Entebbe).So why all the reverence for Thunderbolt by camp activity coordinators everywhere?… It really boils down to two of those moving Jewish moments mentioned earlier. There is the extended utterly soul collapsing look that a Holocaust survivor passenger delivers to the German terrorists as they call out his name and urge him to follow his fellow Jews into a separate room. Clearly reminiscent of the selection process by Nazis in the concentration camps…and yet the survivor stares, steams, eyes bloodshot and pained, and he marches on in compliance. The scene speaks volumes about the mentality of the oppressed Jew. The other moment is quite simply framed, but it really amounts to everything. It sums up the movie, the history and miracle of the nation of Israel, Jewish resurgence in the 20th century, the invisible hand of God, and all matters in between. . . .”

14. Life Is Beautiful (Roberto Benigni, 1997)
Life is Beautiful is often described as a fable because in actuality, the mysterious providential strokes of fate which Guido enjoys tend to fall on the wrong side of possible. It is also incredibly light hearted (in a most seductively amusing way) despite the severe material. The manner in which Guido’s fortune is manifest, in both the labor camp and prior thereto, is certainly the stuff of quasi-fantasy. If there are breaks to be caught even in the face of imminent destruction, Guido seems to have been gifted a magical net. Call the film a fable if you will, but the result of Guido’s faith and wild efforts are of no consequence to me. Whether his desperate attempts to shield his son from even a fraction of the pain and anguish surrounding them succeed is utterly irrelevant to the grandeur of this once in a decade masterpiece. The message of Life is Beautiful cannot be limited by its level of credibility. As parents, Benigni exclaims, we must try and try and keep on trying until that final breath is rudely demanded from our bodies. That is the only viable option for the sake of our precious children. So after seeing Life is Beautiful, I ask myself that same old question: What will I do?”

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15. Go For Zucker (Dani Levy, 2004)
One sure giveaway that Dani Levy’s Go For Zucker was made with some orthodox chefs in the kitchen is that during a scene depicting Shabbos morning services, the chazan and congregation abstain from using God’s name when reciting the Shema (instead they go with “Hashem,” a permitted alternative). There is well-informed talk of mincha and ma’ariv, milcheig and fleishig, a merrily sung bircas hamazon, and plenty about sitting shivah. Luckily, as someone with a yeshiva education, I’m familiar with these terms so an elucidation of the specifics was not needed, but Go For Zucker – an inexact translation of the actual German title (Alles auf Zucker!) – seemingly requires of the audience an experiential familiarity with modern German sociology, and as someone with a yeshiva education, I was lost. Clearly, the film which essentially swept Germany’s most prestigious film awards in 2005 has more depth than I am able to give it credit for. Germans take their art seriously and Go For Zucker, without the proper insight and intelligence, comes off as a scattershot, rather trying comedy, and not a particularly funny one at that.
“What the movie actually shows is a repulsive orthodox family replete with fat, piggish, money obsessed wife, attractive, strange, slutty daughter, reclusive, socially retarded son, and obstinate, hot-headed father. Jackie must contend with this motley crew while attempting to avoid shivah and play in a high stakes billiards tournament. His go-to (and always side-splitting) routine to get out of the three aggravating Shs (Shul, Shivah, and Shabbos) is to fake a heart attack. If this film’s intention was to bravely provide showcase for Jews to return to mainstream German entertainment, I’d say it missed the mark. Better to assume it rather reminded the good Aryans why they desired to be rid of us in the first place. Goebbels would have found the depiction of Jews in Go For Zucker promising.”

14545 16. God Is Great, I’m Not (Pascale Bailly, 2001)

“Michele approaches her religious education (and eventual conversion classes) with such enthusiasm, passion, and curiosity, that it actually allows orthodox Judaism to appear an attractive alternative for the young and trendy. Writer Alain Tasma provides very insightful dialogue for Michele to chew over as she competently charges through the process. . . . She is on a mission. She’s got the soul of a fanatic. And like all fanatics, unfortunately, the infatuation with an of-the-moment ideal or cause is merely a reflection of whichever influence was transmitted and received most recently. Michele is God is Great’s focal character and she is sprightly, lovely, and sympathetic, but we can’t learn anything essential from her, so we must move on to Francois. . . .”

17. The Unborn (David S. Goyer, 2009)
“Why is The Unborn an essential Jewish film considering how oddly vague it is in terms of actual Judaism (Casey, though technically Jewish, deals with her situation as if an outsider)? The answer is that The Unborn marks a defining moment in modern Jewish history. With The Unborn, apparently, it officially has become kosher for movies to commercially exploit the extermination and torture of six million Jews.”

18. A Price Above Rubies (Boaz Yakin, 1998)
A Price Above Rubies is as much about harshly judging a woman for intolerably giving up on her family and religion as it is about admiring her for avoiding tragedy and choosing life. My estimate is that Yakin (fiendishly) roots for the latter reaction, though he provides convincing evidence to support both.”
“Yakin makes sure that we have bearded, payesed, black hat wearing, Torah learning, Shabbos celebrating devils so that his audience can go home sniping, “See, those orthodox Jews aren’t such good people after all!” Which is a fair conclusion because the premise is correct, but Yakin’s argument is presented with such blind rage and fury that his little film goes from sensitive and perceptive to sensational and scandal-mongering very quickly.”

19. The Jazz Singer (Alan Crosland, 1927)
“The Jazz Singer may well have resulted when a bunch of fat cat Jewish moguls stuck their necks out about eighty years ago and declared, ‘Momma, Poppa, remember all the stuff that you taught us was important about where we come from – our life and the length of our days and all that pious stuff Zadie, the Rebbi’s shamesh, did for the poor – well, we may act like we forgot all about it (and we’ll most assuredly forget about it during the after party), but we just gambled our reputations on making this movie to let you know, and to let our people know for all time, that deep down we didn’t forget.’ I think The Jazz Singer is a shallow attempt by a powerful group of straying Jews to clear their consciences.”

20. The Governess (Sandra Goldbacher, 1998)
“There are achingly beautiful symbols of traditional Judaism in the film. Whether it be Rosina’s lighting of Yom Tov candles and the spare Seder she conducts in the dimness of her room with joyful memories of her aunts attempting to eat eggs dipped in salt water dancing through her head. Or her lingering after the Cavendish’s leave church so she can utter a lonely, bitterly sincere Shema (as the film begins in a lavishly ornate synagogue with the Shema being read). Or, most hauntingly, as the girl, so far from home, so confused by her Gentile surroundings and the feelings raging inside her, wraps herself in her father’s tallis as if a comfort blanket and rocks on her bed whimpering prayers to her father’s God. ”

21. Pi (Darren Aronofsky, 1998)
“The most shockingly insightful Jewish bit built into the film comes when Max is dragged before a Rebbi who claims the two share the same last name. We are awakened to the fact that Max is a descendent of priests and that maybe, just maybe, he is not simply a raving lunatic, but a chosen one, given a divine message. Maybe math is God’s language and if we can break the code we can comprehend Him and His universe.”

The Chosen (1982)19df422. The Chosen (Jeremy Kagan, 1981)

“The plot is tough to swallow and the filmmaking style seems straight out of 1970’s porn, but The Chosen is actually about Judaism. That takes guts. Special interest Jewish films are a dime a dozen but take away the ones that deal with Israel, the Holocaust, and what are deemed to be Jewish themes (cranky, old people in Florida, neurotic, rich people in New York), we are left with very little. The Chosen is a rarity of immense proportions. It shouldered its way into the popular consciousness, perhaps with a few concessions and a straining dramatic license, but nonetheless it remains a thoughtful, provocative engagement of legitimate issues relating to Judaism, the ancient, ever evolving religion. Potok took something typically kept for Shabbos table banter and made it into art, made it into a public challenge. Somewhat exploitative, but courageous nonetheless. For that alone, The Chosen deserves to survive and be forced upon our children for many generations to come.”

23. The Merchant of Venice (Michael Radford, 2004)
“With all the concentrated faithfulness to Mr. Shakespeare, the film naturally retains its chief ambiguity and the reason for its eternal appeal and fascination amongst the sons and daughters of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. As long as The Merchant of Venice is read or performed, its audience will ponder the question: Is Shylock the Jew a villain to be reviled or a tragic figure to be pitied (or perhaps even a pugnacious scrapper to be admired)? . . . Good old Bill Shakespeare has certainly left us a legacy.”

24. Europa Europa (Agnieszka Holland, 1990)
“Now we have the genre called the Holocaust movie and it too has a formula. Nazi rise to power in 1930’s Europe, restrictions on Jews, ghettos, concentration camps, mass deaths and mass suffering, greed, hate, martyrdom, sacrifice, and last but not least…survival. Someone always survives. The story always centers on some form of Jewish humanity overcoming devastating odds to emerge from the ashes whole. With all the Holocaust movies released, not a single one dares to end things with the ultimate finality of all consuming death as the torture porn flicks produce with assembly line confidence. This despite the Holocaust being in essence entirely about racking up body counts and piling up corpses.”

25. Exodus (Otto Preminger, 1960)
“The screenplay for Otto Preminger’s 1960 film about the labor pains and eventual muddled birth of the State of Israel was adapted from the epic 1958 novel written by Leon Uris. The name of the film, and many will tell you the story itself, was adapted from the work of a mysterious, but ultimately purposeful God of many names.”

Courage in Doubt and Defiance
Holocaust Denial in Adam Resurrected and The Reader
The Band’s Visit


praying-with-lior Praying With Lior
Ushpizin
Jewish Classics: The Believer
Munich


everythingillum Everything Is Illuminated
The Passion of the Christ
The Goyish Problem: Hiding and Seeking & Decryptage
The Statement

hebrewhammer1 The Hebrew Hammer
The Pianist

  • Darrel Manson

    Nice list. Might I suggest for consideration: My Father My Lord (Hofshat Kaits) David Volach, 2007

  • http://extravagantcreation.wordpress.com/ Michael McIntyre

    Another one for consideration: Hester Street (Joan Micklin Silver, 1975) with Carol Kane (nominated for Best Actress, 1976). It’s been so long since I’ve seen it, I barely remember it, but I’m pretty sure I liked it (g).

  • http://www.soulfoodmovies.blogspot.com Ron Reed

    At salon.com, a response to Holy Rollers (2010, Kevin Asch): “Why can’t Hollywood get Jews right?” http://www.salon.com/entertainment/movies/film_salon/2010/05/27/holy_rollers_jewish_films

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Jacky-Abrams-Lavine/712458821 Jacky Abrams Lavine

    I saw part of a movie on TV that I am dying to see the rest of. It was an orthodox jewish family, dad was a teacher and a like a coach. One job fed the belly, one job fed the soul. Lighting shabbos candles and such. He put his wife and children on a bus in NYC (brookyln?) and they met up with a nut who shot and killed them all. Brokenhearted, the dad left his home, the house of shiva and took buses and just went south. He went to homeless shelters. He begged. He slept outdoors. His family is looking for him but can’t find him as he is off the grid. He meets up with a very devout christian black family and the little boy wants to help hime (with food, etc) because Jesus said you should give all your stuff away. Now I fall asleep. Anyone help????

    • M. Leary

      I can’t think of what this is…

  • http://www.facebook.com/ronreedbc Ron Reed

    “Twist of Faith” An Orthodox Jewish Cantor and amateur songwriter who resides in Brooklyn, New York, witnesses the senseless murder of his wife and three children. Catatonic, Jacob walks out on his Jewish mourning ritual, leaving behind his Jewish garments, wallet and keys. Abandoning his identity, he wanders aimlessly, hoping somehow to understand his tragedy. Fortuitously, he lands in Brent, Alabama…

  • Maiz Lulkin

    A complete and well displayed list of jewish movies is here http://www.jewish-movies.com/ Great resource!

  • Frank

    Whu does non jewish actors play jews in movies i never really got it?

  • LRA

    I find it hysterical that they posted The Unborn. Almost all of the information in that movie was incorrect. There is no “Book of Mirrors”. There aren’t Jewish exorcisms in general. I went to a Jewish school for 13 years… I know this stuff.

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