Printer Friendly

Great Jewish films: what makes a film Jewish?






There are almost as many definitions as there are film watchers. Some insist a Jewish film must have Jewish characters, actors, filmmakers or themes. Others believe a distinctly Jewish sensibility is enough. A film's "Jewishness" can be over-the-top or subtle or even that impossible-to-define "I know it when I see it." So it shouldn't be a surprise that when Moment asked critics and scholars to select their five all-time favorite Jewish films, the answers ranged from old to new, dramatic to humorous, popular to obscure. *







The Plot Against Harry (1989) This hilarious indie comedy, directed by Michael Roemer, is about a Jewish ex-con who tries to find his way back to normal life after prison, running the gamut of Jewish catered affairs and divorces in the process.

A Kid for Two Farthings (1955) Directed by the great Carol Reed with a script by Wolf Mankiewicz, this touching film is steeped in details about a Jewish boy's coming of age in London's East End.

The Heartbreak Kid (1972) It's an outrageous comedy directed by the inimitable Elaine May, from material by Bruce Jay Friedman and Neil Simon, about a Jewish groom on his honeymoon (Charles Grodin) who makes a run for a shiksa goddess (Cybil Shepherd). The dilemma of the Jew drawn to forbidden fruit has never been so brazenly depicted.

The Nutty Professor (1963) Jerry Lewis immortalizes the schizoid split between the nebbishy, brilliant, klutzy Jewish arrested-development manboy and the slick, Sammy Glick-ish hustler-type, Buddy Love. Like a Saul Bellow character, he wants to have it all.

Nobody's Business (1996) Alan Berliner made a wonderfully honest, probing personal essay-film about his stoical, tight-lipped elderly father, divorced by his show biz-loving mother. The dynamic of this dysfunctional Jewish family will be instantly recognizable.

Phillip Lopate writes about movies for The New York Times, Esquire and Vogue.


1 The Plot Against Harry

2 A Kid for Two Farthings

3 The Heartbreak Kid

4 The Nutty Professor

5 Nobody's Business



1 The Producers

2 Fiddler on the Roof

3 Late Marriage

4 The Counterfeiters

5 The Garden of the Finzi-Continis


The Producers (1968) One of the funniest movies ever made is Jewish to its core, without once relying on "Jewishness." Mel Brooks combines chutzpah with a sophisticated (Jewish) trust in an audience's ability to laugh at the shocking bad taste of a Hitler musical, and he stirs the pot to an un-gepotchked high boil. This is a movie of Jewish liberation!

Fiddler on the Roof (1971) Norman Jewison's energetic production is the big-time Hollywood screen adaptation of the world's most accessible pop cultural depiction of Jewish tradition. This movie helped an international audience love us.

Late Marriage (2001) Dover Kosashvili's wonderfully naturalistic drama about a Georgian-Jewish bachelor in Israel in love with a divorce (to his family's disapproval) is the polar opposite of Fiddler: It's strikingly sexual and unvarnished in its exploration of Tradition! Tradition!

The Counterfeiters (2007) The bravest films with a Shoah theme are those that grant characters the dignity of being imperfect whether they live or die. You don't get a Jewish protagonist more imperfect than the forger/concentration camp inmate at the center of this superbly made Austrian movie.

The Garden of the Finzi-Continis (1971) The wealthy Jewish family in this haunting film, by the great neorealist Italian director Vittorio De Sica, is unwilling to see the danger posed by Mussolini's fascist reign.

Lisa Schwarzbaum is a film critic at Entertainment Weekly.


The Frisco Kid (1979) This very funny film is about the relationship of Jewish justice to the lack of law and order on the American frontier. Gene Wilder, who plays the Frisco Kid, prefers rational decision-making and even feels guilty when he shoots one of the bad guys.

Green Fields (1937) A lovely film about Jewish life and love in a shtetl in Eastern Europe was shot in New Jersey and made in Yiddish for Americans. The story is Jewish, and the characters look like Jews, not Hollywood stars. The director, Edgar Ulmer, couldn't speak a word of Yiddish.

Exodus (1960) Coming out when Israel was the underdog, it portrayed Israelis as superhumans. When I went to Israel for the first time, I was surprised to see that most Israelis didn't look like Paul Newman and weren't warriors. The film created a mythology about Israel that was important at the time.

Hester Street (1975) Directed by a Jewish woman (Joan Micklin Silver), this powerful film attempted to provide a realistic look at life on the Lower East Side. It's a feminist film; a religious woman ends up triumphant at the end.

Blazing Saddles (1974) Since Mel Brooks wrote and directed it, it has a Jewish sensibility. The first time I saw it, the crude jokes made me uncomfortable, but later I realized not only how hilarious it was, but also how important it was in terms of social critique, especially in its exposure of racism.

Patricia Erens is the author of The Jew in American Cinema.


1 The Frisco Kid

2 Green Fields

3 Exodus

4 Hester Street

5 Blazing Saddles



1 Animal Crackers

2 The Pawnbroker

3 Annie Hall

4 Crimes and Misdemeanors

5 Blazing Saddles


Animal Crackers (1930) Verbal wit and a zest for life characterize Groucho, Chico and Harpo. All of the Marx Brothers' early films are subversive, but this one really takes a dim view of society and snob-culture, while making wonderful cultural references and in-jokes.

The Pawnbroker (1965) This film about a man who tries to block out his memories of the war captures the trauma of the Holocaust in a way few subsequent films have. It is at once a plea for remembrance and for contemporary social justice.

Annie Hall (1977) This endlessly funny and charming film runs the gamut from life in New York, to Jewish family life, to Jewish-gentile relations, to the meaning of love. Woody Allen's cultural references are very New York, very Jewish.

Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989) Woody Allen demonstrates his singular importance as an artist of the American Jewish experience. His usual concerns find both funny and tragic expression in a surprisingly complex examination of the nature not only of love, but morality--a very Jewish concern.

Blazing Saddles (1974) Mel Brooks skewers the official mythology of America by attacking the cherished Western. There are in-jokes that some audiences won't get, but few miss the point of a black sheriff vanquishing racism and standing up for history's little guys. It's the best example of "Jewish sensibility" without identifiably Jewish characters.

David Desser is the co-author of American Jewish Filmmakers.


Fiddler on the Roof (1971) This superb film is an important link between Yiddish and Jewish American culture not just because of its schmaltz but because it adapts many of Yiddish theater's performance sensibilities. The film is based on the Broadway musical, itself adapted from the stories of Sholom Aleichem.

Avalon (1990) It is a beautiful--visually as well as thematically--generational saga inspired by director Barry Levinson's Jewish family's experiences. The film pays homage to both Levinson's hometown of Baltimore and to the joys and sorrows of American immigrants.

Funny Girl (1968) Another adaptation from Broadway, the film tells the early life story of Jewish comedienne Fanny Brice and launched the Hollywood career of Barbra Streisand. The film appeared at a time of increasing Jewish self-confidence in the 1960s.

Torch Song Trilogy (1988) Adapted from the barrier-breaking Broadway play, it brought an affirmatively gay and Jewish-themed story to film. Harvey Fierstein, the writer and star, simultaneously exploits and explodes many Jewish performance stereotypes.

Europa, Europa (1991) Agnieszka Holland's film adapts Jewish Holocaust survivor Salomon Perel's incredible memoir about surviving the war disguised as an Aryan in the German army. It is an utterly surprising consideration of Jewishness and Nazi racial ideology.

Ben Furnish is the author of Nostalgia in Jewish-American Theatre and Film, 1979-2004.


1 Fiddler on the Roof

2 Avalon

3 Funny Girl

4 Torch Song Trilogy

5 Europa, Europa



1 Birthplace

2 The Search

3 Little Man, What Now?

4 Playing for Time

5 The Last Stage


Birthplace (1992) What starts out as a matter-of-fact documentary journey to Poland ends up as a shattering encounter with the past. The film is chilling in how it depicts the unchanged attitudes of a small village in Poland, despite the Holocaust.

The Search (1948) An exquisitely restrained look at the relationship between a nine-year-old refugee from Auschwitz and the American GI, played by Montgomery Clift, who adopts him. The film won an Academy Award for Best Writing and was shot in post-war Germany.

Little Man, What Now? (1934) This film zeroes in on German society at a time when many criticized Hollywood for not being more forthrightly anti-Nazi. It portrays the harsh conditions through the lens of two people who, very much in love, nonetheless struggle.

Playing for Time (1980) It's one of the best depictions of the Holocaust ever aired on American television. With playwright Arthur Miller's adaptation of Fania Fenelon's memoir and a superb performance by Vanessa Redgrave, it's not just a stunning achievement for a made-for-TV movie, but for any fictionalized representation of the Holocaust.

The Last Stage (1948) This docudrama was years ahead of its time. Directed by and starring Wanda Jakubowska, real survivors of Auschwitz reenact their experiences at the actual camp. The film was the first to put a human face on the suffering.

Steven Carr is the author of Hollywood and Anti-Semitism: A Cultural History Up to World War II.


Annie Hall (1977) This movie is significant because it captures the anxiety of an interethnic romance between the Midwestern WASPy gentile princess and the urban, neurotic New York Jewish male. Annie Hall was not the first film to do this, but it has become the archetype.

The Pawnbroker (1965) It was the first widely viewed film that confronted the issue of the Holocaust. The film portrays how the past can't be repressed and resonates into the present.

Quiz Show (1994) Directed by Robert Redford, this film tells the story of the Twenty One quiz show scandal of the '50s, highlighting the longing of college-educated upwardly mobile Jews to fit into American society at a time when Jews were still viewed as outsiders.

Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989) Judah Rosenthal (Martin Landau) is clearly assimilated and prosperous, yet commits a morally reprehensible crime: murder. What strikes me as interesting is that there is no punishment; there is no justice. Woody Allen is confronting issues of morality in both Jewish and gentile culture.

Dirty Dancing (1987) This is one of the few films set around a Jewish-American woman and centers on her maturation during a summer when she is vacationing with her family at a resort in the Catskills. In a reverse of traditional morality, the non-Jewish male lead is in some ways the moral center of the film.

Lester Friedman is the author of The Jewish Image in American Film.


1 Annie Hall

2 The Pawnbroker

3 Quiz Show

4 Crimes and Misdemeanors

5 Dirty Dancing



1 The Frisco Kid

2 Tevye

3 The White Rose

4 Being Jewish in France

5 The Dybbuk


The Frisco Kid (1979) This very Jewish film is wonderfully entertaining. It offers a glimmer into the real difficulties that immigrants experience but at the same time takes tremendous license.

Tevye (1939) The extraordinary film based on Sholom Aleichem's stories became the basis of the original Fiddler on the Roof stage play. It was the first non-English language film to be selected by the Library of Congress for the National Film Registry and merits it. It's an American historical film icon.

The White Rose (1982) This beautifully made film about moral resistance to the Third Reich by German filmmaker Michael Verhoeven was one of a number of films about Germany that are important to the Jewish experience. The theme about the need to resist evil governments has great relevance for audiences today.

Being Jewish in France (2009) This terrific documentary on Jews in France has marvelous educational and historical value. After all, France is the country where Jews both received emancipation and suffered incredible traumas, from the Dreyfus affair, to the Holocaust, to contemporary issues.

The Dybbuk (1937) This very important Yiddish film examines folk culture, mysticism and man's relationship to God. Made in Poland in Yiddish (it's the only film production of the story in Yiddish), it is a snapshot of that world before it was destroyed.

Sharon Rivo is Executive Director of the National Center for Jewish Film.


Where to and Back trilogy (1982, 1985, 1986) Directed by Axel Corti and written by Georg Stefan Troller, these are the best films I've ever seen about the Holocaust. Troller, a Viennese Jew who fled to the U.S. as a teenager, then returned as an American soldier, based the scripts on his own life.

Me Ivan, You Abraham (1993) Yolande Zauberman's film opens in a rural Polish shtetl in the 1930s and recreates the feel of Jewish life in the Pale of Settlement while it was still thriving. Ivan and Abraham are young boys who, sent off on an errand, return to find their town destroyed by a pogrom.

Like a Bride (1994) Guita Schyfter's film is about a friendship between two girls in Mexico City during the turbulent 1960s. One is a protected Sephardic girl, the other "modern" Ashkenazi. The film follows their diverging political views and choices regarding love and marriage.

Local Angel (2002) For American-Israeli filmmaker Udi Aloni, the refusal of Israel to consider a bi-national state amounts to criminal myopia. Especially moving is a scene of Yasir Arafat talking about how as children, Jews and Arabs played together.

Zero Degrees of Separation (2005) The contradictions of Israel's occupation of the West Bank are shown through gay/lesbian relationships that cross Israeli/Palestinian lines. Elle Flanders' look into the lives of these brave couples illuminates the endemic distrust.

B. Ruby Rich has been a regular contributor to The Village Voice.


1 Where to and Back trilogy

2 Me Ivan, You Abraham

3 Like a Bride

4 Local Angel

5 Zero Degrees of Separation



1 Green Fields

2 Waltz with Bashir

3 Shoah

4 Jewish Luck

5 Lost in America


Green Fields (1937) This Yiddish-language movie based on a Yiddish play by Peretz Hirshbein is about a Hasidic scholar who leaves home to search for God and meaning. It's set in Lithuania but shot, on a shoestring, in rural New Jersey by Edgar G. Ulmer. The film is one of the most critically acclaimed American Yiddish talkies.

Waltz with Bashir (2008) It's an animated Israeli film but additionally Jewish in that it deals with Jewish history and is largely concerned with the interpretation of dreams as a man tries to recall memories of his time as soldier that he has shut out.

Shoah (1985) Nine hours of interviews with Holocaust survivors make up this epic documentary by Claude Lanzmann about the Holocaust. The interviews are mostly about Chelmno; the death camps of Treblinka and Auschwitz-Birkenau; and the Warsaw Ghetto.

Jewish Luck (1925) This silent Soviet film about an entrepreneur and his doomed money-making schemes is made with Russian intertitles. It's based on the writings of Sholom Aleichem.

Lost in America (1985) A film about couple who quit their jobs to travel across America, it is without explicitly Jewish content but nevertheless expresses particular Jewish comic sensibility-a combination of alienation, idealism, self-absorption and self-deprecation.

J. Hoberman writes film reviews for The Village Voice.


The Jazz Singer (1927) The theme of a second-generation American son (Al Jolson) breaking away from a first-generation Orthodox immigrant father who wants him to continue the family tradition by becoming a cantor is still poignant, despite the heavy-handed silent screen-style acting.

Body and Soul (1947) Star and producer John Garfield fought hard to make this film about a Jewish boxer who fights his way out of the ghetto. Jewish studio heads fought equally hard to remove explicit references to Jewishness. Garfield won out by funding the film with his own money.

The Graduate (1967) Mike Nichols (a German Jewish immigrant) went against advice in choosing Dustin Hoffman for the role of Benjamin Braddock, the young, alienated, nervous outsider playing opposite Anne Bancroft as Mrs. Robinson. Most people don't know the screenplay was based on a novel about a WASP family in southern California.

Fiddler on the Roof (1971) You can argue about the closeness or lack thereof to the original Sholom Aleichem stories, but such a positive (if nostalgic) portrayal of Jewish life in the shtetl made these themes "universal" and honored the original.

Borat (2006) Some people might not consider this a "Jewish" film, but I do. Sacha Baron Cohen and his co-conspirator Larry Charles have perfected the comedy of provocation, and this kind of comedy has a long Jewish lineage.

Bernard Timberg has written about media for Television Quarterly.


1 The Jazz Singer

2 Body and Soul

3 The Graduate

4 Fiddler on the Roof

5 Borat



1 The Chosen

2 Enemies: A Love Story

3 Everything is Illuminated

4 Unsettled

5 Paper Clips


The Chosen (1981) Based on the novel of the same name, this film touches on every major theme of 20th century Jewish life: the Holocaust, the founding of Israel, assimilation, the transmission of values within families and the challenge of maintaining traditions. It also explores conflicts within Judaism itself, deepening our understanding of modern Jewish life.

Enemies: A Love Story (1989) This remarkable retelling of the novel by Isaac Bashevis Singer about a Holocaust survivor and the women in his life renders aspects of the Jewish experience with compassion and a respect for the complexities of the post-Holocaust human psyche.

Everything is Illuminated (2005) This film surprised me by being better than the book. It is heartening when a film makes a serious effort to deal with Jewish identity, in this case the complicated emotional journey one young man takes to come to terms with his family's past.

Unsettled (2006) This documentary turns its lens on the Gaza disengagement. Adam Hostnick, a young American director, shows all sides of a highly polarized issue.

Paper Clips (2004) In this documentary, students in Tennessee collected one paper clip for each person exterminated during the Holocaust. Although it's not about Jewish people (a few Holocaust survivors make short appearances), it's of huge interest to both Jewish and general audiences.

Kathryn Bernheimer is the author of The 50 Greatest Jewish Movies: A Critic's Ranking of the Very Best.


Here's the complete list of films that our critics mentioned as important to the history of Jewish cinema. Tell us about your favorites by writing to

Annie Hall (1977, US)

Animal Crackers (1930, US)

The Apartment (1960, US)

Avalon (1990, US)

Being Jewish in France (2009, France)

Biloxi Blues (1988, US)

Birthplace (1992, Poland)

Blazing Saddles (1974, US)

Body and Soul (1947, US)

Borat (2006, US)

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (2008, UK)

The Chosen (1981, US)

Clueless (1995, US)

Counsellor at Law (1933, US)

The Counterfeiters (2008, Austria)

Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989, US)

Dear Mr. Waldman (2006, Israel)

The Diary of Anne Frank (1959, US)

Dirty Dancing (1987, US)

Duck Soup (1933, US)

The Dybbuk (1937, Poland)

Enemies: A Love Story (1989, US)

Europa, Europa (1991, France)

Everything is Illuminated (2005, US)

Exodus (1960, US)

Fiddler on the Roof (1971, US)

The Frisco Kid (1979, US)

The Front (1976, US)

Funny Girl (1968, US)

The Garden of the Finzi-Continis (1971, Italy)

Gentleman's Agreement (1947, US)

Goodbye, Columbus (1969, US)

The Graduate (1967, US)

The Great Dictator (1940, US)

Green Fields (1937, US)

The Grey Zone (2002, US)

The Heartbreak Kid (1972, US)

The Hebrew Hammer (2003, US)

Hester Street (1975, US)

His People (1925, US)

Hungry Hearts (1922, US)

Intimate Stranger (1991, US)

The Jazz Singer (1927, US)

Jewish Luck (1925, USSR)

Keeping the Faith (2000, US)

Knocked Up (2007, US)

A Kid for Two Farthings (1956, UK)

The Last Stage (1947, Poland)

Late Marriage (2002, Israel)

Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948, US)

The Life of Emile Zola (1937, US)

Like a Bride (1997, Mexico)

Little Man, What Now? (1934, US)

Local Angel (2002, US/Israel)

Lost in America (1985, US)

Me Ivan, You Abraham (1993, France)

Middle of the Night (1959, US)

The Mortal Storm (1940, US)

Munich (2005, US)

Next Stop Greenwich Village (1976, US)

Nick and Nora's Infinite Playlist (2008, US)

Night and Fog (1955, France)

Nobody's Business (1996, US)

Number Our Days (1977, US)

The Nutty Professor (1963, US)

Paper Clips (2004, US)

The Patsy (1964, US)

The Pawnbroker (1965, US)

Playing for Time (1980, US)

The Pianist (2002, Poland)

The Plot Against Harry (1990, US)

Poor Butterfly (1986, Argentina)

Professor Mamlock (1938, USSR)

The Producers (1967, US)

Punch-Drunk Love (2002, US)

Quiz Show (1994, US)

Reversal of Fortune (1990, US)

Sarah Silverman: Jesus is Magic (2005, US)

The Search (1948, US)

The Second Generation (1914, US)

Schindler's List (1993, US)

The Shop Around the Corner (1940, US)

Shoah (1985, France)

Sweet Lorraine (1987, US)

Teknolust (2004, US)

Tevye (1939, US)

Three Comrades (1938, US)

Till We Meet Again (1944, US)

Tootsie (1982, US)

Torch Song Trilogy (1988, US)

Train of Life (1999, France)

Unsettled (2006, US)

Waltz with Bashir (2008, Israel)

Welfare (1975, US)

Where to and Back trilogy (1982-1985-1986, Austria)

The White Rose (1982, Germany)

Yentl (1983, US)

You Don't Mess With the Zohan (2008, US)

Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg (2009, US)

Zero Degrees of Separation (2005, Canada)
COPYRIGHT 2009 Moment Magazine
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2009 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Springer, Maxine
Date:Sep 1, 2009
Previous Article:From Arab to Palestinian Israeli: one family's changing identity.
Next Article:Jewish health: your guide to intelligent living.

Related Articles
Films about Jewish Life and Culture.
`Tapestry of Jewish Life' to showcase arts, culture; Actress/writer to open series in Westboro.
Jewish festival offering films with a focus.
Can we talk? And laugh, too, thanks to documentary about 6 very funny Jewish women.

Terms of use | Copyright © 2017 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters