10 great Jewish films

From Fiddler on the Roof to A Serious Man, we take a look at some of Jewish cinema’s greatest hits.

7 November 2014

By Raphael Smith

Fiddler on the Roof (1971)

Don’t expect a list of 10 Jewish movies to provide a handy working definition on what a Jewish movie is. Jewish cinema can include everything from Biblical epics, Yiddish cinema (such as the 1936 musical Yiddle with His Fiddle), films from Israel and even antisemitic Nazi propaganda such as Jud Süß (1940).

Some Jewish films depict explicitly religious themes, although they’re in the minority. Films such as Fiddler on the Roof (1971) or the underrated gem Ushpizin (2004) present us with characters who talk and argue directly to God. Yet, more often than not, a ‘Jewish movie’ will have little to do with religion. The ‘Jewishness’ of these films is defined by a social atmosphere, a representation of being an outsider or even just a certain cadence in the dialogue. As vague as it sounds, audiences respond to these elements and recognise the film as something that ‘feels’ Jewish.

Two cultural settings dominate modern Jewish cinema: New York (every Woody Allen film set in NY is, at some level, a Jewish movie) and Israel – whether or not all films made in the Jewish state are ‘Jewish films’ is an argument for wider political debate.

In countries with smaller Jewish communities, such as the UK, it becomes harder to discuss the notions of Jewish films. Film studies lecturer Natan Abrams believes that “there is almost no scholarship on the subject of Jewish cinema in the United Kingdom”. We do know that Jewish characters have been present since the earliest days of British cinema, often presented in classic antisemitic ways. The Robber and the Jew (1908) and A Bad Day for Levinsky (1909) show Jews as greedy and cunning outsiders. David Lean’s Oliver Twist (1948) – a film made only 3 years after the Holocaust – had Alec Guinness portraying Fagin as a grotesque stereotype with a prosthetic hooked nose.

It took a long time for cultural attitudes to change. The Oscar-winning The Bespoke Overcoat (1955) and The Barber of Stamford Hill (1962) offered more complex representations of Jewish men, the Petticoat Lane-set A Kid for Two Farthings (1954) became a family favourite, and Jack Rosenthal’s TV plays The Evacuees (1975) and Bar Mitzvah Boy (1976) are now regarded as classics.

Exodus (1960)

Director: Otto Preminger

Exodus (1960)

Exodus sits on this list for its massive political impact rather than the quality of its filmmaking (although it won an Oscar and a Golden Globe). A 1960s romantic epic, produced and directed by Otto Preminger, the film (and the bestselling book before it) became the foundation on which a generation of young Jews built their understanding of Middle Eastern politics. Exodus is a rose-tinted and heavily biased take on the founding of Israel that barely acknowledges those Palestinians who experienced an entirely different story, but its social impact is too great to ignore.

Preminger hired the recently blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo to adapt the book and cast an ensemble of leading Hollywood stars (Paul Newman, Eva Marie Saint and Sal Mineo among others) to tell the story about the founding of the Jewish state. Today it may be difficult to comprehend the impact of the film and the novel. David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, said of the book: “as a literary work it isn’t much, but as a piece of propaganda, it’s the best thing ever written about Israel”.

Fiddler on the Roof (1971)

Director: Norman Jewison

Fiddler on the Roof (1971)

Fiddler on the Roof is so well-known and so widely loved that only a martian would be surprised to find it on this list. Adapted from one of the greatest Broadway musicals, the film depicts 2 of the defining Jewish experiences of the last 200 years: the breakdown of traditions and the mass migration of (mostly) Russian and Polish emmigrants to the new world.

Israeli actor Topol was only 35 when he played the lead role of Tevye, but he gave the role a gravitas that it may otherwise have lacked if the producers had gone with the original Broadway lead, Zero Mostel (who had recently played Max Bialystock in Mel Brooks’ 1968 comedy The Producers). The Broadway musical is an art form developed almost exclusively by American Jews – the very descendants of those characters depicted in the film.

Hester Street (1975)

Director: Joan Micklin Silver

Hester Street (1975)

In 1975 Joan Micklin Silver adapted and directed Abraham Cahan’s late 19th-century novella Yekl: A Tale of the New York Ghetto, about immigrants to New York. Shot in black and white, the film is essentially a chamber piece and tells the story of Yankl (Steven Keats) who wants to assimilate into American culture, and his wife Gitl (Carol Kane in an Oscar-nominated performance) who struggles to give up her sense of tradition.

As with many communities, Jewish women have struggled to find a voice. In the film we see Carol Kane reluctantly being forced to assimilate. The film poses the important question as to whether women really are that much more liberated within modern western society – a question that still resonates among modern day immigrant communities.

The Frisco Kid (1979)

Director: Robert Aldrich

The Frisco Kid (1979)

Gene Wilder is an accomplished comic performer but he’s also a gifted (and underrated) dramatic actor. In this comedy-western Wilder presents us with as a bumbling, kind-hearted rabbi from Poland assigned to travel to San Francisco and deliver a Torah scroll. In one touching sequence, he mistakes a group of Amish men for Orthodox Jews.

Wilder’s performance ranges from high comedy (“I don’t want to hurt you!”, he says to a chicken, “I just want to make you kosher!”) to more serious dramatic moments as the rabbi finds himself robbed and swindled in the Wild West. Harrison Ford, a major star following the success of Star Wars 2 years previously, plays a cowboy who rescues him and helps the rabbi regain his confidence.

Shoah (1985)

Director: Claude Lanzmann

Shoah (1985)

Claude Lanzmann’s 9-hour documentary on the Holocaust is intensely unsettling. It contains few of the traditional elements associated with documentaries. There is no disembodied voiceover nor archive footage – most of the film consists of survivors and perpetrators telling their stories and sharing their memories. In one sequence a retired barber cuts hair while relating the technical aspects of shaving the heads of thousands of people murdered at Treblinka. A former SS guard is secretly filmed teaching Lanzmann the “Treblinka song” – a song prisoners were forced to learn when they arrived at the death camp. The film provides sober and substantial evidence of the banality of evil.

Lanzmann later said he was sceptical whether anything but documentary form could adequately express the horror of Holocaust. “Fiction is a transgression,” he wrote, “[Films such as Schindler’s List, 1993] transgress because they trivialise, and thus they remove the Holocaust’s unique character.”

Crimes and Misdemeanours (1989)

Director: Woody Allen

Crimes and Misdemeanours (1989)

For the last 50 years Woody Allen has occupied a place in popular culture as the archetypical New York Jew, bursting with neurotic angst and dry one-liners. He is one of the greatest writer-directors of his generation, and Crimes and Misdemeanours is one of his greatest films.

The film tells 2 separate stories – one a drama involving a man who decides to have his mistress murdered, the other a bitter romantic comedy about unrequited love. The genius of film lies in the contrast of these 2 stories. Allen seems to be disputing conventional rabbinical thought and offers us his (almost) anti-Talmudic view of the world: life is not fair, there is no justice and guilt is often absent when it should be present and present when it should be absent. As Roger Ebert noted: “The technique is Shakespearean: the crimes of kings are mirrored for comic effect in the foibles of the lower orders.”

The Pianist (2002)

Director: Roman Polanski

The Pianist (2002)

The Nazi genocide of 6 million Jews has created a whole film subgenre – the Holocaust movie. As with westerns, films about the Holocaust have acquired recognisable tropes and narrative devices (Quentin Tarantino plays with this at the start of Inglourious Basterds, using the title card “Once upon a time in Nazi-occupied France”). For better or for worse, even a masterpiece like Schindler’s List is unable to avoid noble heroes and a happy ending.

This is why The Pianist is such an important film. It is not only about the historical events but it also challenges the conventions of the ‘genre’: not all the Jews are decent people, not all the Germans are bad and the violence is flat and matter-of-fact. The pianist Władysław Szpilman (Adrien Brody, in the role that made him the youngest ever best actor Oscar-winner) is not a noble hero – he’s an ordinary man, motivated by the basic necessities of survival. In short, by breaking melodramatic tropes and archetypes, The Pianist reminds us that the Holocaust happened in a real time, in a real place, to real people.

Waltz with Bashir (2008)

Director: Ari Folman

Waltz with Bashir (2008)

Waltz with Bashir is an animated documentary feature which, in some ways, acts as a reply to the idealism of Exodus. Director Ari Folman investigates the psychological impact of the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon on the soldiers who came back home – and, by implication, the political impact these returning soldiers had on Israeli society, not dissimilar to the Vietnam vets returning to the US.

By using an unusual form of animation (Adobe Flash cutouts combined with more traditional techniques), Folman navigates some of the most politically sensitive issues in modern Israeli and Jewish life. The film saves its biggest in-the-face punch for the last few minutes and forces a series of uncomfortable question on the audience, questions that go to the very heart of Jewish and Israeli identity.

A Serious Man (2009)

Directors: Joel Coen and Ethan Coen

A Serious Man (2009)

How Jewish can a Jewish film be? With A Serious Man, the Coen brothers decided to test the limits. The film opens with a quote from Rashi, the great medieval rabbi, followed by a sequence in Yiddish, and then a story set around an imminent bar mitzvah and 3 reclusive rabbis. Added to that, the entire story is a modern day retelling of the Book of Job.

Yet the film is also deeply American and middle-class. Roger Deakin’s cinematography reveals a world of bright, blue skies and bone-white picket fences. This is middle America, the suburban paradise God only ever blesses and never curses – except if you’re too Jewish and your name is Larry Gopnik. It is a film rooted in serious Jewish questions about the nature of life and the randomness of suffering.

The Infidel (2010)

Director: Josh Appignanesi

The Infidel (2010)

This is not only a very Jewish movie, it’s a very British and a very Islamic movie dealing with the matter of multiculturalism. Omid Djalili plays Mahmud, a Muslim who discovers not only that he’s been adopted but also that he’s Jewish. The script, written by comedian David Baddiel, delivers fistfuls of one-liners (Mahmud is escorted away by security guard and retorts “You find out you’re Jewish and suddenly some bloke in a uniform is leading you away?”).

When asked about the basis for the comedy in the subject matter, Baddiel explained: “These communities and cultures are seen as at war or polarised, or at opposite sides of the fence, which allows for a body swap sort of situation to arise.” It has recently been adapted as a stage musical.

Your suggestions

Ida (2013)

1. Ida (Paweł Pawlikowski, 2013)
2. Yentl (Barbra Streisand, 1983)
3. Pi (Darren Aronofsky, 1998)
4. Everything Is Illuminated (Liev Schreiber, 2005)
5. Fill the Void (Rama Burshtein, 2012)
6. The Shop on Main Street (Ján Kadár, Elmar Klos, 1965)
7. The Pawnbroker (Sidney Lumet, 1964)
8. Enemies, A Love Story (Paul Mazursky, 1989)
9. An American Tail (Don Bluth, 1986)
10. Eyes Wide Open (Haim Tabakman, 2009)

We asked you what was missing from our list, and Paweł Pawlikowski’s Ida, a stunning exploration of faith and history which won the Best Film award at the 2013 BFI London Film Festival, emerged as the most popular. Barbra Streisand’s Yentl came in second place, a musical that, though it has its detractors, is still loved by many (fun fact: Streisand became the first, and to date only, woman to win the Golden Globe for best director). A surprise inclusion is An American Tail, an animated family favourite about the adventures of rodent immigrant Fievel Mousekewitz.

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