Seeing as watching movies has been my principal activity for most of my waking life, one shouldn’t be surprised that it was through cinema that I learned most about cultures that were foreign to me growing up. Judaism was no exception. Always curious about differing ways of life, that of the Jewish people has always held extra weight with me because of their long and rich history so often fraught with persecution. Movies made me discover that there is no such thing as a singular Jewish way of life. From orthodox to self-loathing, Judaism, like other religious denominations, gains its meaning from the individual that identifies with it. Here are 10 films that offered me illuminating and diverse perspectives on how Jewish people live:
YENTL (Barbara Streisand; 1983)
The story of a young Jewish girl (Barbra Streisand) masquerading as a boy in order to pursue religious studies following the death of her Rebbe father was the first glimpse I remember getting into the world of orthodox Judaism. While I’m not typically a great fan of Streisand’s, her low-key performance here seems to mirror the non-jewish spectator’s status as an outside observer, her immersion into an unknown but often heard-of world initiating a journey of discovery that she shares with the viewer. Perhaps most memorable is the scene when Yentl/Anshel must consummate her marriage to Haddas (Amy Irving), the traditional requirement for the post-coital presence of blood-stained sheets leading to an alleviating resolution that partly turns the two women into accomplices. It is also a musical that is often remembered for its memorable songs.
Perhaps the most famous holocaust film in recent years, this Oscar-winning film powerfully captures the cruelty, desperation and remaining traces of hope that filled the horrifying plight of the Jewish people during World War II. The beautiful black-and-white photography poignantly conveys the impersonal coldness associated with the war’s massive death sentences, a coldness that is appropriately thawed by the emergence of a young girl in a red jacket, whose fleeting but unforgettable presence is arguably the film’s most memorable element. Furthermore, the story of a German businessman (Liam Neeson) turning his factory into a haven for persecuted Jews features career-marking performances by Neeson, Ralph Fiennes and Ben Kingsley, making it not only one of the best movies ever made about the holocaust, but one of the better cinematic achievements period.
Perhaps the most ambitious project on this list, Sunshine follows three generations of a Hungarian Jewish family during the 20th century. Ralph Fiennes portrays grandfather, father and son as they take over the reins of their respective patriarchal predecessors during various storylines dealing with filial piety, resistance to persecution and honoring one’s heritage. Beautifully crafted and internationally produced, this little-known generational epic is one from which it is hard to look away, its 3-hour running time seemingly flying by as viewers effortlessly immerse themselves into the broken joys and resilient tribulations of the Sonnenchein/Sors family.
One of my favorite films on this list, this semi-autobiographical film from director Barry Levinson (The Natural; Rain Man; Bugsy) is a feel-good coming-of-age movie that follows an American Jewish family during the tumultuous fifties. While the plot mainly focuses on the two male siblings (Ben Foster and Adrian Brody) and their romantic involvements with girls of different worlds (African-American and WASP respectively), the supporting cast, particularly Joe Mantegna and Bebe Neuwirth as the colorful parents, help make this picture a constantly enjoyable one. Whether dealing with the absurd protective measures against nuclear attacks or with parents reacting to their Jewish son dressing up as Hitler for Halloween, the result is an always stimulating breath of fresh air that continually leaves the trace of a smile on the side of your mouth.
With one of the most head-scratching endings in recent memory, this quirky, offbeat yet subtly hilarious black comedy stands out amidst the Coen bros.’ typical body of work. Practically devoid of violence (unusual for the filmmaking team), the film’s main strength is in its ability to connect the audience’s state of mind to that of the titular serious man, Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg). He is in constant puzzlement over the events that are slowly unraveling his well-ordered life, events that seem natural to all except him and the viewer. Once again imbued with an autobiographical feeling, this low-key, warped exploration into the life of a Jewish regular joe juggles theological undertones with scientific allusions in a way that keeps the audience guessing on where the film ultimately stands. Unique in many ways, this subtle gem is sure to make you look at your own problems with renewed optimism.
While perhaps many of Woody Allen’s films could have been named here, Annie Hall stands out once again for its autobiographical implications. From the film’s opening frames of a young Alvy Singer (Woody Allen) in class talking to the camera, Allen sets up the film’s ties to his own childhood while also preparing the audience for its unconventional approach to storytelling. Primarily revolving around Singer’s relationship with the titular Annie Hall (Diane Keaton), the picture notably jumps back and forth through time in order establish the building blocks of this whirlwind romance. Furthermore, Allen’s direct interaction with the audience gives us revealing insights into his psyche, including hilarious observations in regards to his Jewish upbringing.
MUNICH (Steven Spielberg; 2005)
The second Spielberg film on this list, this powerful historical drama follows the covert actions of Israeli secret agents in the aftermath of the events of Black September during the 1972 Munich Olympics. Complex and emotional, this tightly woven thriller demands the audience’s complete attention as it takes it through several countries and a myriad of characters in order to find the targets of a national vendetta. As the pursuing agents gradually begin to question the veracity of their mission, their growing conscience begins to shake their confidence in the righteousness of its completion. Filled with nuanced characters and questionable motives, this unparalleled black-ops epic gives us a vivid glimpse inside this controversial chapter in the history of the Jewish state. Furthermore, to paraphrase Seth Rogen’s character in Knocked Up, it’s simply refreshing to see Jews being the hunters instead of the hunted. For a nonfiction account of Black September, also see the Academy Award winning documentary One Day in September (Kevin Macdonald; 1999).
Simple in its plot and execution, this heartwarming romantic comedy recalls Yentl in its thematic treatment of the behavioral expectations of Jewish women. With her clever casting of Amy Irving as the protagonist, the director connects both films as she emphasizes the passage of time for both the older actress (therefore dealing with a different period in a woman’s life) and the changes in gender roles resulting from the modernisation of society. While sometimes feeling like the Jewish answer to the previous year’s hugely successful Moonstruck, Delancey is unique in its humble approach to romance and creative in its intended targets (a pickle salesman?). Its genuine performances and minimal texture makes it stand out from the outrageousness of your typical 80s romantic comedy.
While not explicitly recognized as a Jewish-related film, I’ve included this movie due to the simple fact that it features Jewish protagonists existing in the world of a genre that, cinematically, is rarely related to Judaism: the gangster picture. Apart from films dealing with Meyer Lansky or ‘Bugsy’ Siegel, the Jewish community is virtually absent from the gangster cinema canon. While religion is never really on the forefront of this film, the early 20th-century childhood scenes reveal much about the conditions of Jewish family life during the era. Furthermore, I’ve always thought it significant that an Italian director, filming a genre that is typically populated by Italian characters, would opt to tell the story of Jewish gangsters instead of Italians. While I want to leave the reasons for this choice open to speculation, it does succeed in blurring the lines of ethnicity when it comes to the realities of urban immigrant life in the early days of the previous century.
This powerful exploration of cultural self-loathing is not for the faint of heart. In telling the story of Danny Balint (Ryan Gosling in one of his first roles), a young Jewish man who became a neo-nazi, writer-director Henry Bean shows us another side of religious persecution, one that is aimed inwards rather than out. The conviction with which Balint dedicates himself to hatred is a shocking reminder of the twisted form human nature can take. Interestingly, the apex of Balint’s outrage is aimed at his fellow skinheads, whose lack of knowledge about the details of the culture they proclaim to hate renders them, in his eyes, unworthy of being anti-Semitic. The film therefore belies the notion that hate and prejudice come from a lack of cultural understanding, rooting them instead in the depths of the individual’s selective perspective. The movie’s impact is amplified once it is learned that its events are based on an actual case.