Great Jewish Films

By | Oct 27, 2011

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.

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.

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