Great Jewish Films

By | Oct 27, 2011

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.

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.

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