Great Jewish Films

By | Oct 27, 2011

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.

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 a 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 Che?mno; 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 a couple who quit their jobs to travel across America, it is without explicitly Jewish content but nevertheless expresses a 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.

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