What’s the best Jewish movie scene of all time? In our July/August symposium, we asked directors, actors and experts—from Carl Reiner to Mayim Bialik—to weigh in.
We asked our readers the same question—allowing them to decide for themselves what qualifies as a Jewish scene. They wrote about the films that made them laugh, films they recognize themselves in and films that shed light on history. Here is a selection of our readers’ responses.
In Norman, Richard Gere as the title character—a would-be wheeler-dealer who tells exaggerated accounts of his connections and keeps body and soul together by eating oneg leftovers at the synagogue—hopes he can make his way through a knot of people to remind the Israeli prime minister that the two of them once met. And before he can quite push through, the prime minister recognizes and welcomes him! Finally Norman’s ship has come in. As audience, we’ve been pulling for Norman a long time, and it’s a moment of pure gratification—or almost pure, because we know the subtitle of the movie is “The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer.”
—Mark L. Levinson
Menashe is a Yiddish-language kitchen sink drama about a widower in the middle of a custody battle with his brother-in-law over his only son, Ruben. The character of Menashe is a lovable schlemiel who, despite his best intentions, keeps making mistake after mistake. His wife’s yahrtzeit dinner is his one chance to make good and, though guests complain about his burnt kugel, he does. Ruben sings a sweet but morbid Yiddish song that he and his mother used to sing. The look of love in Menashe’s eyes while watching his son sing is absolutely transcendent. None of the actors in this movie are professionals; all of them are hasidim from Borough Park or Monsey, most of whom have never even seen a movie, let alone acted in one.
Me Ivan, You Abraham (1993)
In Me Ivan, You Abraham, Ivan, a Christian boy, lives with a Jewish family to learn a trade. He becomes best friends with Abraham, the family’s son. With anti-Semitism rampant and the threat of war imminent, the boys set off on an adventure only to return to the shtetl, which has been desecrated and burned to the ground. The boys stand there silently staring at the destruction. The scene represents the pogroms and the Holocaust and a culture that vanished into history.
Everything is Illuminated (2005)
In one of the opening scenes of Everything is Illuminated, Elijah Wood’s character Jonathan stands in front of a wall of objects he has collected over his lifetime and stored in little baggies. It’s an exaggerated moment that unfolds into a story about searching for lost memories, reconstructing them, and preserving them for the future. I, too, have always had a drive to collect, and watching this story of a modern-day zamler (collector) affected by the loss of his family’s history in Eastern Europe made me recognize that my drive to preserve a personal history exists in a Jewish context.
Schindler’s List (1993)
In Schindler’s List, when the actual surviving Schindler Jews are seen at a cemetery in Jerusalem, paying tribute to Oskar Schindler. Seeing the actual persons portrayed in the film was an incredibly powerful and heart-rending surprise and reduced me to weeping, as it still does every time I view that scene. Brilliant conclusion to a brilliant film.
Schindler’s List (1993)
Schindler’s List. The emotional impact felt with the change from black and white to color as the Jews arrived in Israel as survivors after being saved from death at the hands of the Nazis with the help of the righteous gentile, Schindler.
Annie Hall (1977)
The scene in Annie Hall where Woody Allen has the grandmother imagining him as a Hasid. It speaks, in terms both blunt and subtle, to our own neuroses about what Jewish identity means to us today.
—Rabbi Seth Adelson
Blazing Saddles (1974)
Blazing Saddles. The Indian chief speaking Yiddish. It’s one of the funniest bits in movie history.
Woman in Gold (2015)
The wedding memory scene at the end of Woman in Gold. The scene makes me appreciate life because the woman who lost so much cherishes happy memories, and that’s how I envision my wedding without the tragedy that followed. I can’t watch it without tearing up.