It’s well documented how many Jewish artists, musicians and writers have contributed towards the American creative industries. In terms of film, here are 10 classic examples of movies with a Jewish theme.
Prince Of Egypt (Brenda Chapman/Steve Hickner/Simon Wells, USA, 1998)
DreamWork’s re-telling of the life of Moses is beautifully animated and, in the most part, faithful to the original biblical story. Featuring songs by Stephen Schwartz the composer of Godspell and Wicked the film was released in the studio’s inaugural year to positive critical reviews and spurned a prequel Joseph: King of Dreams.
Fiddler On The Roof (Norman Jewison, USA, 1971)
The film version of the popular Broadway show has a plethora of memorable songs, such as Matchmaker, Matchmaker, If I Were a Rich Man and Sunrise, Sunset. The story is set in early twentieth century Russia and tells the story of a father’s attempts to hold onto Jewish traditions amidst a dissatisfied youth culture and political tranny.
Yentl (Barbra Streisand, USA, 1983)
Barbara Streisand’s directorial debut looks at the role of women at the turn of the twentieth century in an orthodox Jewish community. Banned from learning anything other than how to be a good housewife, Yentl Mendel disguises herself as a boy in order to attend school and study the Torah. The film earned Streisand the Golden Globe for Best Director – the first woman to obtain the award.
Schindler’s List (Steven Spielberg, USA, 1993)
It is inevitable that any list of great Jewish films will at some point tackle the Shoah (a word preferred by many Jews over the more familiar Holocaust). There is little to say about Steven Spielberg’s harrowing masterpiece other than that it is a film that had to be made. It is one of hope amidst a terrifying and violent reality and one that will stay with you long after you switch off the television.
A Serious Man (Ethan Coen/Joel Coen, USA, 2009)
Slight and slow paced, the Coen brothers’ A Serious Man actually tackles some pretty big questions. A modern day version of the Book of Job, the film’s themes of suffering and the nature of the divine being are ones that have perplexed Rabbis and Jewish philosophers since Abraham. In turns funny, poignant and funny and poignant it is another classic in the Coen brothers’ overflowing canon.
The Jazz Singer (Alan Crosland, USA, 1927)
Delicately tiptoeing over the (quite rightly) thorny issue of minstrelsy and blackface, The Jazz Singer ranks as a landmark film within the industry. Being the first movie to mix sound with the moving picture, it changed the future of the profession forever. The story of a young Jewish man leaving the old ways behind to be an entertainer is now preserved in the National Film Registry.
Keeping The Faith (Edward Norton, USA, 2000)
Edward Norton’s first film as a director is a traditional romcom with a twist – the love triangle involves a business woman, a Catholic Priest and a Rabbi. With some very funny scenes played out by Norton himself along with Ben Stiller and Jenna Elfman, the film portrays two down-to-earth and modern spiritual leaders, which is a nice change from depictions of the more seedy types.
Annie Hall (Woody Allen, USA, 1977)
Any Woody Allen film could have appeared in this list because they are all inextricably Jewish in nature and sensibility. Annie Hall is a great example with fine humour coupling deeper philosophical discussions. The Easter Dinner scene, particularly, is a classic example of using humour to raise an important point, in this case about assimilation and that feeling of being an outsider.
Blazing Saddles (Mel Brooks, USA, 1974)
In Blazing Saddles Mel Brooks’ protagonist, a black sheriff in the white Wild West, is told by Gene Wilder’s gunslinger: “You’ve got to remember that these are just simple farmers. These are people of the land. The common clay of the new West. You know… morons.” Despite the backdrop of prejudice and hatred, the film is one of the funniest ever made with several classic scenes.
Cabaret (Bob Fosse, USA, 1972)
Very dark and unsettling, Cabaret, another stage musical brought to the screen, could not be more different to Fiddler on the Roof. Controversial themes around corruption, sex and anti-Semitism resulted in the original release being rated ‘X’ but that didn’t stop it being a critical success. Set in a nightclub in 1930s Berlin, the rise of Nazism runs through the film and only adds to the darkness.
Written & Compiled by Steve Shepherdson
Over to you: what are your fave American films about Jewish life and Judaism…