Top 10 American Films About Judaism & Jewish Life

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)

Top 10 American Films About Judaism & The Jewish Way Of LifeDreamWork’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)

Top 10 American Films About Judaism & The Jewish Way Of LifeThe 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)

Top 10 American Films About Judaism & The Jewish Way Of LifeBarbara 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)

Schindler' s List, Film, Steven Spielberg, Top 10 Films,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)

Top 10 American Films About Judaism & The Jewish Way Of LifeSlight 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)

The Jazz Singer, Film, Cinema, Sound, Hollywood,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)

Top 10 American Films About Judaism & The Jewish Way Of LifeEdward 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)

Annie Hall, Film, Woody AllenAny 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)

blazingsaddles_top10filmsIn 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)

Top 10 American Films About Judaism & The Jewish Way Of LifeVery 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…

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About the Author
Steve Shepherdson started writing professionally during his time at university where he studied BA Creative Writing & Film Studies. Specialising in film, theatre and entertainment, he has worked for such publications as Om Yoga, Sardines Magazine and The Hollywood News. He is currently working on his first novel, a science fiction story called Revolution Island. Click here to connect with Steve on LinkedIn. Also found out more at: steveshepherdson.weebly.com

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  1. Avatar
    Lee Hicks Reply

    Cabaret’s a great film. Nice to see it make your list. More people need to see Yentl.

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    Mark Fraser Reply

    Interesting list … The first thing that sprung to mind was The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, but it doesn’t count as it was made in Canada.

    Made by US money, though, are:

    Little Odessa (1994) – interesting low key gangster movie that suggests Eddie Furlong should have enjoyed a better career.

    The Grey Zone (2002) – would have been my Holocaust entry.

    The Serpent’s Egg (1978) – Cabaret’s evil twin and arguably one of Bergman’s most misunderstood movies. Co-produced by the Germans.

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    ArchE Reply

    Hela rshimh fabrikant which is apparently “hello list maker” according to one English to Yiddish dictionary I found. It’s the first and last bit of Yiddish I’m likely to know. No bother, Woody Allen gets by with his acquainted mother tongue and I’ve been just fine listening to the bespectacled writer-director thus far lament on life, love and sexual ruin. I suppose picking an Allen film is preferable through the safe option of Annie Hall but I’d be inclined to pick Crimes and Misdemeanors (perhaps not everyone’s favourite). Cabaret, Fiddler On The Roof and Yentl are all finger-licking-good picks.

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    CineGirl Reply

    Good list. The Frisco Kid – another one starring Gene Wilder to go alongside Blazing Saddles – would be a nice addition.

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    meanypie Reply

    There’s been many good ones out of Hollywood. Some others I like – Gentleman’s Agreement (1947), Sidney Lumet’s A Stranger Among Us and probably Renee Zellweger’s best performance outside of Bridget Jones, A Price Above Rubies.

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    Callum Reply

    There’s a few I haven’t seen on here which I must catch up with. Cabaret and Yentl are the ones that sound most intriguing. I think I saw Fiddler on the Roof many years ago. I quite liked Keeping The Faith. A Serious Man, Schindler’s List and Blazing Saddles are all awesome.

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    Ruth Reply

    Somehow the first thing I thought of was Ben-Hur (1959). This is a great list!

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