The 125 greatest Jewish movie scenes of all time (1-25) – Forward

Posted By on July 2, 2022

Scenes from "Inglorious Basterds," "Funny Girl" and "Der Dybbuk" capture a Jewish je ne sais quoi. Photo by Angelie Zaslavsky

By PJ GrisarJuly 01, 2022

For as long as there have been moving pictures, there have been Jews.

This isnt really saying much, as the medium of film is millennia newer than the People of the Book. And yet, while Jews had an outsized role in shaping Hollywood, Jewish content wasnt always visible onscreen. The major stars of the silent and pre-code era typically werent of Hebrew stock and, if they were, pretty reliably changed their names along with Jewish directors. In building what Neal Gabler dubbed An Empire of Their Own, moguls recognized the bulk of their audience was Christian, and picked their projects accordingly.

But there were always exceptions that proved the rule. Some Jews, both in America and abroad, couldnt help but slyly insert some Yiddishkeit into their films. Austrian screenwriter Henrik Galeen, drawing from Jewish mysticism, helped define the horror genre with Der Golem. William Wyler got John Barrymore to say gonif in Counsellor at Law and the Brothers Marx spoke of their plan to pass over a Jewish neighborhood in Cocoanuts. The first talkie, 1927s The Jazz Singer, followed the son of a cantor and the generational rift between Old World observance and assimilation.

While Ben Hecht wrote the original Scarface, an Italian gangster flick for Yiddish theater veteran Paul Muni (n Frederich Meshilem Meier Weisenfreund), Yiddish film thrived in Europe and the U.S. With the rise of the Third Reich, Hollywood welcomed a crop of European Jewish talent (directors like Billy Wilder, Otto Preminger and Fritz Lang) whose work would enrich the landscape of American film. But their films werent necessarily Jewish at least not yet.

By the 1960s, studios, once reticent to touch on Jewish topics out of disinterest, fear of an alienated audience or the threat of German boycott throughout the 1930s were happy to roll the dice on actors named Dustin Hoffman and Barbra Streisand. Filmmakers like Mel Brooks, Mike Nichols, Elaine May and Woody Allen would kick off a renaissance of Jewish humor in the movies, fully committing to what their predecessors only hinted at. Paul Mazursky and Sidney Lumet would capture the counterculture and document the life of survivors. Otto Preminger would make Exodus with Paul Newman. Hollywood was Jewish and so, in many instances, was the film scene in Europe, South America and a new state in the Levant called Israel. Hearing the words mazel tov or schlep or seeing a bride and groom lifted aloft on chairs as Hava Nagila plays was no longer uncommon at the cinema.

If you were to edit the greatest Jewish scenes into a montage, how long would it last? Perhaps not the whole Parsha cycle, but it would be a real commitment to watch the entire thing. This list, which features some surprises, many obvious choices and surely just as many accidental omissions, is an attempt to capture the diversity and scope of Jewish moments in the film canon. Some highlight ritual, others language and still others a worldview or perspective that resonates with the shul-going, shiva-sitting, saw-you-at-Zabars set thats been kicking around since Sinai.

To assemble this list, we relied on a panel of experts, including critic Leonard Maltin and film historian Olga Gershenson. The contributors to this list are senior editor Adam Langer (AL), writer and comedian Jess Zeidman (JZ), The Hebrew Hammer writer and director Jonathan Kesselman (JK), Comedy by the Numbers co-writer Gary Rudoren (GR), author and pop culture historian Dan Epstein (DE), music historian and inaugural director of the YIVO recorded sound archive Henry Sapoznik (HS), film critic Simi Horwitz (SH), staff writer Irene Katz Connelly (IKC), staff reporter Mira Fox (MF), film critic Carrie Rickey (CR), former Forward executive editor Dan Friedman (DF), Forward contributing art critic Jackson Arn (JA) and New York historian and tour guide Andrew Silverstein (AS). You will also find essays that take a closer look at Haredi life captured on film, a tour de force takedown of Hitler, what makes movie sets Jewish and more.

The list ranges from the silent era to the Safdie Brothers, includes animated mice, Yiddish, Inquisition-themed synchronized swimming and yes, even the Neil Diamond Jazz Singer remake. Please read, enjoy and, if the spirit moves you, watch.

In a less sophisticated twist on the Maus formula, Don Bluths animated immigration tale imagines Old World mice as Jews, and Cossacks as cats. In a musical number, main character Fievel Mousekowitzs father sings a song of hope for their new home. There are no cats in America, he insists, as an ensemble of bearded and head-wrapped rodents join hands and leap over the promise of streets paved with cheese. Naturally, theyre wrong in the end: There arecats in America. Its a good lesson for young Jews, whether theyre named Moskowitz or Katz: Prejudice can thrive anywhere.

After surviving an attack from a large lupine creature on the Yorkshire moors, Jewish American David Kessler (David Naughton) lands in a London hospital. Consulting his chart, one of the nurses claims to know his religious affiliation, having looked at more than just his papers. Her co-worker, Alex (Jenny Agutter) says without ever uttering the word circumcision that it is common practice nowadays. While Alex claims that her colleagues sheet-peeking behavior was not proper, shes soon offering David a full body exam for non-medical purposes.

Perceiving himself through the eyes of his upper crust WASP hosts, Alvy Singer (Woody Allen) morphs into a Hasid, sporting a long coat, broad-brimmed hat and payot. It is Easter dinner, ham is on the menu and antisemitism is never far from the surface. Grammy Hall eyes their Jewish guest with unabashed distaste. The family is sedate and refined, talking about boating and swap meets (a New England tradition where locals trade used goods). Breaking the fourth wall, Alvy addresses the audience, noting they are nothing like my family, you know. In a split screen we see the Singer family at a dinner table, all crowded up against one another, pushing, shoving, reaching for the food, speaking at once, interrupting, arguing. Its an extraordinary snippet of affection coupled with self-loathing. (SH)

Shloime Mikhoels and Yiddish poet Itzik Feffer, who spearheaded the Jewish Anti-Fascist League in 1941, star in this short film made in collaboration with Sergei Eisentein. Made to rouse the awareness of world Jewry, it does not fail when it comes to shock value. In an indelible moment, Mikhoels, speaking directly into the camera, makes the sensational and since disproven assertion that soap is being made from murdered Jews. (HS)

At the films exact midpoint, hustling protagonist Duddy (Richard Dreyfuss) screens a pretentious art film, Happy Bar Mitzvah, Bernie, co-produced with a scrap-metal yard. It kicks off with Beethovens Fifth and unnecessarily baroque shots showing details of the shul as the bar mitzvah boy makes his way to the bimah and a narrator portentously explains that this rite is older than the banks of the Nile. Somehow we pivot from Bernie a Hebrew babe kissing the Torah mantle and reading his portion to flashbacks to his bris juxtaposed alongside goose-stepping Nazis, a Native American tribal dance and a man eating razor blades. A zayde faints. But as if daring the viewers to dispute this films merit, the short ends with the rabbi explaining the long history of Jewish genocides. In a remarkably subversive nod to the commoditization of both this sacred initiation and tragic memory, the rabbi then signs a copy of his book, Why Im Glad to Be a Jew, and hands it to Bernie as a gift. When the film fades to black on a faux cantorial prayer, we hear stony silence. But then, a round of applause. Who would boo a film that ends with an invocation of the Shoah?

The Hebrew Actors Union, the worlds first theater union, paid to have a promotional short made of its vaunted (read dreaded) secret audition. The slapdash and chaotic 20-minute short documents the authoritarian and exclusivist union as it slowly chokes the life out of the Yiddish American theater. The most eye-popping of the half-dozen auditions belongs to Dadaist poet/Yiddish radio personality Victor Packer who, sporting Grand Guignol-like makeup meant to be appreciated from a theaters back row, gives an over-the-top gymnastic performance from Jacob Gordins 1900 play, Got, mentsh un tayvl (God, Man and the Devil). (HS)

We all know this scene. Extended family squeezed around the Thanksgiving table that itself extends through two rooms of the house. Everyone wants to eat, but the patriarch says wait. Tradition! Well in this funny-cuz-it-feels-so-true family scene from Barry Levinsons tale of generations of Jewish immigrants in Baltimore, that tradition finally gets busted when the annually late Uncle Gabriel played by the lovably cantankerous actor Lou Jacobi (he of perfect timing) announces that hes leaving because they cut the turkey without him. The movie is anything but a turkey. (GR)

I am a Jew, an Egyptian soldier shouts at a pivotal moment in Rafi Bukais 1986 dramedy, controversial for its focus on fighters on the other side of the 1967 War. Haled (Salim Daw) has wandered through the Sinai and is thirsty but he also knows his Shakespeare. In an effort to get Israeli soldiers to lend him and his companion their canteens, he launches into Shylocks most famous monologue, pleading his humanity. Hes got his roles confused, barks one Israeli, unimpressed.

Made during Yiddish theater impresario Boris Thomashefskys forgotten-but-not-gone period (he had recently taken to performing in a Romanian restaurant on the Lower East Side), this, the only film by the former stage heartthrob, is a sad coda to what was once a glorious and influential career. The films most memorable scene and a reminder of its stage provenance comes when the star, delivering a critical monologue to said bar mitzvah boy, looks directly into the camera, harkening back, no doubt, to an old tic, when he would gaze out over a theater of his adoring fans to gauge the effect of his performance. (HS)

Walter Sobchak (John Goodman) is a PTSD-afflicted Vietnam vet given to paranoia and violent outbursts. Born a Polish Catholic, he converted to Judaism when he married his former wife; and though theyre no longer together, Walters adopted faith remains even dearer to him than his beloved sport of bowlingwhich is why he flies completely off the handle when he learns that his league has scheduled its next tournament round for a Saturday. Saturday, he explains, his rage increasing exponentially by the second, is Shabbos, the Jewish day of rest. That means I dont work, I dont drive a car, I dont fucking ride in a car, I dont handle money, I dont turn on the oven, and I sure as shit dont fing roll! Never say that converts arent as passionate about Judaism as those born into it! (DE)

Jewish cop Flip Zimmerman goes undercover to infiltrate the Klan in this Spike Lee joint, passing as the white face of his Black partner, Ron Stallworth. At first he denies having skin in the game. But when Ron gives Flip his Klan membership card, the once-defensive detective opens up about his relationship with his background. It wasnt part of my life, I never thought much about being Jewish, Zimmerman says. I was just another white kid. And now Im in some basement denying it out loudI never thought much about it now Im thinking about it all the time. Zimmerman realizes hes been passing his whole life. Nothing will make you feel more Jewish than a room of antisemites.

The most Jewish scene in Mel Brooks Western riff is its most uncomfortable (featuring the director in brownface as a Yiddish-speaking Native American who uses a racial slur). The fist-pumping apex of coalition when Jim (white Jewish actor Gene Wilder) and Bart (Black Christian actor Cleavon Little) rough up Klan members behind a rocky outcrop and walk out in their white robes. In a touch of extra Jewish verve, the backs of these new outfits are emblazoned with the Have a nice day smiley face endemic to Chinese food bags.

Journalist Borat Sagdiyev covers the faux Pamplona-inspired Running of the Jew ceremony, in which a giant, horn-laden, green Jew monster runs after antisemitic Kazakhs, before they capture and beat him with sticks. The sketch, ridiculing antisemitism and bigotry, is hysterical, subversive and completely over-the-top, particularly because Sacha Baron Cohens Borat gives the play-by-play in Hebrew. (JK)

So many elements of this short film about 13-year-old Birdies preparation for her bat mitzvah feel universal. If you ascended the bimah in the last 25 years, youll probably recognize the CD recordings through which Birdie memorizes her Torah portion, her vociferous complaints about said Torah portion, and even the awkward little bolero jacket she wears to cover her shoulders in shul. Yet the film illuminates a kind of Jewish experience rarely shown on screen: Birdie is a biracial Black and Jewish teen contending with rabbis who make her feel like an outsider always reminding me, Egypts in Africa, she quips. By the films end, Birdie is finally ready to enter the synagogue on her own terms. She strides into the sanctuary, a puffer jacket zipped over her shimmering dress, her hair bouncing confidently on her shoulders. Its a scene any Jewish teen can identify with and a moment when Birdie gets to be completely, uniquely herself. (IKC)

Four Jewish intellectuals are further delayed on their interminable journey to a funeral in Brooklyn when they collide with a taxi at the corner of Eastern Parkway and Bedford Avenue. Braced for a confrontation with the Black cabbie (Godfrey Cambridge), they are taken aback to discover that he is also Jewish, and far more interested in bonding with his fellow tribesmen than he is in fighting about the accident. Whats happening here involves the living, the cabbie admonishes the would-be mourners, who are in a hurry to settle things up and get to the funeral. Thats more important! (DE)

After a cabaret song in this Weimar-era saga compares marrying a Jewish girl to being in love with a gorilla, the movie graces us with a subplot that affirms Jewish love and humanity. Fritz Wendel, a minor character who has been hiding his Judaism for social and financial gain, must be true to his faith in order to be with Natalia Landauer, the Jewish heiress who loves him back but cant marry a gentile. In what could be missed in the blink of an eye, Fritz approaches his beloveds mansion, the gentle night breezes swaying the greenery in front of the imposing door, and knocks the gold lion knocker. When the door swings open, he says the three words Natalia wants to hear: Im a Jew. (JZ)

While nursing a bloody nose, Elio (Timothe Chalamet) tells his soon-to-be lover Oliver that he doesnt wear his Star of David necklace because My mother says were Jews of discretion. In a movie about queerness in the 1980s, this feels like a metaphor for more than just religion. (MF)

In a muscular little short directed by Sidney Goldin (the director and indulgent father of East and West), the popular Yiddish barnburner theater song A Khazndl Af Shabes (A Cantor on the Sabbath) turns into an arch take on how modern synagogues choose their cantors. The shorts closing, knockout scene features the American pop culture-obsessed Leibele Waldman delivering the Torah portion Yismakh Moshe set to the melody of Yes Sir, Thats My Baby. He even gets the otherwise taciturn synagogue elders to dance around the table. (HS)

A Jew like Ace Rothstein (Robert De Niro) can never be a made man and can never be truly trusted. While his murder-happy colleagues blame his loud suits and showboating, Rothsteins downfall actually comes courtesy of the bigotry of local commissioners and his Italian partners who only ever accept him conditionally. Midway through the film, Ace and casino manager Billy Sherbert (Don Rickles) toast Lchaim! at a nightclub. Observing him across the room, Rothsteins best friend, Nicky (Joe Pesci) calls him a Jew motherfer, behind his back. The ethnic resentment turns to extreme irony as this member of a clannish Italian crime family, speaking to another Italian mobster, watches Jews (and some non-Jews) eating and enjoying themselves at a bigger table. Fin Jews stick together, dont they? he seethes.

There is a movie where Kirk Douglas, playing a Jewish American helping the Israeli war effort, supplies Frank Sinatra with bottles of seltzer, which Sinatra then drops on Egyptian tanks to explode them. I dare you to think of a more Jewish scene than this.

Not directed as much as edited, Catskill Honeymoon is a stitched-together roller coaster of Yiddish vaudeville acts all ostensibly taking place in a Borscht Belt hotel. The film features Michael Michalesko, Julius Adler, Henrietta Jacobson, Bas Sheva and Jan Bart, among others. The scene worth the entire price of admission is the opening number by the Feder Sisters singing Im Going to Hitchhike to the Catskills, the only known musical homage to Route 17, the Yiddish Route 66. Not surprisingly, this film made the circuit of Borscht Belt hotels, whose postwar uptick from Holocaust survivors created a new market. (HS)

The most Jewish scene in The Chosen is one you may not have seen. In a moment only viewable in some rare VHS copies and in this Vimeo link the Modrn Orthodox Reuven goes to Dannys Hasidic shul and watches the intense davening. He also sees the men kiss the Torah scroll, a ritual that was deemed too Jewish for the finished film. In an essay, director Jeremy Kagan explains why.

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In a remarkable transformation, Eddie Murphy channels the spirit of an elderly Jew named Saul and delivers a quintessentially Jewish joke. A man in a restaurant tells a vaiter to taste the soup. Whats wrong with the soup, the waiter asks. Is it too hot? Too cold? The man tells the waiter to just taste the soup. The waiter finally agrees but asks, Wheres the spoon? Ah-ha! The punchline is that there is no spoon (The Matrix was right). Though it draws blank looks at the barbershop, this is a pitch-perfect old Jewish man joke and not just because it involves a guy eating soup.

The turning point of William Wylers rags-to-riches tale of George Simon (John Barrymore), a Jewish attorney who has climbed from Delancey Street to Park Avenue, comes when Simon learns an antisemitic colleague wants to disbar him based on a case from his early days, when he was a champion of the underclass. Defending himself, the fast-talking, faster-thinking Simon played by the goyishe Barrymore with more than a dash of Shylock must confront his past in the person of his former client. Wringing his hands, Simon is caught in the double-bind of so many first-generation Jews. Why should aiding his landsman disqualify him from acceptance by the legal community? Why, in America, is everything so binary? Why cant he be a Jew andan American? (CR)

A scene showing the protagonists prescient imagining of the Holocaust made this film immediately controversial. After a moment of jubilant dancing, Jews, wearing Star of David patches, are shown marching with suitcases and a casket.The camera shifts to the bare feet of prisoners in striped uniforms, finally yielding to Commissar Klavda (Nonna Mordyukova) and her baby, bearing witness to horrors to come. In her own time, during the Russian Civil War, Klavda had seen pogroms and promised Jews their lives would improve in a Communist state where people will work in peace and harmony. Her vision indicates the worst is still ahead for these people.

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The 125 greatest Jewish movie scenes of all time (1-25) - Forward

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