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Jewish films

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It is hard to state what makes a movie Jewish – its actors being Jewish, its producer being Jewish or its setting and main plot being Jewish-related? In some cases, all three elements are present, in some only one or two. However, most film critics consider these films to be Jewish. The following paragraphs shall present several movies which are branded as Jewish movies, due to the presence of one or more of the above elements. Main topics refer to experiences of the Holocaust, Judaism issues, or are simply the account of the struggles of Jews throughout the world, trying to combine harmoniously their lives in a secularized society with elements of Jewish tradition.

The order of the films’ presentation is a chronological one, from the oldest to the most recent ones. However, due to space restrictions, not all movies could be included in the present article. Only the most representative, along with the most well-known have been chosen, leaving you, the reader, to discover the rest, once you have been enticed by their subjects and approaches of Jewish matters.

Green Fields (1937) is a great film about the troubles of life and love ongoing in a shtetl in Eastern Europe. The story has many Jewish elements, the characters have been designed so as to appear Jewish, and they are talking in Yiddish. The funny aspect of this film is that it was filmed in New Jersey, although the plot is set in Eastern Europe and the film’s director – Edgar Ulmer didn’t speak Yiddish at all.

Exodus (1960) was released at a time when the image of Israel needed considerable boosting, especially within the area. Starring Paul Newman as the lead, the film portrays the Israelis as warriors and super-humans, creating thus a mythology of this country, which proved useful in its further development.

The Nutty Professor (1963) presents one with characters which seem to have been taken from a Saul Bellow book – a brilliant and klutzy Jewish development man and a slick hustler-type Buddy Love. The film was directed by Jerry Louis.

The Producers (1968) is a movie about Jewish liberation, combining several Jewish elements, such as names and plot, and telling the story of a director who wants to produce a Broadway musical which should become an instant success. The movie was directed by Mel Brooks and won an Academy Award.

Funny Girl (1968) is an adaptation of a Broadway play and tells the story of the life of a Jewish comedy actress - Fanny Brice. Also, the movie is responsible for launching Barbra Streisand’s career and appeared at a time when Jewish self-confidence was at its highest around the globe.

Fiddler on the Roof (1971) is set in pre-revolutionary Russia and tells the story of a Jewish peasant who aims to marry his daughters well at a time when anti-Semitic sentiment boils within his village. The film provides one with an insight into the Jewish culture and has been a landmark which determined an increased interest in Jewish life. The director was Norman Jewison.

The Garden of the Finzi-Continis (1971) is another great movie telling the story of a wealthy Jewish family living in Italy, who fails to acknowledge the fact that Mussolini’s fascist regime poses a great threat to them. The film is produced by the neorealist director Vittorio De Sica.

The Heartbreak Kid (1972) is a wonderful comedy about a Jewish groom (interpreted by Charles Grodin), who leaves his wife during their honeymoon for a shiksa woman (played by Cybil Shepherd). The movie, directed by Elaine May, approaches the myth of the forbidden fruit.

Blazing Saddles (1974) was written and directed by Mel Brooks and is an expression of Jewish sensibility, through its severe social criticism and exposure of racism.

Hester Street (1975) was directed by Joan Micklin Silver (a Jewish woman) and is an attempt to provide one with realist examples of the life in Lower East Side. It is essentially a poignant feminist movie.

Annie Hall (1977) was directed by Woody Allen and combines a series of New York and Jewish motifs, dealing with the relations between a Jewish family and between Jews and gentiles. The film is filled with Jewish cultural references and creates a very enticing Jewish world living within the wonderful but hectic New York world.

The Frisco Kid (1979) starring Gene Wilder is a film about the American frontier and the lack of order characterizing it. Wilder plays the leading role of Jewish Frisco Kid, who is on the good side of the law and takes rational decisions, even though these decisions mean that sometimes he has to shoot the bad guys to protect the communities along the Frontier.

The Chosen (1981) is based on the homonym novel and deals with major Jewish topics such as the Holocaust, the formation of the state of Israel, the main values and conflicts within Judaism and within Jewish families, etc. It is a film which contributed greatly to raising awareness on these main topics and also helped many understand Jewish life.

The White Rose (1982) is a film whose topic is still relevant today as peoples have continued to fight evil governments. The film was directed by Michael Verhoeven and tells a story of moral resistance to the Third Reich, becoming thus a referential film about the Jewish experience in the Second World War.

Shoah (1985) is in fact a documentary on the survivors of the Holocaust, containing nine hours of interviews conducted with concentration camp survivors. The topics referred to the camps of Treblinka, Auschwitz-Birkenau and the Ghetto in Warsaw.

Lost in America (1985) is hardly qualified a Jewish movie at first sight. Telling the story of a couple who leave their jobs to travel to America, it touches upon themes such as idealism, the feeling of alienation, self-absorption, which are all sentiments characterizing the development of the young state of Israel. The film could be seen as a metaphor of the troubled early development of the state of Israel.

Dirty Dancing (1987) is less a Jewish film, except for the fact that the leading female character is a Jewish-American woman on her way to maturity during a summer vacation with her family. The troubles experienced within her family once she falls in love with a non-Jewish man are symbolic of the inner debates on the matter which take place within regular Jewish families.

Torch Song Trilogy (1988) is associated with Harvey Weinstein, him being both the writer and the star. The film explores many Jewish stereotypes as it turns a Broadway play into a film.

The Plot Against Harry (1989) is a hilarious comedy, directed by Michael Roemer, telling the story of a Jewish former convict who attempts to get back to normal life after being released from prison, but who is faced with distress from several torrid affairs and Jewish divorcees.

Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989) is a film directed by Woody Allen, telling a story of love, cheating and morality, but overall a story touching on major themes, which are approached from a Jewish perspective.

Enemies: A Love Story (1989) is a film based on the novel by Isaac Bashevis, telling the life story of a Holocaust survivor and the women which interacted with him. It is essentially a film about the Jewish experience after the Holocaust, manifesting an inner respect for the ones who got through the Holocaust, but also attempting to integrate them in a bustling society.

Avalon (1990) was inspired by the director Barry Levinson’s family experiences on immigration. This beautiful saga deals with the difficulties as well as joys experienced by American immigrants and the plot is set in Baltimore, Levinson’s hometown.

Europa, Europa (1991) was directed by Agnieszka Holland, and the plot was adapted from the experience of a Holocaust survivor – Salomon Perel, who wrote his memoirs in which he described his fight for survival as a disguised Aryan fighting in the German army. The film confronts two major issues – Jewish traditions and the many situations during the Second World War which have tried to deny the first ones.

Me Ivan, You Abraham (1993), the film made by Yolande Zauberman tells the story of Jewish life in a shtetl in the Polish countryside in the 1930s. Ivan and Abraham are two boys sent away for an errand, who find upon return that their town has been destroyed by a pogrom.

Like a Bride (1994) is set in a different location than most Jewish movies – Mexico City. The film was directed by Guita Schyfter and follows the lives of two Jewish girls - one Sephardic and one Ashkenazi, from childhood until marriage.

Nobody’s Business (1996) was directed by Alan Berliner and is focused on his own family troubles. His father divorced his mother and according to critics, this is the perfect example of a typical dysfunctional Jewish family.

Late Marriage (2001) should be seen in connection with “The Fiddler on the roof”, although the two are very different. This movie deals with the struggling drama of a Georgian-Jewish bachelor who falls in love with a divorced woman. His family disapproves of his choice and he is torn by the decision he has to make. Overall, it’s a film exploring Jewish traditional beliefs about love and marriage.

Local Angel (2002) is an emotional documentary about the inability of Israel to consider the possibility of a two-state solution. It was directed by Udi Aloni and is itself a touching account of what might have been, had this two –state solution been contemplated.

Zero Degrees of Separation (2005) deals with a similar topic as the previous one – the dispute generated by the occupation of the West Bank by Israel, portrayed in a surprising manner by a series of gay/lesbian couples who constantly cross the Israeli and Palestinian borders. A very courageous approach!

Everything is Illuminated (2005) is a film dealing with the matter of Jewish identity in the shape of the long journey of a man to come to terms with his family’s troubled history.

Borat (2006) might not be considered to be a Jewish film, but according to critics, the comedy of provocation is a traditionally Jewish theme.

The Counterfeiters (2007) is based on a true story of the largest counterfeiting heist planned by the Nazis in 1936. Salomon "Sally" Sorowitsch is a professional counterfeiter, who is caught by the Nazis, taken to several concentration camps where his skills earn him the pressure of the Nazis to engage in this heist.

Waltz with Bashir (2008), although an animated film, draws a presentation of Jewish history through the interviews conducted by the director Ari Folman with veterans who fought in the 1982 invasion of Lebanon.

Being Jewish in France (2009) is a documentary worth visiting for its historical and educational values. The film deals with a country where the Jews experienced both emancipation as well as struggle, giving several examples in this regard – the Dreyfus affair, the German invasion, the Holocaust, etc.

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