I love movies. But whenever someone mentions a Jewish movie that I’ve never seen but certainly must, I dread it. Despite all the rave reviews of the acting, directing or plot line — mostly from people who don’t understand that when someone says text, they usually don’t mean a book — the meaning and emotion never comes through to me. Maybe this is a reflection of my shallow interpretation of movies, or my childish inability to sit through hours that seem meaningless because the ending scene was entirely predictable. So for anyone who shares this dilemma, here’s a list of movies with Jewish themes that I’d see again and again.
“You Don’t Mess With the Zohan” (2008): I’ll admit that the entire plot line of this movie is stupid (it’s so bad I can’t even think of a more sophisticated word to describe it). But that plot will have to be excused for the absolute hilarity of almost every line. The movie follows Adam Sandler (the Zohan or Scrappy Coco), an Israeli counter-terrorist, on his journey to start a new life in New York without the violence he encountered in the Middle East. You’ll almost cry because you’ve laughed so hard, and you’ll never look at hummus the same way again. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v1sSScgXGuk
“The Frisco Kid” (1979): Don’t immediately cross this one off your list when you see that it was made before you were born. Set in the style of a classic western, the movie follows a Polish rabbi on his journey across America to San Francisco while accompanied by a classic cowboy (played by the classic American actor, Harrison Ford). http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q9EySCBPodM&feature=related As the rabbi, Wilder is a Pink Panther-esque balance of obtuse, incompetent and determined. By the end of the movie, you’ll realize that Ford should accompany you on your next cross-country trip west and that Polish rabbis (at least the Gene Wilder types) should stick to Talmud.
“Annie Hall” (1977): Apart from being the best romantic comedy of all time, this movie is totally Jewish New York before bagels became secular and the Upper West Side became known for its chain drugstores. Woody Allen, the quintessential nervous Jew, and Diane Keaton (yes, she was famous before she starred in all the middle-aged romantic comedies with actors that used to be heartthrobs) make a great pair, with idiosyncrasies that combine to create an almost normal pair. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E0v2MpBbQPM&feature=related There are more than a couple of Woody Allen lines that you’ll take to your grave and you’ll remember the self-serving lesson that if this couple (granted it is a movie) can survive, at least for (almost) the duration of the film, then any, even your personal one, can too.
“Fiddler on the Roof” (1971): I know it’s a cliché to put “Fiddler” on the list of the best Jewish movies. I would bet that there is not a Top Five out there in which the memorable Tevye and “If I Were a Rich Man” don’t make it. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=244Str11YNA&feature=related So I guess, more than recommending this movie, I’m repeating the Jewish kid mandate that you must see it, just like drinking grape juice for years on Friday nights and getting sick on charoset. Shalom Aleichem’s (no, you did actually learn something in Hebrew school; his name is a greeting) characterization of the Jewish father is spot-on (or maybe just in my case) and his depiction of the Jewish struggle for modernization is both touching and still relevant.
“Holy Rollers” (2010): I happen to think that, between Jesse Eisenberg and Michael Cera, Eisenberg is the better coming-of-age actor. I also think that I am one of the few people who saw all his movies that didn’t do as well as expected before “The Social Network.” This is one of those movies. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9OrjeUDYIc4. Eisenberg plays a chasidic Jew from Williamsburg who gets involved in a scheme to smuggle drugs into the United States. Based on a true story, the movie is disturbing in its social commentary on the depth of the Jewish faith (or the lack thereof), while thematically the movie has all the elements of a typical coming-of-age story, complete with the standard repertoire of sex, drugs and family conflict.
Watch one. I’m not promising that they’ll be the best movies you’ve ever seen (because they won’t). But they offer views into various aspects of Jewish culture that many Jews aren’t familiar with, from the Israeli counter-terrorism mentality of the Zohan to the rebels of chasidic society. Watch one for the laughs, for some religious enlightenment, or for the personal satisfaction of saying you managed to sit through a “Jewish” — though some only nominally — movie.