Great Jewish Films

The Frisco Kid (1979)

This very funny film is about the relationship of Jewish justice to the lack of law and order on the American frontier. Gene Wilder, who plays the Frisco Kid, prefers rational decision-making and even feels guilty when he shoots one of the bad guys.

Green Fields (1937)

A lovely film about Jewish life and love in a shtetl in Eastern Europe was shot in New Jersey and made in Yiddish for Americans. The story is Jewish, and the characters look like Jews, not Hollywood stars. The director, Edgar Ulmer, couldn't speak a word of Yiddish.

Exodus (1960)

Released when Israel was the underdog, it portrays Israelis as superhumans. When I went to Israel for the first time, I was surprised to see that most Israelis didn't look like Paul Newman and weren't warriors. The film created a mythology about Israel that was important at the time.

Hester Street (1975)

Directed by a Jewish woman (Joan Micklin Silver), this powerful film attempts to provide a realistic look at life on the Lower East Side. It's a feminist film; a religious woman ends up triumphant at the end.

Blazing Saddles (1974)

Since Mel Brooks wrote and directed it, it has a Jewish sensibility. The first time I saw it, the crude jokes made me uncomfortable, but later I realized not only how hilarious it was, but also how important it was in terms of social critique, especially in its exposure of racism.

Patricia Erens is the author of The Jew in American Cinema.

Photo via ImpawardsDavid Desser

Animal Crackers (1930)

Verbal wit and a zest for life characterize Groucho, Chico, and Harpo. All of the Marx Brothers' early films are subversive, but this one really takes a dim view of society and snob-culture, while making wonderful cultural references and in-jokes.

The Pawnbroker(1965)

This film about a man who tries to block out his memories of the war captures the trauma of the Holocaust in a way few subsequent films have. It is at once a plea for remembrance and for contemporary social justice.

Annie Hall (1977)

This endlessly funny and charming film runs the gamut from life in New York, to Jewish family life, to Jewish-gentile relations, to the meaning of love. Woody Allen's cultural references are very New York, very Jewish.

Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989)

Woody Allen demonstrates his singular importance as an artist of the American Jewish experience. His usual concerns find both funny and tragic expression in a surprisingly complex examination of the nature not only of love, but morality--a very Jewish concern.

Blazing Saddles (1974)

Mel Brooks skewers the official mythology of America by attacking the cherished Western. There are in-jokes that some audiences won't get, but few miss the point of a black sheriff vanquishing racism and standing up for history's little guys. It's the best example of "Jewish sensibility" without identifiably Jewish characters.

David Desser is the co-author of American Jewish Filmmakers.

Photo via Wikimedia CommonsBen Furnish

Fiddler on the Roof(1971)

This superb film is an important link between Yiddish and Jewish American culture not just because of its schmaltz but because it adapts many of Yiddish theater's performance sensibilities. The film is based on the Broadway musical, itself adapted from the stories of Sholom Aleichem.

Avalon (1990)

It is a beautiful--visually as well as thematically--generational saga inspired by director Barry Levinson's Jewish family's experiences. The film pays homage to both Levinson's hometown of Baltimore and to the joys and sorrows of American immigrants.

Funny Girl (1968)

Another adaptation from Broadway, the film tells the early life story of Jewish comedienne Fanny Brice and launched the Hollywood career of Barbra Streisand. The film appeared at a time of increasing Jewish self-confidence in the 1960s.

Torch Song Trilogy (1988)

Adapted from the barrier-breaking Broadway play, it brought an affirmatively gay and Jewish-themed story to film. Harvey Fierstein, the writer and star, simultaneously exploits and explodes many Jewish performance stereotypes.

3/2/2010 5:00:00 AM
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