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Flickering Lights: Jewish Movies That Have Impacted Us

By Rabbi Boaz D. Heilman

February 8, 2019

Festivals have always been community-wide events meant not only for entertainment, but also for celebrating any number of the community’s traditions or cultural aspects. Jewish Americans today have music festivals, arts-and-crafts festivals, religious festivals, and of course, food festivals. These are wonderful occasions for rejoicing or reminiscing, for seeing what is new and beautiful, and for tasting a variety of fares from different countries and cultures.

Additionally, however, Jewish festivals also serve yet another important function: to bring together Jewish people; to let them interconnect, exchange ideas and thoughts.

In the past few years, a new kind of festival has become popular: the Jewish Film Festival.  More than other festivals, the Jewish Film Festival serves an additional function: to let us see ourselves the way others do. As we sit there, in the dark, watching and listening, we can recognize ourselves, both individually and as a community. Simultaneously, we also decipher the trends, the direction, and in general, the current state of the Jewish People.  Movies are a powerful medium.

An end-of-the-year tradition among literary pundits is to list the most important events of the almost-over-year. In a similar vein, knowing that the New Hampshire 2019 Jewish Film Festival will be coming to theaters in just a few weeks, I would like to put forth my own, very personal and very opinionated, nominations for the most influential Jewish movies that I have seen—not only in the past year, but actually over the past few years.

I will focus on movies that came out after the Holocaust, categorizing them by topic or era. 

First, the Holocaust—which, along with Hiroshima—is the most cataclysmic event of the 20thcentury, the one that changed us all forever, Jews and non-Jews alike.

The Diary of Anne Frankbrings—with both sensitivity and a growing sense of impending doom—the famous story of the young girl and her family who spent 25 months in hiding in an Amsterdam attic. Adapted from the actual diary, it was first staged as a play on Broadway. Filmed in 1959, The Diary of Anne Frankis one of the first Hollywood movies to bring the subject of the Holocaust to the large screen, and the first to win Academy Awards.

Judgment At Nuremberg, a movie filled with star power and gripping performances, doesn’t flinch from displaying in gruesome detail some of the horrors of the Holocaust.

Yet another movie that highlights the Holocaust—but doesn’t stop there, moving instead to the creation of the modern State of Israel—is Exodus, the 1960 film that gave hope to, and inspired, an entire generation.

Since then, many more Holocaust movies have come out, most importantly Schindler’s Listand The Pianist. Among European movies, Au Revoir Les Enfantsstands out, along with Europa Europa, the harrowing and true story of a young Jewish boy who survives by pretending to be German, at one point even joining the Hitler Youth!

As the actual historical events recede into the past, and with survivors becoming fewer in number, yet more Holocaust movies have come out in the past few years, portraying not only the larger, almost incomprehensible picture, but also the smaller, more personal stories, focusing on the day-by-day choices that had to be made: choices that meant not only physical but also moral survival; the survival not only of the body, but also of the Jewish spirit. In this category I would list Life Is BeautifulThe Grey Zone, and the dark and terrifying Son of Saul.

Beyond destruction comes rebirth. The renewed Israel experience can be seen in many films. After a series of “bourekas” or ethnic comedies, Israel has recently enjoyed a sort of renaissance in the artform.  For me, however, several movies stand out from all the others: first is Sallah Shabati, the 1964 film that paints with biting humor the chaos of immigration and resettlement during the early years of the State. With humor and wisdom, the film portrays the struggles that characterized the new, turned-upside-down lives of newly-arrived immigrants. Additionally, however, Sallah Shabati also reveals the emerging class and cultural conflict between European Ashkenazi Jews, and Sephardi Jews from Arab lands.

Among newer films from Israel, Fill the Void and Ushpizin give us insight into the life of Israel’s Orthodox and Hassidic communities; both films examine the way Jews try to maintain their beliefs and traditions while facing the various crises that life and modernity bring about. Still other movies examine the secular, social and political aspects of life in Israel today. (There is, of course, an Israel Film Festival, held annually in Jerusalem and elsewhere in Israel).

The American Jewish experience is almost as multi-faceted as its Israeli counterpart, and it can be examined through various movies. Fiddler On The RoofThe Frisco Kid, and the animated feature An American Tale offer interesting takes on Jewish immigration from Eastern Europe in the 19th century. Hester Street, Avalon and School Ties shed light on the challenges faced by Jews as they try to integrate into American society and adapt to the American way of life.

The films of Woody Allen offer a bitterly sarcastic view of how some Jewish Americans  see themselves. Crimes and Misdemeanors and—of course—Annie Hall are representative of this perspective, if one can get past the massive amounts of guilt and self-hate (some would even call it anti-Semitism) that fill Allen’s films.

Finally, an outstanding example of Jewish movies, unique and special in many ways, is Barbra Streisand’s Yentl. I point to this one not only because I love the gorgeous music (by Michel Legrand, who, sadly, died only a few days ago; and Streisand is at peak form in this movie! Just listen to how long she holds that last note in “Papa Can You Hear Me”). But above and beyond its artistic merits, Yentl is on my list because of the huge impact it had on American Jews, and particularly on Jewish women.  In its time, Yentl empowered thousands if not millions of American Jewish women, for the first time ever, to enter the “rooms within rooms” of Jewish learning. In this sense, Yentlhas had—and continues to have—lasting and essential influence on the American Jewish experience.

Obviously, this list is highly personal and incomplete. My apologies to all those that I left out. I am sure that there are huge gaps that can be filled by each of you. Hopefully this year’s Jewish Film Festival will add even more samples to this important new genre of Jewish culture. Who knows, some might even become classics.

Movies free our imaginations and fantasies. They also let us see ourselves as we truly are.  But just as importantly, the Jewish Film Festival strives to gather, at least for a couple of hours, an audience that covers the entire spectrum of the wide-spread and deeply divided Jewish American community. No doubt one of the results will be a great many heated discussion, as we view ourselves through the interchangeably tragic or comic, rose-tinted or realistic, visionary or all-of-the-above, camera lens. It should be interesting.

Here is to the success of the 2019 Jewish Film Festival! Happy viewing!

© 2019 by Boaz D. Heilman

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