A List of Favorite Jewish Films, Inside and Out

When I polled a group of friends recently about their favorite Jewish films, I got a beautiful mishmash of responses.  This is to be expected – you always get the usual suspects like Fiddler’s Roof, but you also get a list of comedies that touch on the Jewish experience from writers and directors like Woody Allen and Nora Ephron.  Most have incredible heart and have left a mark on our minds for our entire lives.

Because in these movies we discover our people’s histories and learn more about ourselves by watching.  Films don’t have to be overtly “Jewish” to be considered”Jewish”.  Some of the films listed below are distinctly Jewish life Yentl and Fiddler on the Roof, but then you have Dirty Dancing which is about life as a Jewish family’s expectations of their children.

There is no question that Jewish experiences have shaped film-making over the last 75 odd years.  The men who started Hollywood, from Adolf Zukor to Louis B. Mayer, were Jewish immigrants or children of immigrants from primarily Eastern Europe and had escaped persecution (although many were witnesses to the Holocaust), and there have been many movies that have churned out over the years that deal with the concepts of survival and hope, as well as relationships, family, loss and reunions (mirroring the tragic truth of the Jewish people – we have often been scattered and reunited).  The films that recreate the Holocaust let us remember and never forget the atrocities that occurred less than 70 years ago in this lifetime.

Today’s films are in many ways more “Jewish”  than before because we no longer have to hide our Judaism.  It’s now okay to come out and state who you are and there is a lot to be learned from the cultural depictions of being Jewish, which is largely about being a secular Jew (like in Annie Hall and When Harry Met Sally) and not being terribly attached to the religious part of Judaism.  Personally, I have learned about history and real life heroes in films about Anne Frank and Golda Meir at the movies and personally related to all of Woody Allen’s films and laughed out loud to Nora Ephron take on Jews living in Manhattan.

When you see an image of another Jewish person in celluloid, it’s comforting.  You know you are not alone in how you feel about being a minority, to having different values and having a slightly different upbringing to others, to eating different food, to having parents who argue but always make up, to the neuroses that stem from their parenting, to needing a place like Israel to go to and dreaming about a life there.

Here are the groovy films that made it into the list (there are so many more that as I compiled the list I kept thinking of new ones), and I recommend that you watch ALL of them…for an education, for a history lesson, to see how Jewish life has changed over the years, to find out the brilliance of some of our most fabulous film makers ever, to learn about our past and future.  Long may we have films that involve the Jewish heritage and help us to see how far we have come.

1. Avalon (Written and directed by Barry Levinson, 1990)

2. Radio Days (Written and directed by Woody Allen, 1987)

3. Yentl (Written and directed by Barbara Streisand, 1983)

4. Fiddler on the Roof (Directed by Norman Jewison, 1971)

5. Dirty Dancing (Directed by Emile Ardolino, 1987)

6. Crossing Delancey (Directed by Joan Micklin Silver, 1988)

7. Brighton Beach Memoirs (Written by Neil Simon, 1986)

8. Ushpizin  (Directed by Giddi Dar, 2004)

9. Annie Hall (Written and directed by Woody Allen, 1977)

10. Schindler’s List (Directed by Steven Spielberg, 1993)

11. The Chosen (Written by Chaim Potok, 1981)

12. Sophie’s Choice (Written and directed by Alan J. Pakula, 1982)

13. The Jazz Singer (Directed by Richard Fleischer, 1980)

14. Marathon Man (Directed by John Schlesinger, 1976)

15. Raid on Entebbe (Directed by Irvin Kershner, 1976)

16. Liberty Heights (Written and directed by Barry Levinson, 1999)

17. The Pianist (Directed by Roman Polanski, 2002)

18. To Be or Not to Be (Directed by Alan Johnson, 1983)

19. The Frisco Kid (Directed by Robert Aldrich, 1979)

20. Blazing Saddles (Written and directed by Mel Brooks, 1974)

21. Inglorious Bastards (Written and directed by Quentin Tarantino, 2009)

22. Shalom Aleichem

23. School Ties (Directed by Robert Mandel, 1992)

24. History of the World (Written and directed by Mel Brooks, 1981)

25. Europa, Europa (Directed by Agnieszka Holland, 1990)

26. Life is Beautiful (Written and directed by Roberto Benigni, 1997)

27. The Hebrew Hammer (2003)

28. Lies My Father Told Me (1975)

29. Enemies a Love Story (Directed by Paul Mazursky)

30. When Harry Met Sally (Written by Nora Ephron, Directed by Rob Reiner, 1989)

I leave you with this classic line from Annie Hall to mull over:

Alvy Singer: Don’t you see the rest of the country looks upon New York like we’re left-wing, communist, Jewish, homosexual pornographers? I think of us that way sometimes and I live here.

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  1. Two Mordecai Richler treasures that I loved–“Joshua Then and Now” (1985) and “Barney’s Version” (2010). “Joshua” is surprisingly hard to find, BTW–both the original book and the DVD!

  2. Thanks, Justine, I’ll look for that film. I read about it while researching this piece and thought it looked interesting.

  3. Justine Blau says:

    A recent film to include in this list, one of my favorites, is “Romeo and Juliet in Yiddish” by the fabulous Eve Annenberg. In this film, the feuding families are orthodox Jews in modern day Brooklyn. It’s a charming, fresh movie within a movie.

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