Scenes from "Inglorious Basterds," "Funny Girl" and "Der Dybbuk" capture a Jewish je ne sais quoi. Photo by Angelie Zaslavsky
By PJ GrisarJuly 01, 2022
26. The Critic (1963) – Oscar winner, animation short subject, 1964
It’s only 3 minutes and 24 seconds long, but Mel Brooks’ constantly commenting old man character makes it timeless. We get the running, stream-of- consciousness thoughts of a 71-year-old-man (in a voice that might make him a cousin of the 2,000-year-old-man) as he watches a series of experimental animations. He thinks it’s mostly about sex (of course) and the brilliance of this short is that by simply having a couple of other voices try to shout down this nonstop critic, they establish a funny scene with a kvetchy old guy at some avant-garde movie in the ‘60s. He reminds us of every zeyde we ever tried to watch a show with.
27. Crossing Delancey (1988) – A fleeting scene that sums up an innocent universe
In a scene that encapsulates a Jewish worldview that had long since vanished, Bubbie (Reizl Bozyk) urges Sam (Peter Reigert) to be persistent in pursuing her granddaughter, Izzy (Amy Irving). “Stay like a piece of furniture,” she asserts, recalling how her husband won her through that technique. “If somebody wanted me so much he was ready to make a fool of himself it was easy to see he would be good for me.” Today such behavior would be viewed as harassment, if not stalking. But in “Crossing Delancey” Bubbie’s instructions are the received wisdom filtered through Micklin-Silver’s nostalgic lens. (SH)
28. Diner (1982) – The Chisholm Trail
Barry Levinson’s semi-autobiographical film is brimming with Jewish content, but perhaps the most Jewish scene – a kind of Jew-y answer to Beckett’s “nothing to be done” – involves two characters who don’t appear to be Jewish at all. Driving a long stretch of country road, Fenwick (Kevin Bacon) and Boogie (Mickey Rourke) encounter a woman on a horse. Boogie pulls over and tries to chat her up about her riding style. What does this Baltimore kid know from horses? The WASPy equestrienne introduces herself as “Jane Chisholm, as in the Chisholm Trail,” and then rides off. They have no clue what she’s talking about. Her family has a trail named for them? Jane exists in a completely different world, leading Boogie to pose a question that Jews in America have been asking from time immemorial: “You ever get the feeling there’s something going on we don’t know about?”
29. Dirty Dancing (1987) -Arriving at Kellerman’s
What makes “Dirty Dancing” a Jewish movie is the context. Aside from a few Yiddishisms and pickle jokes, the fact that the characters are Jewish goes without mention. It doesn’t have to. The minute the Houseman Family rolls into the Catskill resort Kellerman’s with the tummler inviting all the “Sandy Koufaxes” to the softball field it’s clear: The consommé in the dining hall is kosher and this is a Jewish movie. (AS)
30. De Düva (1968) – Badminton match with Death
In some ways, the entirety of this hysterical, Oscar-nominated send-up of 1960s Scandinavian art cinema could probably be considered one scene as director-star George Coe reduces “The Seventh Seal,” “Wild Strawberries” and a half-dozen other Ingmar Bergman films to a 14-minute Mel Brooksian poop joke. Throughout, Yiddish and English phrases are transformed into fake Swedish as a 76-year-old scholar looks back on a fateful badminton game with Death who, distracted by an incontinent dove overhead, loses the match and skulks off in search of a “schmatta.” (AL)
31. The Dybbuk (1937) – Ravs pray away the Dybbuk
When your Jewish village is afflicted by a vengeful spirit, you gotta pull out the big guns. Catholics can make do with an old priest and a young priest, but in the climax of Michał Waszyński’s eerie Yiddish film, more than a minyan’s worth of Jews gather their prayer shawls to ward off the spirit possessing a young woman named Lea – an eventful time at temple staged with Expressionist flair.
32. East and West (1923) – Molly Picon sneaks food on Yom Kippur
In Molly Picon’s breakout film, made while she was in Europe to sharpen her Yiddish, she plays a spoiled American daughter in the Old Country. In the film, Molly — referencing Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford — teaches a group of Hasidim how to Charleston and knocks out the peasant housekeeper with a right cross. One of the film’s many memorable episodes is the one in which Molly sneaks out of the late afternoon Yom Kippur services in order to gorge on the food set aside by her host. She then returns to shul and, in a mockery of the other congregants fainting from hunger, asks for smelling salts. (HS)
33. Eastern Corridor (1966) – The end
Water laps at the frantic masses, a baby cries. A Hebrew prayer underscores shouts and screams. There are pockets of dark and light. Spotlights, torchlight and something luminous: The prayer shawls of davening men. The camera floats as these people – Jews from a Belarusian ghetto – drown and are gunned down, crawling into a torrent of water. It’s a scene from a nightmare, and it’s hard to get our bearings. At last a naked woman emerges from the dark, raising her hands to God. Does He hear?
34. Enemies: A Love Story (1989) – The Talmud can’t help our hero
During World War II, Talmudic scholar Herman Broder (Ron Silver) loses both his wife Tamara (Anjelica Huston) and his children to the Nazis. He owes his life to his new wife Yadwiga (Sophie-Marie Stein), the gentile servant who hides him in a hayloft. In Paul Mazursky’s situation tragedy grafted to a farce, Herman, newly arrived in New York, finds himself with two wives (Tamara is alive) and a mistress, Masha (Lena Olin), a concentration camp survivor, who wants to marry him (making matters more complicated – two of these three women are pregnant).Things come to a head when he has to commit to one woman, which means betraying the other two.This is a decision that not even the Talmud can be a guide. (CR)
35. Europa, Europa (1990) – “How to recognize a Jew”
In a tense moment in Agnieszka Holland’s dramatization of Solomon Perel’s memoir, a young German Jew, Solomon, passing himself off as Latvian and gentile, attends class at a Hitler Youth Academy. The topic, delivered by a Nazi scientist, is, “How to recognize a Jew.” Commencing the lesson, the “expert” in race science first describes Aryan ideals before listing Jewish features. When he invites Solomon to stand before the class as a case study, measuring his features one by one, the young man is certain that he will be outed. Much to his surprise, Solomon is found to have “distinctively Aryan traits.” Now he just needs to hide the fact that he is circumcised. (CR)
36. Exodus (1960) – The Valley of Jezreel
Ari Ben Canaan (Paul Newman) and Kitty Fremont (Eva Marie Saint) drive up to a valley overlook. She’s an American volunteer, he’s a Jewish fighter and they are working together to save Jewish refugees from internment camps. From this idyllic spot he points out Mount Tabor where the biblical judge, Deborah, gathered her force. He quotes the biblical passage and they kiss. It’s a taste of paradise in the midst of a movie full of Holocaust survival and the struggle for independence against the Brits. (DF)
37. Eyes Wide Shut (1999) – Ziegler puts Bill in his place
You become a doctor, you earn enough money to live on the Upper East Side, you make powerful friends, you stumble on a secret sex cult, you run through the streets of New York trying to solve a murder, you get 90% of the way to the solution. Then you find out you don’t know anything, you have no real power, and no matter how high you rise you’ll never crack the inner circle. Such is the mood when Dr. Bill Harford, played by Tom Cruise, goes to visit his wealthy friend Victor Ziegler, played by Sydney Pollack, in Ziegler’s pool room. In Arthur Schnitzler’s “Traumnovelle,” the novel on which the film is based, Cruise’s counterpart is coded as Jewish, but Kubrick insisted that his lead be a gentile. All the same, Jonathan Rosenbaum had this scene in mind when he suggested that “Eyes Wide Shut,” with its themes of social exclusion, was Stanley Kubrick’s most Jewish film. Which is a funny thing to say about a film in which Cruise is the excluded one and Pollack is the smug insider — but then, Kubrick never liked to do what was expected of him. (JA)
38. Fanny and Alexander (1982) – Isak’s Story
Strange that Ingmar Bergman — the key Existentialist director, not to mention the son of a Lutheran minister sympathetic to the Nazis — should have directed one of the greatest Jewish scenes from any film. In the fifth episode of the TV version of “Fanny and Alexander,” the Jewish antiques dealer Isak Jakobi frees Fanny and Alexander from their wicked stepfather and comforts them with a story — which he translates on the fly from Hebrew. Bergman doesn’t forget Christianity altogether (as he listens, Alexander imagines Christian pilgrims, flagellants, and a close-up of stigmata), but the intense, Talmudic combination of hope, despair, wandering, and the primal power of words makes the scene’s Jewishness shine through. (JA)
39. Fate of a Man (1965) – A Russian POW sees Jews at a concentration camp
Disembarking from a train, protagonist Andrei Sokolov arrives at a concentration camp, and we see it through his eyes. The camera pans the length of the cars, as he stares down the length of the tracks, women and children are herded out of the cattle cars as a band plays a jaunty tune. A loudspeaker tells Russian POWs to go to gate 1, and “persons of Jewish nationality” go to gate 2. Shot with a dreamlike detachment, the film demonstrates the hierarchy and structure of the camps, ending with a shot of three columns of people filing into a building with a billowing smokestack as the upbeat horns continue.
40. Fiddler on the Roof (1971) – Little Chava-le
In Anatevka, things are going from bad to worse for Tevye the dairyman (Topol). Representatives of the czar are making Jewish life more and more difficult so when Tevye’s favorite daughter, Chava (Neva Small), marries a Russian peasant, it’s too far for him to bend. Chava comes to secretly meet her father, but she is dead to him. He pulls his cart, remembers how things used to be, and sings his heartbreaking song of loss while superimposed rosy images show his three married daughters as young girls dancing. Don’t worry, Chava and Tevye do reconcile (sort of). (DF)
41. For Your Consideration (2006) – Purim, Purim, Purim
This rare non-mockumentary from Christopher Guest focuses on the production of a film-within-a-film called “Home for Purim.” It’s kinda like “The Family Stone,” but Jewish and therefore even more ludicrous in its melodrama and its designs on a mainstream market. No scene captures the insanity quite so much as the Purim dinner, where the family, assembled at the table, sing a folksy summary of the Megillah, twirling groggers. “Purim, Purim, Purim spread the news to everyone that Mordecai and Esther saved the day,” they conclude, dressed in their Purim finery, just before Catherine O’Hara’s character coughs consumptively into a napkin. “My time is short and I will not leave the Purim table!” she insists.
42. The Frisco Kid (1979) – Frisco Shabbat
“Why is this Saturday different than all other Saturdays?” asks Gene Wilder’s Polish rabbi, who refuses to ride his horse through the desert of the American Old West on Shabbat. “Cuz this Saturday there’s a hangin’ posse chasin’ us,” growls aggravated cowgoy Harrison Ford, his unlikely sidekick.This original gefilte-fish-out-of-water western comedy with a heart is really a story of a true believer in a strange land. Throughout the film, the faith of the “Rabbi With No Knife” (as one Native American chief refers to him) is tested and in true Hollywood fashion, Judaism wins. (GR)
43. The Front (1976) – The last moments of Hecky Brown
Misleadingly known as the film in which Woody Allen played his first dramatic role (he’s fine, but the acting he does isn’t particularly dramatic), this dialogue-heavy Martin Ritt film about the Hollywood blacklist is at its most powerful during a two-minute sequence that contains no dialogue at all. Playing Hecky Brown, an actor who can no longer find work, Zero Mostel enters a hotel room, orders a last drink, takes one last look at himself in the mirror. And then he opens a window. Based loosely on the story of Philip Loeb, a Jewish actor who was hounded during the McCarthy era and died by suicide, Mostel’s heartbreaking performance is as poetic as any Marcel Marceau pantomime. (AL)
44. Funny Girl (1968) – “The Swan”
An exalted version of the ugly duckling. Barbra Streisand’s debut film reprises her stage blockbuster about vaudeville star Fanny Brice. In a scene highlighting Streisand’s triple-threat talents as a singer/dancer/comedian, she demonstrates that she is more than a swan. Behold the bird of paradise. (CR)
- How Barbra Streisand remade the world for Jewish girls
45. The Garden of the Finzi-Continis (1970) – Giorgio sees Micol in shul
Vittorio De Sica’s adaptation of Giorgio Bassani’s novel has the luscious filter of memory. But no sequence is so gauzy or gorgeous as young Giorgio seeing Micol in the men’s section during High Holiday services. Sheltering under their fathers’ prayer shawls, they steal meaningful glances. Or are they only meaningful to Giorgio?
46. Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) – “There’s a funny kind of elation about socking back”
Journalist Phil Green (Gregory Peck) is discovering American antisemitism by posing as a Jew for a story. His friend, Army veteran Dave Goldman (John Garfield), has been dealing with it his whole life. In this scene, Phil’s girlfriend Kathy (Dorothy McGuire), whose prejudice has been revealed in increments throughout the film, appeals to Dave, her Jewish acquaintance, to confirm she’s not in fact antisemitic. She tells a story about feeling “sick through” at a party when a man told a joke with slurs against Jews and Black people. “What did you do?” Dave asks. She just sat there. That’s the problem, Dave teaches her. No one spoke up. Kathy learns that silence is complicity.
47. Glengarry Glen Ross (1992) -“It’s the leads”
David Mamet’s stressful, f-bomb-bloated “Kvetch of a Salesman” finds Ed Harris’ Dave Moss and Alan Arkin’s George Aaronson giving a master class in the Jewish art of collaborative overlap. “I try, I try, I can’t close it,” Aaronson laments, as they drive through the rain and plot their next move to secure real estate leads. It’s a shame Jack Lemmon was an unconvincing Jew as Shelley Levene – you’d think all that time with Walter Matthau might have helped the performance.
48. The Godfather (1972) -Moe Greene learns the hard way that his name isn’t Corleone
One of the most powerful scenes in Francis Ford Coppola’s Oscar-winning sequel and yet no punch is thrown and not a single drop of blood is shed. In a matter of minutes, a calm and collected Michael Corleone reduces the unctuous, glad-handing Jewish mobster Moe Greene (played by Alex Rocco) to a sputtering, impotent blowhard who comes to understand that, in the world run by the mob, you can take sides against the Jews but never against the family. (AL)
49. Der Golem (1920) – Rabbi Loew summons a demon
When the Holy Roman Emperor decrees that Jews are to be banned from medieval Prague, local Jewish leader Rabbi Loew attempts to defend his people by sculpting a giant Golem. In an almost hallucinatory scene, Rabbi Loew and his assistant stand in a protective ring of fire and conjure up the demon Astaroth, who belches forth the Hebrew word for truth in a cloud of smoke. The rabbi inscribes the word on a piece of parchment, encloses it in an amulet and places it on the Golem’s chest, causing its eyes to open — and setting in motion a disastrous series of events. (DE)
50. Goodbye, Columbus (1969) – Dinner scene
Adapted from Philip Roth’s novella, “Goodbye, Columbus” tells the tale of Jewish worlds colliding. In this case it’s the 1960s working-class Jews vs. the wealthy Jews of suburbia. It all comes together in an early scene where Neil Klugman (played by Richard Benjamin), an Army veteran and writer, snags an invite to dinner at the swanky home of Jewish princess Brenda Patimkin (Ali McGraw). The cringy and chaotic scene features a dad played by Jack Klugman (no relation to Neil), who eats nonstop and holds nothing back as the family interrogates his daughter’s date. Jews of a certain age all remember his proclamation about Benjamin’s character after refusing a helping of chicken: “He eats like a bird!” (GR)
PJ Grisar is the Forward’s culture reporter. He can be reached at Grisar@Forward.com.