The early history of Hollywood includes a great many Jews. Whether they chose to be open about their Jewishness or not, there is no doubt that their sensibilities shaped American cinema. Carl Laemmele built Universal; Adolf Zukor and Jesse Lasky were the architects of Paramount; Louis B. Mayer and the Schenks built Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer; and Harry Cohn, Columbia. These men were all either Eastern European Jewish immigrants or first generation Americans who were children of Eastern European Jewish immigrants. These were the men who shaped the films of Hollywood and showed America what it’s ideal world looked like.
With its deep Jewish roots, when Hollywood approaches a movie that touches on the Jewish experience, they often get it very right. My favorite Jewish movies to come out of Hollywood fall into a number of categories. Rather than listing my ten favorite films in order of preference, I’ve divided them by themes.
Holocaust movies – sadly, this period of history has given us plenty of dramatic opportunities. There are lots of these movies, because there are lots of stories to be told. Many of the films from this category tell true stories. The best of these movies all share an element of hope even in the midst of desperation.
There are numerous movies about Jews and other individuals hiding from the Nazis. For me, the best of these is the Diary of Anne Frank starring Patty Duke. Perhaps it is because I first saw it after reading the book, or because I have visited the Anne Frank museum of Amsterdam. Perhaps it is because it recounts the story of a girl who is in her teens which is confusing at the best of times. Added to that is the need to grow up quickly as the Nazis are present and she is forced to hide with her own family and with others in an attic.
The largest group of Holocaust themed films deals with people being forced from their day to day lives, and being forced into the nightmare of a concentration camp. While there are many excellent movies in this category, my favorite is Life Is Beautiful. This movie tells of a father (played by Roberto Bernini) who tries to protect his son from the evils that are going on in the concentration camp by pretending that everything that happens is a game and that the winner of the game will win a real tank. When the camp is finally liberated, the boy sees the tank as his prize. The movie is fanciful and entirely unrealistic, but it is beautiful and poignant.
My favorite sub-genre of Holocaust movies tell the tales of people who found a way to fight back. While not a great movie, one for which I feel a special affinity is Escape from Sobibor. It recounts the true story of a mass escape from the Sobibor concentration camp. Sobibor is located in Eastern Poland. It is not as well known as other camps like Auschwitz, Dachau, or Terezstadt. It was every bit the death camp those places were. What makes Sobibor different is the mass escape that took place there. Not every Jew allowed him/herself to be led like a lamb to the slaughter. Some Jews fought back. Escape from Sobibor tells about a time people resisted. I think it is criminal that those who tell the story of the Holocaust fail to recount the tales of those who resisted. Some could not fight back; some were able to and did. We have seen genocide around the world since the Holocaust. We need to teach people that there is hope and they can resist.
While not the top of my list, there are other movies based in and around the Holocaust that are excellent. Schindler’s List is probably a better movie than those I have listed above, but my inability to watch it a second time means I cannot list it as a favorite. Les Miserables (The French 1995 version) is not an easy movie to find, but is worth ferreting out. In it we meet a man reading the Hugo novel and seeing how others relate to it. The story is set in France at the time of the German occupation. Finally, The Hiding Place which is the true story of the TenBoom sisters who hid Jews from the Nazis and were eventually imprisoned for it.
Though not dealing with Jews, the movie Bent addresses the plight of homosexual men in the camps. We must remember that not only six million Jews died in the Holocaust, but also five million others.
Then come the movies that deal with the aftermath of the Holocaust. For me, there are two movies that standout here. The first Enemies: A Love Story takes place in the U.S. A man believes his first wife was killed during the Holocaust. He remarries. Unsatisfied with that marriage, he also takes a mistress. At this point, his first wife shows up alive. The man and his families must figure out how to make things work.
The second movie dealing with the aftermath is The Music Box. Jessica Lange is the daughter of a man who is accused of committing war crimes. She is forced to seek out the truth about what happened for herself, and then must come to terms with what her father did or did not do. We do not know until the end of the movie what the whole truth was. This movie kept me on the edge of my seat the first time I watched it. It continues to provide an intensity with every watching that makes me eager to watch it when the opportunity arises.
Another major theme in Jewish movies from Hollywood involves Jews coming to America. Of course, Jews have been in America for a long time, but there have been notable immigrations in the late 1800s and early 1900s, and again preceding and following WWII. These periods represent times of extreme persecution in the lands that people came from.
My favorite coming to America story is An American Tail. An American Tail tells the story of the Mouskowitz family. We begin with them living in Eastern Europe and facing pogroms. They then head to New York. The rest of the family ends of separated from their young son, Fivel, before arriving at Ellis Island. Despite having lost him, they are forced to cope with the reality of their new home – including the fact that cats exist in America just as they did in their previous homeland. From a world in which Jews were segregated and everyone was like them, they find themselves thrust into a world full of diversity. The family adjusts and eventually thrives in their new home. The music is good and the story is sweet. There is a happy ending in this one.
Another of my favorite movies about coming to America is The Frisco Kid starring Gene Wilder and Harrison Ford. Gene Wilder plays a Polish rabbi who is being sent to a congregation in San Francisco. An arranged marriage has been set up for him when he arrives there. He is also bringing a Torah to the congregation in San Francisco. He ends up traveling across the US in the company of a gunfighter played by Harrison Ford. I like that the different ethnicities represented in this movie are treated respectfully. There is variety in the Jews. The Native Americans are not stereotypical. The various characters we meet as the duo travels across the country may be stock characters, but they all have depth. One of my favorite parts about this is that there comes a point when the rabbi has to shoot a man to save his own life. We then get to see him struggle with the moral issues this raises for him. Killing is too often portrayed as an easy thing to do. Here, this character has more depth. Knowing he did the right thing, he still struggles with what he did.
Another theme in Jewish cinema involves how Jews get along with each other. Some of these deal with generational conflicts, and some deal with conflicts between different categories of Jews such as Reform, Conservative and Orthodox
My favorite movie about generational differences is a video called Gefilte Fish. Gefilte fish is a traditional item in many Jewish households. The name means “stuffed fish” and used to involve chopped and seasoned fish that was stuffed back into the skin and cooked. In the movie, three women of successive generations demonstrate for the camera how they each prepare gefilte fish. The first generation uses several varieties of fish and chops everything by hand. The middle generation uses two varieties of fish and sticks everything into a food processor. The youngest generation uses fish that can be purchased at the store. It comes in a jar. Gefilte Fish is funny and touches on the value of tradition to successive generations. There is no judgment about what is lost when traditions change. There is no one saying that the grandmother is holding too tightly to the way things used to be. There is no one saying the granddaughter is lazy. There is only observation about the choices each of the women is making at that moment.
The Chosen actually addresses both generational and ideological differences. The movie is based on Chaim Potok’s novel of the same name. In the story, we follow two boys. The first boy is the son of the chief rabbi of the local Hassidic community. There is a high expectation that he will go on and follow in his father’s footsteps. The other boy is the son of a conservative Jew who is a radical Zionist. The story is set in the time before the founding of the state of Israel. The friendship that develops between the two young men cause both to look at their own lives and ideals. This movie gives a wonderful view into the different ways in which Jews choose to express their faith.
Other movies of note in these categories include Fiddler on the Roof and the Jazz Singer (I prefer the 1953 version with Danny Thomas, but the 1929 version with Al Jolson and the 1980 version with Neil Diamond are also excellent.)
The next important genre of Jewish movies is the difficulty in facing anti semetic sentiments in society. My favorite of these is Driving Miss Daisy. Jessica Tandy plays Miss Daisy, a retired school teacher, and Morgan Freeman plays her driver. The movie centers around their relationship. The only time that the Jewish element really comes out is when they are going to the synagogue and it is bombed before they get there. Up to that point, I was unaware that she was Jewish. Still, I love the movie.
The last Jewish theme in the movies comes in films about Israel’s fight for freedom, and fight to become. These were more prevalent in the 60s and 70s, but they are an important theme. The best of these is Exodus directed by Otto Preminger. The movie tells the story of a resistance fighter played by Paul Newman who rescues 600 people being held in a detention camp and thus sparks the birth of a new nation.
The original founders of Hollywood hid their Jewishness. Today, Hollywood is open to anyone with a good story to tell no matter what religion, race, or ethnicity. It’s hard to get a movie made, but now those who make movies can be honest about who they are.