The 125 greatest Jewish movie scenes of all time (1-25)
For as long as there have been moving pictures, there have been Jews.
This isn’t really saying much, as the medium of film is millennia newer than the People of the Book. And yet, while Jews had an outsized role in shaping Hollywood, Jewish content wasn’t always visible onscreen. The major stars of the silent and pre-code era typically weren’t of Hebrew stock and, if they were, pretty reliably changed their names along with Jewish directors. In building what Neal Gabler dubbed “An Empire of Their Own,” moguls recognized the bulk of their audience was Christian, and picked their projects accordingly.
But there were always exceptions that proved the rule. Some Jews, both in America and abroad, couldn’t help but slyly insert some Yiddishkeit into their films. Austrian screenwriter Henrik Galeen, drawing from Jewish mysticism, helped define the horror genre with “Der Golem.” William Wyler got John Barrymore to say “gonif” in “Counsellor at Law” and the Brothers Marx spoke of their plan to “pass over” a Jewish neighborhood in “Cocoanuts.” The first talkie, 1927’s “The Jazz Singer,” followed the son of a cantor and the generational rift between Old World observance and assimilation.
While Ben Hecht wrote the original “Scarface,” an Italian gangster flick for Yiddish theater veteran Paul Muni (né Frederich Meshilem Meier Weisenfreund), Yiddish film thrived in Europe and the U.S. With the rise of the Third Reich, Hollywood welcomed a crop of European Jewish talent (directors like Billy Wilder, Otto Preminger and Fritz Lang) whose work would enrich the landscape of American film. But their films weren’t necessarily Jewish – at least not yet.
By the 1960s, studios, once reticent to touch on Jewish topics – out of disinterest, fear of an alienated audience or the threat of German boycott throughout the 1930s – were happy to roll the dice on actors named Dustin Hoffman and Barbra Streisand. Filmmakers like Mel Brooks, Mike Nichols, Elaine May and Woody Allen would kick off a renaissance of Jewish humor in the movies, fully committing to what their predecessors only hinted at. Paul Mazursky and Sidney Lumet would capture the counterculture and document the life of survivors. Otto Preminger would make “Exodus” with Paul Newman. Hollywood was Jewish and so, in many instances, was the film scene in Europe, South America and a new state in the Levant called Israel. Hearing the words “mazel tov” or “schlep” or seeing a bride and groom lifted aloft on chairs as “Hava Nagila” plays was no longer uncommon at the cinema.
If you were to edit the greatest Jewish scenes into a montage, how long would it last? Perhaps not the whole Parsha cycle, but it would be a real commitment to watch the entire thing. This list, which features some surprises, many obvious choices and surely just as many accidental omissions, is an attempt to capture the diversity and scope of Jewish moments in the film canon. Some highlight ritual, others language and still others a worldview or perspective that resonates with the shul-going, shiva-sitting, saw-you-at-Zabar’s set that’s been kicking around since Sinai.
To assemble this list, we relied on a panel of experts, including critic Leonard Maltin and film historian Olga Gershenson. The contributors to this list are senior editor Adam Langer (AL), writer and comedian Jess Zeidman (JZ), “The Hebrew Hammer” writer and director Jonathan Kesselman (JK), “Comedy by the Numbers” co-writer Gary Rudoren (GR), author and pop culture historian Dan Epstein (DE), music historian and inaugural director of the YIVO recorded sound archive Henry Sapoznik (HS), film critic Simi Horwitz (SH), staff writer Irene Katz Connelly (IKC), staff reporter Mira Fox (MF), film critic Carrie Rickey (CR), former Forward executive editor Dan Friedman (DF), Forward contributing art critic Jackson Arn (JA) and New York historian and tour guide Andrew Silverstein (AS). You will also find essays that take a closer look at Haredi life captured on film, a tour de force takedown of Hitler, what makes movie sets Jewish and more.
The collection – listed alphabetically but numbered for your convenience – ranges from the silent era to the Safdie Brothers, includes animated mice, Yiddish, Inquisition-themed synchronized swimming and yes, even the Neil Diamond “Jazz Singer” remake. Please read, enjoy and, if the spirit moves you, watch.
1. An American Tail (1986) – “There Are No Cats in America”
In a less sophisticated twist on the “Maus” formula, Don Bluth’s animated immigration tale imagines Old World mice as Jews, and Cossacks as cats. In a musical number, main character Fievel Mousekowitz’s father sings a song of hope for their new home. “There are no cats in America,” he insists, as an ensemble of bearded and head-wrapped rodents join hands and leap over the promise of streets paved with cheese. Naturally, they’re wrong in the end: There are cats in America. It’s a good lesson for young Jews, whether they’re named Moskowitz or Katz: Prejudice can thrive anywhere.
2. An American Werewolf in London (1981) – “I think he’s Jewish”
After surviving an attack from a large lupine creature on the Yorkshire moors, Jewish American David Kessler (David Naughton) lands in a London hospital. Consulting his chart, one of the nurses claims to know his religious affiliation, having “looked” at more than just his papers. Her co-worker, Alex (Jenny Agutter) says – without ever uttering the word “circumcision” – that “it” is “common practice nowadays.” While Alex claims that her colleague’s sheet-peeking behavior was not “proper,” she’s soon offering David a full body exam for non-medical purposes.
3. Annie Hall (1977) – The WASP gaze of Grammy Hall
Perceiving himself through the eyes of his upper crust WASP hosts, Alvy Singer (Woody Allen) morphs into a Hasid, sporting a long coat, broad-brimmed hat and payot. It is Easter dinner, ham is on the menu and antisemitism is never far from the surface. Grammy Hall eyes their Jewish guest with unabashed distaste. The family is sedate and refined, talking about boating and “swap meets” (flea markets). Breaking the fourth wall, Alvy addresses the audience, noting “they are nothing like my family, you know.” In a split screen we see the Singer family at a dinner table, all crowded up against one another, pushing, shoving, reaching for the food, speaking at once, interrupting, arguing. It’s an extraordinary snippet of affection coupled with self-loathing. (SH)
4. An Appeal to the Jews of the World (1941) – Jewish soap
Shloime Mikhoels and Yiddish poet Itzik Feffer, who spearheaded the Jewish Anti-Fascist League in 1941, star in this short film made in collaboration with Sergei Eisentein. Made to rouse the awareness of world Jewry, it does not fail when it comes to shock value. In an indelible moment, Mikhoels, speaking directly into the camera, makes the sensational — and since disproven — assertion that soap is being made from murdered Jews. (HS)
5. The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (1974) – “Happy Bar Mitzvah, Bernie”
At the film’s exact midpoint, hustling protagonist Duddy (Richard Dreyfuss) screens a pretentious art film, “Happy Bar Mitzvah, Bernie,” co-produced with a scrap-metal yard. It kicks off with Beethoven’s Fifth and unnecessarily baroque shots showing details of the shul as the bar mitzvah boy makes his way to the bimah and a narrator portentously explains that this rite is “older than the banks of the Nile.” Somehow we pivot from Bernie – a “Hebrew babe” – kissing the Torah mantle and reading his portion to flashbacks to his bris juxtaposed alongside goose-stepping Nazis, a Native American tribal dance and a man eating razor blades. A zayde faints. But as if daring the viewers to dispute this film’s merit, the short ends with the rabbi explaining the long history of Jewish genocides. In a remarkably subversive nod to the commoditization of both this sacred initiation and tragic memory, the rabbi then signs a copy of his book, “Why I’m Glad to Be a Jew,” and hands it to Bernie as a gift. When the film fades to black on a faux cantorial prayer, we hear stony silence. But then, a round of applause. Who would boo a film that ends with an invocation of the Shoah?
6. Auditions for the Hebrew Actors’ Union (1935) – Victor Packer baffles
The Hebrew Actors’ Union, the world’s first theater union, paid to have a promotional short made of its vaunted (read “dreaded”) secret audition. The slapdash and chaotic 20-minute short documents the authoritarian and exclusivist union as it slowly chokes the life out of the Yiddish American theater. The most eye-popping of the half-dozen auditions belongs to Dadaist poet/Yiddish radio personality Victor Packer who, sporting Grand Guignol-like makeup meant to be appreciated from a theater’s back row, gives an over-the-top gymnastic performance from Jacob Gordin’s 1900 play, “Got, mentsh un tayvl” (“God, Man and the Devil”). (HS)
7. Avalon (1990) – Thanksgiving dinner
We all know this scene. Extended family squeezed around the Thanksgiving table that itself extends through two rooms of the house. Everyone wants to eat, but the patriarch says wait. Tradition! Well in this funny-cuz-it-feels-so-true family scene from Barry Levinson’s tale of generations of Jewish immigrants in Baltimore, that tradition finally gets busted when the annually late Uncle Gabriel played by the lovably cantankerous actor Lou Jacobi (he of perfect timing) announces that he’s leaving because they cut the turkey without him. The movie is anything but a turkey. (GR)
8. Avanti Popolo (1986) – Shylock in the Sinai
“I am a Jew,” an Egyptian soldier shouts at a pivotal moment in Rafi Bukai’s 1986 dramedy, controversial for its focus on fighters on the other side of the 1967 War. Haled (Salim Daw) has wandered through the Sinai and is thirsty – but he also knows his Shakespeare. In an effort to get Israeli soldiers to lend him and his companion their canteens, he launches into Shylock’s most famous monologue, pleading his humanity. “He’s got his roles confused,” barks one Israeli, unimpressed.
9. Bar Mitzvah (1935) – A faded star breaks the fourth wall
Made during Yiddish theater impresario Boris Thomashefsky’s forgotten-but-not-gone period (he had recently taken to performing in a Romanian restaurant on the Lower East Side), this, the only film by the former stage heartthrob, is a sad coda to what was once a glorious and influential career. The film’s most memorable scene — and a reminder of its stage provenance — comes when the star, delivering a critical monologue to said bar mitzvah boy, looks directly into the camera, harkening back, no doubt, to an old tic, when he would gaze out over a theater of his adoring fans to gauge the effect of his performance. (HS)
10. The Big Lebowski (1998) – “I don’t roll on Shabbos”
Walter Sobchak (John Goodman) is a PTSD-afflicted Vietnam vet given to paranoia and violent outbursts. Born a Polish Catholic, he converted to Judaism when he married his former wife; and though they’re no longer together, Walter’s adopted faith remains even dearer to him than his beloved sport of bowling—which is why he flies completely off the handle when he learns that his league has scheduled its next tournament round for a Saturday. “Saturday,” he explains, his rage increasing exponentially by the second, “is Shabbos, the Jewish day of rest. That means I don’t work, I don’t drive a car, I don’t fucking ride in a car, I don’t handle money, I don’t turn on the oven, and I sure as shit don’t f–ing roll!” Never say that converts aren’t as passionate about Judaism as those born into it! (DE)
11. BlacKkKlansman (2018) – “I’ve been passing”
Jewish cop Flip Zimmerman goes undercover to infiltrate the Klan in this Spike Lee joint, passing as the white face of his Black partner, Ron Stallworth. At first he denies having “skin in the game.” But when Ron gives Flip his Klan membership card, the once-defensive detective opens up about his relationship with his background. “It wasn’t part of my life, I never thought much about being Jewish,” Zimmerman says. “I was just another white kid. And now I’m in some basement denying it out loud…I never thought much about it – now I’m thinking about it all the time.” Zimmerman realizes he’s been “passing” his whole life. Nothing will make you feel more Jewish than a room of antisemites.
12. Blazing Saddles (1974) – Bart and Jim beat up the Klan
The most Jewish scene in Mel Brooks’ Western riff is its most uncomfortable (featuring the director in brownface as a Yiddish-speaking Native American who uses a racial slur). The fist-pumping apex of coalition when Jim (white Jewish actor Gene Wilder) and Bart (Black Christian actor Cleavon Little) rough up Klan members behind a rocky outcrop and walk out in their white robes. In a touch of extra Jewish verve, the backs of these new outfits are emblazoned with the “Have a nice day” smiley face endemic to Chinese food bags.
13. Borat (2006) – The Running of the Jew
Journalist Borat Sagdiyev covers the faux Pamplona-inspired “Running of the Jew” ceremony, in which a giant, horn-laden, green Jew monster runs after antisemitic Kazakhs, before they capture and beat him with sticks. The sketch, ridiculing antisemitism and bigotry, is hysterical, subversive and completely over-the-top, particularly because Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat gives the play-by-play in Hebrew. (JK)
14. Broken Bird (2020) – Walking into the synagogue
So many elements of this short film about 13-year-old Birdie’s preparation for her bat mitzvah feel universal. If you ascended the bimah in the last 25 years, you’ll probably recognize the CD recordings through which Birdie memorizes her Torah portion, her vociferous complaints about said Torah portion, and even the awkward little bolero jacket she wears to cover her shoulders in shul. Yet the film illuminates a kind of Jewish experience rarely shown on screen: Birdie is a biracial Black and Jewish teen contending with rabbis who make her feel like an outsider — ”always reminding me, ‘Egypt’s in Africa,’” she quips. By the film’s end, Birdie is finally ready to enter the synagogue on her own terms. She strides into the sanctuary, a puffer jacket zipped over her shimmering dress, her hair bouncing confidently on her shoulders. It’s a scene any Jewish teen can identify with — and a moment when Birdie gets to be completely, uniquely herself. (IKC)
15. Bye Bye Braverman (1968) – Traffic accident
Four Jewish intellectuals are further delayed on their interminable journey to a funeral in Brooklyn when they collide with a taxi at the corner of Eastern Parkway and Bedford Avenue. Braced for a confrontation with the Black cabbie (Godfrey Cambridge), they are taken aback to discover that he is also Jewish, and far more interested in bonding with his fellow tribesmen than he is in fighting about the accident. “What’s happening here involves the living,” the cabbie admonishes the would-be mourners, who are in a hurry to settle things up and get to the funeral. “That’s more important!” (DE)
16. Cabaret (1972) – Fritz declares his Jewishness
After a cabaret song in this Weimar-era saga compares marrying a Jewish girl to being in love with a gorilla, the movie graces us with a subplot that affirms Jewish love and humanity. Fritz Wendel, a minor character who has been hiding his Judaism for social and financial gain, must be true to his faith in order to be with Natalia Landauer, the Jewish heiress who loves him back — but can’t marry a gentile. In what could be missed in the blink of an eye, Fritz approaches his beloved’s mansion, the gentle night breezes swaying the greenery in front of the imposing door, and knocks the gold lion knocker. When the door swings open, he says the three words Natalia wants to hear: “I’m a Jew.” (JZ)
17. Call Me by Your Name (2017) – “Jews of discretion”
While nursing a bloody nose, Elio (Timothée Chalamet) tells his soon-to-be lover Oliver that he doesn’t wear his Star of David necklace because “My mother says we’re Jews of discretion.” In a movie about queerness in the 1980s, this feels like a metaphor for more than just religion. (MF)
18. A Cantor on Trial (1931) – “Yismakh Moshe”
In a muscular little short directed by Sidney Goldin (the director and indulgent father of “East and West”), the popular Yiddish barnburner theater song “A Khaznd’l Af Shabes (A Cantor on the Sabbath)” turns into an arch take on how modern synagogues choose their cantors. The short’s closing, knockout scene features the American pop culture-obsessed Leibele Waldman delivering the Torah portion Yismakh Moshe set to the melody of “Yes Sir, That’s My Baby.” He even gets the otherwise taciturn synagogue elders to dance around the table. (HS)
19. Casino (1995) – “Jews stick together, don’t they?”
A Jew like Ace Rothstein (Robert De Niro) can never be a made man – and can never be truly trusted. While his murder-happy colleagues blame his loud suits and showboating, Rothstein’s downfall actually comes courtesy of the bigotry of local commissioners and his Italian partners who only ever accept him conditionally. Midway through the film, Ace and casino manager Billy Sherbert (Don Rickles) toast “L’chaim!” at a nightclub. Observing him across the room, Rothstein’s best friend, Nicky (Joe Pesci) calls him a “Jew motherf–er,” behind his back. The ethnic resentment turns to extreme irony as this member of a clannish Italian crime family, speaking to another Italian mobster, watches Jews (and some non-Jews) eating and enjoying themselves at a bigger table. “F–in’ Jews stick together, don’t they?” he seethes.
20. Cast a Giant Shadow (1966) – “Now don’t tell me they don’t have seltzer in Tel Aviv”
There is a movie where Kirk Douglas, playing a Jewish American helping the Israeli war effort, supplies Frank Sinatra with bottles of seltzer, which Sinatra then drops on Egyptian tanks to explode them. I dare you to think of a more Jewish scene than this.
21. Catskill Honeymoon (1950) – “I’m Going to Hitchhike to the Catskills”
Not directed as much as edited, “Catskill Honeymoon” is a stitched-together roller coaster of Yiddish vaudeville acts all ostensibly taking place in a Borscht Belt hotel. The film features Michael Michalesko, Julius Adler, Henrietta Jacobson, Bas Sheva and Jan Bart, among others. The scene worth the entire price of admission is the opening number by the Feder Sisters singing “I’m Going to Hitchhike to the Catskills,” the only known musical homage to Route 17, the Yiddish Route 66. Not surprisingly, this film made the circuit of Borscht Belt hotels, whose postwar uptick from Holocaust survivors created a new market. (HS)
22. The Chosen (1981) – Reuven goes to Shabbat morning services
The most Jewish scene in “The Chosen” is one you may not have seen. In a moment only viewable in some rare VHS copies – and in this Vimeo link – the Modrn Orthodox Reuven goes to Danny’s Hasidic shul and watches the intense davening. He also sees the men kiss the Torah scroll, a ritual that was deemed too Jewish for the finished film. In an essay, director Jeremy Kagan explains why.
23. Coming to America (1988) – The spoon joke
In a remarkable transformation, Eddie Murphy channels the spirit of an elderly Jew named Saul and delivers a quintessentially Jewish joke. A man in a restaurant tells a “vaiter” to taste the soup. What’s wrong with the soup, the waiter asks. Is it too hot? Too cold? The man tells the waiter to just taste the soup. The waiter finally agrees but asks, “Where’s the spoon?” “Ah-ha!” The punchline is that there is no spoon (“The Matrix” was right). Though it draws blank looks at the barbershop, this is a pitch-perfect old Jewish man joke – and not just because it involves a guy eating soup.
24. Counsellor At Law (1933) – The past comes back for George Simon
The turning point of William Wyler’s rags-to-riches tale of George Simon (John Barrymore), a Jewish attorney who has climbed from Delancey Street to Park Avenue, comes when Simon learns an antisemitic colleague wants to disbar him based on a case from his early days, when he was a champion of the underclass. Defending himself, the fast-talking, faster-thinking Simon – played by the goyishe Barrymore with more than a dash of Shylock – must confront his past in the person of his former client. Wringing his hands, Simon is caught in the double-bind of so many first-generation Jews. Why should aiding his landsman disqualify him from acceptance by the legal community? Why, in America, is everything so binary? Why can’t he be a Jew and an American? (CR)
25. Commissar (1967, U.S. release 1988) – A glimpse into the future
A scene showing the protagonist’s prescient imagining of the Holocaust made this film immediately controversial. After a moment of jubilant dancing, Jews, wearing Star of David patches, are shown marching with suitcases and a casket.The camera shifts to the bare feet of prisoners in striped uniforms, finally yielding to Commissar Klavda (Nonna Mordyukova) and her baby, bearing witness to horrors to come. In her own time, during the Russian Civil War, Klavda had seen pogroms and promised Jews their lives would improve in a Communist state where “people will work in peace and harmony.” Her vision indicates the worst is still ahead for these people.