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125 greatest Jewish movie scenes

The 125 greatest Jewish movie scenes of all time (76-100)

Of Moses, the Marx Brothers and Torah math

76. The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001) – The afterlife

What’s the Jewish afterlife like? Rabbinic literature has painted a vivid picture — copious carbuncles, 600,000 angels, the works — but in the final seconds of their most underrated film, the Coen Brothers venture a different guess. Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thornton) is about to be executed for a crime he didn’t commit, but he seems to accept death as a just punishment for the one he did. Led by guards to the electric chair, he dreams of reuniting with his wife and telling her “all those things they don’t have words for here.” As paradises go, it’s not so different from the one Walter Benjamin imagined a century ago, in which human beings are blessed with the wisdom of the one true, mystical language. (JA)

77. Marathon Man (1976) – Nazi in the Diamond District

Desperate to determine the worth of the diamonds he’d stolen from Jews murdered at Auschwitz, fugitive Nazi war criminal Christian Szell (Laurence Olivier) heads to Manhattan’s Diamond District. An elderly female Holocaust survivor recognizes Szell but, overwhelmed by anger and horror triggered by the unexpecting sighting, she wanders into the street and gets hit by a cab. A shop assistant likewise recognizes “der weiße Engel (the white angel) from his days in the concentration camp; but his attempt to confront him ends with his throat slashed by the knife blade hidden that Szell has hidden in his sleeve. As the man collapses, Szell coldly slips into a taxi and speeds off, eluding justice yet again. (DE)

78. Menashe (2017) – Menashe tells his story

No scene captures the complexities and contradictions of this film’s titular Hasidic widower more vividly than his encounter with Latino coworkers. Enjoying a few beers together, they establish an unlikely camaraderie and Menashe opens up, admitting to a lingering guilt he feels over his miserably contentious relationship with his late wife. In that cross-cultural exchange he reveals an unexpected three-dimensionality beneath his buffoonish exterior and becomes a whole lot less parochial and more understandable, perhaps even to those audiences who are far removed from his world. (SH)

79. Modern Romance (1981) – Albert Brooks buys shoes (from his brother)

The canny Jewish salesman is one of those stock comic grotesques that never goes away. In one of the highlights of Albert Brooks’ “Modern Romance” — though, really, it’s all highlights — Brooks goes to a shoe store and finds himself face-to-face with a salesman, who, after inviting him to punch his stomach, proceeds to hustle him out of 200 bucks. The beauty is how little the salesman has to do to convince Brooks to part with his money; he just appeals to Brooks’ self-importance and waits. When Brooks objects, he tells him the “cheap stuff” is made from “old tires” or will give him a skin rash. When Brooks doesn’t want two $75 running outfits, our deadpan salesman simply says, “What are you gonna do when one’s in the wash?” Perhaps because the salesman is played by Brooks’ brother Bob Einstein this is actually one of the more genuinely affectionate moments in a movie that’s all about the fraudulence of love. (JA)

80. Monsieur Klein (1976) – The night mansion visit

From Freud to Kafka, from Bruno Schulz to Charlie Kaufman, Jews have long had a special affinity with the uncanny. Midway through “Monsieur Klein,” Alain Delon’s devious gentile art dealer, mistaken for a Jew of the same name, wakes up in the early hours of the morning and takes a trip to a massive country estate where everyone seems to know him, even though he doesn’t know anyone, perhaps entering the experience of the man he is trying to prove he isn’t. The camera slides along like a well-oiled machine, the strangers in the mansion know Klein ever-so intimately — it’s all so comfortable and familiar, which of course only makes it weirder The director Joseph Losey was a white-bread Wisconsinite himself, but in this scene, he out-Kafkas Kafka, a fitting feat for a movie about the mysteries and absurdities of Jewish identity. (JA)

81. My Favorite Year (1982) – Dinner in Brooklyn

Norman Steinberg delivers a roman à clef of a comedy, with characters based on Mel Brooks, Sid Caesar and even Errol Flynn. The comic apex is reached when young Jewish comedy writer Benjy Stone, who’s trying to make it big with TV comedy legend King Kaiser, brings the show’s swashbuckling guest star Alan Swann to meet his starstruck Jewish mother and her Filipino bantamweight second husband/cook for a humble dinner in 1950s Brooklyn. Chaotic inappropriateness and hilarity ensue as the whole apartment building turns out for a glimpse of the movie star. Iconic is Benjy’s introduction of Alan Swann to his Jewish mother:Mr. Swann, may I present my mother: Mrs. Belle May Steinberg Carroca of Brooklyn, New York, and Miami Beach, Florida for two weeks, each and every winter.” (GR)

82. News from Home (1977) – Letter home

A family, scattered across the globe, outsiders in their own countries, united by little more than a common heritage and the written word — if this doesn’t sound Jewish to you, I have some history books you might want to check out. In “News from Home,” Chantal Akerman captures the Jewish experience in all its joy and loneliness: While a static camera watches New Yorkers stroll through a subway tunnel, she reads from a letter her mother wrote her, wondering when she’ll be back in Belgium. The colors are gaudily bright and dull, the letter’s sentiments are affectionate and oddly stiff, the tone is at once intimate and alienating. Akerman never accepted that she was a distinctly Jewish filmmaker, and she was right not to, but in this startling scene, she found room for all the contradictions of her culture. (JA)

83. Next Stop, Greenwich Village (1976) — Two Jewish actors in New York 

Director Paul Mazursky contemplates the indignities visited upon Jewish actors as Clyde Baxter (né Charlie Biletnikoff) meets Larry Lapinsky at an audition and encourages him to change his name to achieve success. Baxter (played by a young Jeff Goldblum) boasts of his acting credentials to Lapinsky(Lenny Baker), who tries to ingratiate himself with a receptionist to secure an optimal audition time. But it soon becomes clear that, whether his surname is Baxter or Biletnikoff, those around him have already decided that he’s way too Jewish. In an interesting twist on Baxter’s dilemma, another character, Bernstein Chandler (Antonio Fargas), when asked if he’s Jewish, says, “No, darling; I’m gay.” (AL)

84. A Night at the Opera (1935) – “There ain’t no Sanity Clause!”

Groucho and Chico stand in front of a clothes rack and review their new contract. They dismiss every part until there’s only one clause that they haven’t torn up and thrown on the ground: “If any of these parties are shown not to be in their right mind.” Groucho reassures Chico that this is just the sanity clause. Chico laughs, “Everybody knows there ain’t no sanity clause!” Well, at least the Marxes of Yorkville did – along with every wise-ass Jewish kid at Christmastime. (DF)

85. Norma Rae (1979) – Reuben arrives in North Carolina

When Reuben Warshowsky shows up at Norma Rae’s door, her father, Vernon (Pat Hingle), asks, “What kind of a name is that?” “The kind you have to spell for telephone operators and headwaiters,” Reuben responds, then introduces himself as a labor organizer. “Far as I’m concerned all of you people are communists, agitators or crooks or Jews or all four rolled together,” Vernon barks. But Reuben stands his ground – even calling Vernon a schlemiel. In the end the mill workers will unionize and Norma Rae will learn the word “ka-vetch” (her pronunciation could use some work).

86. Office Space (1999) – “Nazi Flair” 

Sometimes, it can seem as if any conflict, no matter how trivial or significant, will inevitably lead to a Holocaust analogy —face-mask mandates are fascism; vax deniers wear yellow stars. Mike Judge’s satire takes Holocaust trivialization to its logical extreme as office drone Ron Livingstone compares a chain restaurant’s employee dress code to Nazism: “The Nazis had pieces of flair that they made the Jews wear.” Jennifer Aniston’s appalled facial expression says more than any 750-word op-ed could. (AL)

87. Once Upon a Time in America (1984) – Song of Songs

It’s Pesach on the Lower East Side, and a teenage Noodles Aaronson comes to get a drink at a closed-down restaurant. “Nice people don’t drink on Pesach, they go to the synagogue,” admonishes Deborah (a young Jennifer Connelly). These two sweethearts will not be in shul for the holiday, but Deborah insists you can pray anywhere. Sitting on a pallet of loose apples, she reads to him from the Song of Songs, taking some liberties to more precisely describe the boy before her. Even the street-tough Noodles can’t help but melt a bit at these words. Sergio Leone was good for more than Westerns.

88. The Pawnbroker (1964) – “You people?”

The first movie to have scenes set in a concentration camp, Sidney Lumet’s drama is a harrowing look not only into the daily struggles of a Holocaust survivor, but also the American ghetto. Set in East Harlem in the 1960s, “The Pawnbroker” studies the tensions between white Jews and non-Jewish people of color. “How come you people come to business so naturally?” Sol Nazerman’s Puerto Rican assistant asks him. Nazerman (played by Rod Steiger in an Oscar-nominated performance) responds by recounting the entirety of Jewish victimhood in the diaspora. The reply shows that that his bitterness, guilt and agony is not just the result of his own suffering and personal loss in the Holocaust, but of a far greater history of cruelty and dehumanization.

89. Pi (1998) – Torah math

In a climactic moment in Darren Aronofsky’s unsettling debut, mathematician Max Cohen (Sean Gullette) is told the 216-digit number that’s been haunting him is the true name of God. Rabbi Cohen (Stephen Pearlman), his flowing beard resplendent in black-and-white 16mm, gives him a run-down of the ritual of the Holy of Holies and the knowledge lost with its destruction. This is all news to the secular Max, but when the rabbi demands he surrender the number, in true Talmudic fashion, he debates with him. “The number is nothing,” Max shouts, “it’s the meaning!” Alas, in the end the rabbi is right: the weight of that meaning is too much for him.

90. The Plot Against Harry (1969/1989) – “A disgrace to the Jewish people”

Michael Roemer’s comedy, about a Jewish racketeer (Martin Priest) attempting to reform himself in the kosher catering business, has no shortage of iconic Jewish scenes. Among them is a bris for Harry’s grandson where the father asks the rabbi’s permission to take pictures. The mother’s reply: “What exactly are you going to photograph?” But the best moment is when Harry, in his hotel elevator after giving televised testimony about his criminal associates, is confronted by his sister’s friend, who calls him a “disgrace to the Jewish people.” After she exits, the elevator operator turns to Harry and asks if he’s Jewish. When Harry confirms this, the operator does a landsman a solid  and tells him “your phone is tapped.” We then cut to Harry  doing his bookie business from another guy’s landline.

91. The Prince of Egypt (1998) – Song of the Sea

The song many remember from DreamWorks’ riff on Exodus, the Oscar-winning “When You Believe,” better recalls Gospel music than anything heard in shul – at least when Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey sang it. But in the film the bridge of the tune is lifted directly from the Torah. A chorus of kids sing the select Hebrew lines of Shirat HaYam (Song of the Sea, from the Book of Exodus) as they march out of their place of bondage. It’s a real “children are the future” moment from composer Stephen Schwartz, and if it doesn’t set your Jewish heart aflutter, God must have hardened it.

92. The Princess Bride (1987) – Miracle Max

Billy Crystal and Carol Kane play married … elves? Goblins? Orcs? Fantasy Jews, I’ll call them, but in a way that isn’t antisemitic – or if it is, Jews are behind it so it’s OK. Max is a wise healer who knows that “mostly dead” is “slightly alive.” With the cadence of a Delancey Street pushcart proprietor, Max revives our stricken hero Wesley with a pair of bellows and a lot of screaming. Max and wife, Valerie, bicker and kvetch. It’s a great scene in a great film. It’s really a shame that Ted Cruz likes to quote from it so much

93. The Producers (1967) – Springtime for Hitler

Max Bialystock and Leo Bloom concoct a scheme to get rich by ensuring their Broadway play is a flop. In an attempt to fail spectacularly, they put on a production of a pro-Hitler musical, “Springtime for Hitler,” with an eponymous opening number featuring swastika choreography and an SS kickline. (JK)

94. Professor Mamlock (1938) – Mamlock is arrested in surgery

In Herbert Rappaport’s Soviet film, Jewish doctor Rolf Mamlock is performing surgery when storm troopers enter the operating room and insist his gentile colleague take over. Stunned, Mamlock insists that he is in charge of the hospital and won’t leave. In fact, he orders the Nazi supervisor out. “Isaac wants to kick us out,” the Nazi officer crows, then leads his men in a call and response of slanders. Soon Mamlock is paraded on the street in shackles, his coat painted with the word “Jude.” As historian Olga Gershenson notes, this was one of the earliest films to confront Nazi antisemitism head on.  

95. Quiz Show (1994) – “I’m quite familiar with rugelach”

Herb Stempel, played by John Turturro, is the Jewish foil to the WASP Charles Van Doren (Ralph Fiennes) in this movie about a 1950s quiz show scandal. The contrast between Ivy League professor and outer borough city worker is grossly apparent when a congressional lawyer visits Stempel’s cramped Queens house. The clutter, yelling, plastic-covered furniture and insistence that the visitor try the rugelach all scream Jewish. (AS)

96. The Red Star (La Estrella Roja) (2021) – Yiddish Argentina

Blending fact and fiction in a madcap retelling of the Esther story (where the Hamans are Hitler, Eichmann and Rommel, and Esther is an Argentine MI6 agent), Gabriel Lichtmann’s short film kicks off with Yiddish newsreel footage of 1930s Buenos Aires. There’s a Purim parade with floats decked out like Nazi tanks and swastikas in cages and, finally, the crowning of our Esther, the spy Laila Salama. Digging through the archives, Lichtmann provides a look into a vibrant moment of Jewish history – with a counterfactual twist. 

97. The Revolt of Job (1983) – Legacy

In 1943, Lackó, an unruly Hungarian orphan of gentile parentage, is adopted by the childless Jews Jób (Ferenc Zenthe) and Róza, who have lost seven children. They don’t want to convert this rambunctious, often prickly, boy; they want to pass on their wisdom, their belief that God is everywhere and their wealth to the next generation. Still, nothing prepares parents or child for the Nazi roundup of Jews, where in order to save Lackó, Jób and Róza, driven off in their own cart by Nazis, pretend not to recognize their beloved son. (CR)

 98. Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993) – Rabbi Tuckman

Mel Brooks’ riff on Robin Hood forgoes the friendly Friar Tuck for Rabbi Tuckman (Brooks). Traveling the English countryside with a cart like Tevye’s, we learn in his introduction to the Merry Men that Tuckman’s payot are attached to his hat and that he is a “purveyor of sacramental wine and mohel extraordinaire.” Robin is puzzled as to what a mohel does. When he explains, Robin’s crew are stumped by what a circumcision is. Tuckman doesn’t let on except to say the “ladies love it,” causing the band of thieves to request their own. When Tuckman demonstrates the procedure with a tiny guillotine and a carrot, they change their minds.

99. Schindler’s List (1993) – Girl in the red coat

Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson), in a natty herringbone suit and Nazi lapel pin, rides his horse to a hillside where he can look down into the ghetto. The score introduces the sounds of children’s voices, singing the Yiddish song Oyfn Pripetch,” as Schindler sees Nazi troops round up the Jews. The film is in black and white, but amid the teeming streets we see one small girl in a red coat, allowing the audience to pick up on the scene’s most important detail: the innocent victim. (DF)


100. School Ties (1992) – David challenges his classmates to a fight

When David Greene’s Judaism is outed at the elite private school that he attends on a football scholarship, an anonymous classmate defaces his room with a swastika. Fed up with the abuse, David places a note challenging whoever did it to a fight. Later, David stands outside in the rain, ready to rumble, while his WASPy classmates watch him get wet from their dorm windows. “Cowards!” David shouts at the onlookers who see a non-stereotypical Jewish protagonist refusing to be a victim.  (JK)



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