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The 125 greatest Jewish movie scenes of all timeThe 125 greatest Jewish movie scenes of all time (101-125)

Jimmy Cagney speaks Yiddish, Stephen Sondheim scores a French film and Adam Sandler has a Seder

101. A Serious Man (2009) – Danny meets with the Rabbi

Bar mitzvah boy Danny is stoned, but has navigated his rite of passage successfully and, as the movie approaches its bleak climax, he is allowed into old Rabbi Marshak’s inner sanctum. There, the old, white-bearded rabbi, with an almost inscrutably European accent delivers a koan-like statement on life: “When the truth is found / to be lies / and all the joy within you / dies / don’t you want somebody to love?” It’s a gorgeous bit of old world wisdom – except that it’s not really. The rabbi, with a transistor radio in his ear, is quoting Jefferson Airplane and goes on to list, with Danny’s help, the members of the band – as if Marty Balin and Paul Kantner were Talmudic sages. (DF)

102. Shiva Baby (2020) – The siddur cascade

Danielle (Rachel Sennott), spends much of this film’s hour-and-a-half runtime slowly breaking down as she grapples with her impending college graduation, her queerness and her parents’ expectations. But toward the end, when she has a breakdown and knocks a stack of prayer books onto the floor, stunning the roomful of mourners into silence, she finally seems to realize the gravity of the moment, kissing each siddur as she carefully replaces it onto the table. After spending the film lashing out against her community, the moment makes it clear that Danielle is still deeply rooted in her Judaism. (MF)

103. Sin La Habana (2020) – After Santeria, a Canadian-Mizrahi bris

Kaveh Nabatian’s feature debut is a sensory overload in the best way possible, melding orange-tinted Bolex footage, ballet and extreme close-ups of chickens about to be killed in a Santeria ritual. In the middle of the vertiginous tale of Afro-Cuban ballerino Leonardo and the Iranian-Jewish Canadian Nasim, whom he exploits for a visa, is something rarely committed to film: a Mizrahi brit milah with ululating women and more than a smattering of Farsi from the crowd. Leonardo, despite his own Santeria practice, appears taken aback by this display. In interviews, Nabatian emphasized the importance of showing Iranian Jewish customs in the film, and cast his own father as Nassim’s dad (and the sandek).

104. The Social Network (2010) – Jewish frat party 

It’s a funny tidbit that a Harvard Jewish frat party played a pivotal role in the development of Facebook. A side effect of it is that the movie “The Social Network” recreates for all eternity what an early 2000s AEPi “Caribbean night” was like. Otherwise, the awkward dancing to calypso music and creepy banter of Jewish comp cci majors ogling Asian coeds would be lost forever. Most cringeworthy is when Brazilian Jewish Facebook founder Eduardo Saverin explains why Jewish men are attracted to Asian women: “They’re hot, smart, not Jewish and can dance.” (AS)

105. Solomon and Sheba (1959) – Solomon’s army defeats the Egyptians

Rebuked by his people, abandoned by his allies, and sold out by his worthless brother Adonijah, Israel’s deposed King Solomon (Yul Brynner) prepares to make his final stand against the advancing Egyptian army. With his forces severely depleted and outnumbered, Solomon faces what looks like certain defeat. But as the Egyptians begin their westward charge, Solomon’s soldiers raise their polished shields to the rising sun in the east, blinding their opponents and sending them plummeting en masse into a massive chasm in front of the Israeli lines. Never underestimate the wisdom of Solomon! (DE)

106. Stavisky (1974) – “We don’t know you anymore”

Toward the end of Alain Resnais’ biopic about the infamous Russian-born Jewish conman Serge Alexandre Stavisky (Jean-Paul Belmondo), the well-connected swindler’s associates reveal their true colors. Learning the police are searching his Paris apartment and that his grift will soon come undone, Stavisky’s right-hand man, Borelli, doesn’t mince words about their future together. “We don’t know you anymore,” he says, going on to growl that Stavisky’s crimes prove “you should never trust foreigners… refugees… Jews.” As this disavowal proceeds – with a rare film score by Stephen Sondheim – the camera turns around Stavisky, the weight of his outsider status finally dawning on him. He is the Jew on display – and, now that he’s outlived his usefulness, he will become the scapegoat. 

107. Symphony of Six Million (1932) – Reclaiming ideals 

Dr. Felix Klauber (Ricardo Cortez) has left the old neighborhood to treat Park Avenue hypochondriacs in a swanky office with a battery of receptionists. His childhood sweetheart, Jessica (Irene Dunne), walks into Felix’s new practice like she’s entering the Land of Oz, baffled by how far he’s come from his principles and shocked when she’s told “he never sees anyone except by appointment.” When she manages to get an audience, she berates him in biblical terms for selling his birthright (a family clinic) for a mess of pottage. “You’ve forgotten the ghetto, all your fine promises,” she says. (CR)

108. Synonyms (2019) – “Circumcised” 

The marked difference of the Israeli protagonist of Nadav Lapid’s film is noted almost immediately by his new neighbors in Paris. When the pair find him unconscious in the tub, one of them does a quick appraisal: “circumcised.” As Forward contributing film critic Daniel Witkin noted in his review, this is but one of the film’s phallocentric instances of “wherever you go, there you are.” 

109. Taxi! (1932) – James Cagney speaks Yiddish

When you think of Golden Age stars who knew some Yiddish, Jimmy Cagney may not seem like a top-line candidate. He should. In an immediately iconic moment in Roy Del Ruth’s film, Cagney’s Matt Nolan offers a ride (in the mameloshn) to a frustrated Yiddish-speaker asking an Irish cop for directions. “What part of Ireland did your folks come from?” asks the gobsmacked policeman. “Delancey Street, thank you,” Cagney answers with a smirk.

 110. Tevya (1939) – Chava comes back to her family

Yiddish Art Theater founder Maurice Schwartz, who wrote, directed and starred in this adaptation of Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye stories, brought a certain anti-gentile animus to bear on the story of Chava’s interfaith marriage. And given the timing – 1939 – who could blame him? In this telling, Chava leaves her husband and cruel in-laws when an antisemitic edict forces Tevya to leave the village. Petitioning her father to rejoin the family, she cries, “Your old belief is truer, deeper. Now I finally know my soul belongs to you. Where you are, I am.” Of course the old softie takes her back.

111. The Ten Commandments (1956) – Passover

Moses and the Israelites observe a proto-Passover Seder in Cecil B. DeMille’s second crack at Exodus. It’s a chilling sequence. Outside the huts of the Hebrew camp, the angel of death is killing the Egyptian firstborns. The cries of their parents can be heard as Moses’ nephew Eleazar questions his uncle about the unleavened bread on the table. Moses’ explanation is interrupted by the frantic whinnying of a horse outside. The horrors of the scene beyond these walls recalls the countless Jews who risked death to observe their Seders – only at this one point in history are they the safe ones. A stoic Moses tells Eleazar to always remember, “He passed over your house.”

112. To Be or Not to Be (1942) – The beard scene

Ernst Lubitsch’s uproarious backstage comedy culminates in a feat of stunning stagecraft as Jack Benny’s Joseph Tura places a fake beard on a corpse and passes for a dead Nazi double agent. As Jackson Arn notes in his essay, the sequence is delightful for reducing a Gestapo officer from “from swagger to pathetic groveling in under three minutes, and all it takes is a theater prop.”

113. To Be Or Not To Be (1983) – “A Little Piece of Poland”

No one has ever enjoyed making fun of Hitler as much as Mel Brooks. Both in his award-winning movie/musical/musical-movie, “The Producers” and in this remake of the Ernst Lubitsch comedy of the same name, Hitler is a ridiculous, yet pivotal, character.  In a musical comedy sketch, Brooks, as the leader of a Polish theater ensemble, plays Hitler as a singing, dancing, insecure dictator who wants a little peace. Of Poland that is.

 “The only way to get even with anybody is to ridicule them. So, the only real way I could get even with Hitler and company was to bring them down with laughter.” – Mel Brooks on “Inside Comedy”

114. The Trial (1962) – “Before the Law” prologue

It’s one of the most famous pieces of writing by one of the quintessential Jewish writers: A traveler comes to a gate and asks the gatekeeper to let him pass; the gatekeeper refuses, and years pass, the traveler refusing to accept that he’ll never be allowed further. For his interpretation of Kafka’s “Before the Law” parable, Orson Welles had the brilliant idea of using pin-screen animation instead of actors,to make the parable’s meaning even more inscrutable (the exclusion of Jews from a Christian society? the torturous, Talmudic maze of Judaism itself?). Maimonides wrote that he believed in “the coming of the mashiach, and though he may tarry, still I await him every day.” In the prologue to “The Trial,” Kafka and Welles seem to ask, “What if he tarries forever?” (JA)

115. Uncut Gems (2019) – Looking for the afikomen

In the middle of Josh and Benny Safdie’s white-knuckler, there’s a moment of reprieve as overleveraged jeweler Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler) smokes cigars with his father-in-law (Judd Hircsh) after a Seder, talking basketball and the price of an opal. Suddenly, a column of children files into the room darting around the furniture. This ritual blurs by without explanation,  but Jews know. These kids are looking for the afikomen – and are on the make just like their dad.

116. The Unvanquished (1945) – Babyn Yar recreated on site

In a chilling sequence, a Jewish doctor (Yiddish-Soviet actor Veniamin Zuskin) and his gentile friends part ways. The non-Jews go in the direction of a cemetery, with a casket; a column of countless Ukrainian Jews wend their way to a mass grave. Filmed on site at Babyn Yar, director Marc Donskoi shows the massacre by machine gun in unflinching detail. Men, women and children fall in the ravine as storm clouds roll overhead. Several years after this was shot, Babyn Yar would be filled with waste from a brick factory; in 1952, the film’s star, Zuskin, would be executed on the Night of Murdered Poets.

117. Ushpizin (2004) – Moshe prays to God

Gidi Dar’s drama, written by and starring Shuli Rand and his wife, Michal Bat-Sheva Rand, was “Shtisel” before “Shtisel” – and without all the fake payot. In a transcendent moment, the childless Moshe confides to God that he is profoundly sad. He is, in fact, “a lump of sadness.” He can’t afford to celebrate Sukkot. He wonders aloud why God hasn’t repaid his devotion – and, even more so, that of his wife, Mali. Moshe sits on a park bench, clapping his hands for his lucky day. His fervent prayers are intercut with a scene in an office, where we learn a charity has 1,000 spare shekels meant for a man who died. It’s a Sukkot miracle. Too bad that convicts will interrupt Moshe and Mali’s chag.

118. The Voice of Israel (1934) – An old and young cantor join in harmony

From the early days of Yiddish talkies, this film, helmed by Sidney Goldin, is a thrilling display of some of the greatest cantorial voices of the time including Mordechai Hershman, Joseph Shlisky, Yoselle Rosenblatt (the film was released the year after he died) and more. The most compelling scene – and, sadly, one which has long been missing from surviving prints – is of legendary cantor/composer Zeidel Rovner, who, at the age of 78, was one of the oldest professional hazzanim. He is joined by Shaya Engelhart, the youngest cantorial sensation, in a beautiful rendition of Rovner’s setting of a Tisha B’av prayer. (HS)

119. Waiting for Guffman (1996) – Dybbuk, Shmybuck

Midway through Christopher Guest’s mockumentary about community theater, dentist-turned-actor Dr. Allan Pearl reflects on the “entertaining bug” he inherited from his grandfather Chaim Pearlgut, an erstwhile star in New York’s Yiddish theater scene. Black and white lithographs flash across the screen, filled with noses the size of grapefruits and costumes straight from the shtetl. But what was the production that made Chaim a star? It was, of course, the “sardonically irreverent” play “Dybbuk, Shmybuck: I Said More Ham.” (JZ)

120. When Harry Met Sally… (1989) – Katz’s Deli

“I’ll have what she’s having,” says Estelle Reiner, the director’s mom.

121. Wild Tales (Relatos Salvajes)  (2014) – Hevenu Shalom Aleichem

It’s always a volatile moment when the bride and groom are lifted up in chairs at a Jewish wedding. In this Argentinian movie by Jewish screenwriter Damián Szifron, the bride suspects her new husband of infidelities and it’s when the klezmer band starts playing that everything spins out of control. (AS)

122. Yentl (1983) – “No Wonder”

Barbra Streisand wrote, directed, and stars in this musical about the girl whose father gives her a Talmudic education reserved for men. After his death she continues her study dressed as Anshel, a male Yeshiva student, secretly in love with classmate, Avigdor (Mandy Patinkin). During Shabbat dinner at the home of Avigdor’s fiancee, Hadas (Amy Irving), Yentl/Anshel has a rare moment of double consciousness: She is both a woman admiring another woman and a man appreciating that woman’s submissiveness. “No wonder, he loves her,” she sings in an inner monologue. “The moment she sees him, her thought is to please him.” (CR)

123. Yiddle Mitn Fidl (1936) – How can a small fiddle hold so much pain?

While this justly celebrated musical rom-com, featuring the irrepressible gamine Molly Picon, is brimming with memorable scenes, with songs penned by her and musical collaborator Abe Ellstein, the most underrated sequence features co-star Dora Fakiel. Fakiel is in the street, singing “Oy, hert zikh ayn, mayne libe mentshn (Please Hear Me Out, Good People),” a  heartbreakingly poignant and metaphoric ballad, oozing with lush modal movement whose lyrics ask, “How such a small fiddle can contain so much pain?” (HS)

124. Young Frankenstein (1974) – Fronk-en-steen 

In this parody of the Universal monster movies, Gene Wilder plays the grandson of Dr. Frankenstein, and corrects people when they mispronounce his last name. It’s not “Franken-stein,” but rather the more Anglo-sounding “Fronk-en-steen.” Brooks’ gag highlights the trend in which American Jews changed their last names to avoid prejudice and to better their social position. (JK)

125. Zero Motivation (2014) – Stapler

In a scene that became instantly iconic, soldier Daffi (Nelly Tagar), hoping to leave her remote outpost, holds a stapler to her temple. “That’s the only way I’ll get any attention,” she insists. No one at her base is impressed – and the stapler is empty. “Kill yourself first and then we’ll report it,” says one of her comrades, as Daffi moves on to attempt suicide with even more office supplies.

Thus concludes our list of the 125 greatest Jewish movie scenes. But as with so many Jewish texts, there is room for vigorous debate, commentary and supplements. If you think we missed something (and we’re certain we did) feel free to send an email to Grisar@Forward.com.

 

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