From dust we came, and to dust we shall return. And in between, a little popcorn maybe?
Jewish death traditions are their own kind of immersive theater — a powerful group performance that calls for a set, props, costumes, special effects, and a grueling schedule. That high drama is no doubt why filmmakers and TV writers are drawn to Jewish death again and again.
Our favorite examples of Jewish death rituals on screen range from heartbreaking to contemplative to quietly hilarious — just like a real Jewish funeral.
This article was published on January 29, 2019, and updated on June 10, 2019, to reflect even more excellent Jewish death scenes.
1. “Rue Mandar,” the entire movie
Like a French, death-centered “Transparent,” a Jewish family reunites in Paris to sit shiva for their mother, though they’re so unfamiliar with the customs of Jewish burial that they nearly end up with more bodies. Like “This Is Where I Leave You,” the movie suggests that a shiva is a dynamic opportunity for reconciliation, but instead of love stories, it brings comic colonoscopies.
- “Broad City,” Grandma Esther’s Shiva
Birth is a beginning, and death a destination (or so sayeth Rabbi Alvin Fine in the “Gates of Repentance” Reform prayerbook.) And in between — a lot of living, including the somewhat obscure sex act that takes the stage in a “Broad City” shiva scene. This shiva scene has it all — really old people, karaoke, hats, and a bereaved grandchild screaming with joy.
3. “Dead To Me,” Mourner’s Kaddish scene
We couldn’t get a clip for this, but here’s a GIF of Christina Applegate eating Entenmann’s
Jen Kober is the ultimate blunt, brilliant rabbi in the final episode of the first season of Netflix’s “Dead To Me.” Kober does a stellar kaddish (she’s actually Jewish, and it shows) and then gives a perfect breakdown of one major Jewish perspective on the afterlife. An obviously queer woman rabbi explaining the concept of teshuva in all the glossy glory of streaming television? You had us at “Yitkadal.”
4. “Rocky III,” Mickey Goldmill’s Funeral
You heard that right — when Rocky’s mentor dies, Rocky himself mumbles the words of the Mourner’s Kaddish from behind his thick shades. In this scene you won’t see any handfuls of dirt throne onto plain wooden caskets, but that doesn’t mean the scene is unrealistic — according to the extremely punctilious Total Rocky fan site, the scene filmed at the real-life Hollywood Forever Cemetery, in the Beth Olam Mausoleum. It’s a burial style that mimics the grandeur of Christian customs, but make no mistake — the Beth Olam Mausoleum is over 100 years old. Jews mixing up hybrid death customs is nothing new.
5. The Rabbi’s eulogy in Tony Kushner’s “Angels In America”
We love this Jewish memorial scene because it is nothing like an actual eulogy a rabbi might give for an elderly Jewish woman! He would probably not make fun of her grandchildren’s names, or draw attention to the fact that he doesn’t know her, or take her eulogy as an opportunity to grandstand on the topic of Jewish immigration. But Kushner’s choice to begin his epic with a Jewish memorial service, to stretch a recognizable custom so far beyond probability in order to frame the work within a tradition, perfectly demonstrates the gravity that Jewish funerary customs and mourning practices hold for Jews.
6. “Shtisel,” Season Two, Episode Nine
Okay so it’s not Hollywood, but once it’s on Netflix it’s too good to skip — the Shtisel family, at the center of the hit Israeli show, is Haredi. But as they sit shiva in the show’s sophomore season we see how unifying Jewish mourning practices are. The Shtisels appear to have little in common with the family in “This Is Where I Leave You,” (see Number 8,) but when it comes to handling death, they go through the same Jewish rites and traditions.
7. “Disobedience,” shiva scenes
If you go into an Ultra-Orthodox (or any other) shiva and expect this level of buried sexual tension, you will likely be disappointed. Otherwise, the drab, quiet scenes of mourners drinking coffee in two-story homes in Hendon, and trudging through the chilly London streets in long coats and wigs paint a fair picture of Ultra-Orthodox people carrying out Jewish grief rituals.
8. “This Is Where I Leave You,” the entire movie
“This Is Where I Leave You” is an underwhelming, undercooked, over-star-stuffed comedy. But it’s 103 minutes of a semi-secular Jewish American family sitting shiva, and that doesn’t happen every day in Hollywood. And it does make the convincing argument that sitting shiva will be a rollicking romp that will heal old family wounds and help you find love again — not bad press for an ancient death ritual.
9. The “Kaddish” episode of the X-Files
“Kaddish,” an episode of the classic sci-fi series, gives a fairly goyish look at an ultra-Orthodox family’s mourning process. But it appropriately emphasizes the importance of the graveside service, the simple casket, and the handfuls of dirt. Don’t forget, though: mellifluous strains of klezmer don’t come automatically with your Jewish funeral. If that’s something you want, you’ll have to prearrange it.
10. “Norah’s Will” the entire movie
“Norah’s Will” is not just a Jewish death comedy, but a Jewish suicide comedy that plays on multiple halachot surrounding Jewish observance to make humor out of tragedy. The Mexican film (the Spanish title translates to “Five Days Without Nora”) is the funniest, fiercest movie about Jewish Mexicans dying during Passover you will ever see.
Honorable mention: The “Cat Funeral” episode of “New Girl”
Laugh it up, folks — the so-called “cat funeral” that occurs in Season 7, episode 4 of Fox’s “New Girl” is as realistic a depiction of the Jewish custom of headstone unveiling as you will ever see on the silver screen, from the brevity to the lay-leadership to the paper booklets. No, Jews don’t really do ceremonial headstone reveals for cats. Yes, if they did they would look a lot like this.
And the runners up:
-The story of “The Jazz Singer,” the first full length motion picture in history, hinges on a dying cantor’s relationship with his son on the eve of the holiest day of the year. Less impressively, it features a racist blackface scene.
-“My Mexican Shiva” appears over-the-top and borderline offensive, and thus earns only second place for movies that focus on the foibles of shiva minyans in Mexico on this list.
-Larry David saw fit to bless us with multiple Jewish funeral scenes in “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” but all of them are mostly about Larry David, not about Jewish mourning. The famous “five wood incident” best nails the aesthetics of West Coast semi-secular Jewish grieving.
And a bonus:
-The excellent 1980’s comedy “Northern Exposure” has an episode dedicated to the importance of gathering a minyan to say kaddish, and a kindly reader in Texas pointed out that the entire stereotype-evading episode can be viewed for free on Daily Motion. Happily, “Northern Exposure” is being revived by CBS with actors from the original cast, and hopefully many more obscure Jewish episodes to come.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article inaccurately identified the location of the Hollywood Forever Cemetery.
Jenny Singer is the deputy lifestyle editor for the Forward. You can reach her at Singer@forward.com or on Twitter @jeanvaljenny