10. Daniel Deronda
A multi-part BBC series based on the powerful English classic penned by Zionist George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans), Daniel Deronda tells the story of a young gentleman who discovers, through a series of almost mystical events, that his mother is Jewish. A fantastic examination of Jewish identity in Victorian high society, the novel was cited by the likes of Henrietta Szold and Emma Lazarus as influential on their decision to become Zionists. Wonderfully cast, the BBC version is grossly engaging and well worth a marathon viewing.
An out-of-the-box Woody Allen mockumentary, Zelig follows the journey of a human chameleon who manages to become a part of some of the greatest events in history. The funny thing is, no one knows who he really is, except for a collection of renowned scholars and cultural critics, all of whom just happen to be Jewish. This time, Allen skips Freud (making the film so much more palatable) and chooses instead to explore 20th century Jewish identity like a Talmudic scholar. At a time when American Jews were trying to figure out how to be both white and Jewish, Allen gave us Zelig, a man who is neither and both at the same time.
Jeremy Piven plays the ultimate Jewish dad in this farce about absurd millennial bar mitzvahs. The opening scene is comical enough to sell you on this story about one boy’s attempt to get past the gross commercialization in order to find meaning in this most important Jewish coming-of-age ritual. Wonderfully cast and heartwarming without being sickening, this film is for anyone who has ever attempted to plan a meaningful spiritual event in the age of reality television excess.
Based on the novel by Jonathan Safran Foer, the film follows the lead character of the same name as he journeys through the Ukraine to find the girl who rescued his grandfather from Nazi liquidation. One of the few feature films that explores a third-generation survivor’s encounter with his family’s Holocaust history, Everything Is Illuminated employs stunning visuals and carefully crafted editing to build suspense and engage the audience with a deeply emotional, somewhat non-expressive lead character played by Elijah Wood. Sensitive and intriguing, this is the film to show high school students who need to understand why the Holocaust still matters today.
The soundtrack featuring Israeli singer Ofra Haza is enough to send shivers down your spine as you watch this animated feature about Moses and the Hebrew Exodus from Egypt. The beauty of animation is its inherent power to render the most difficult experiences so simple to comprehend. Zionism, slavery, faith, and God are basic truths of Jewish existence birthed in an ancient era when we were known (and despised) as Hebrews, descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel.
An Israeli film about a poor, childless Hasidic couple who struggle to please God in the hopes that they will be blessed with offspring, Ushpizin is best described as a Talmudic comedy. The title literally translates to “The Guests,” referring to the two escaped convicts who wind up at the couple’s doorstep on the eve of the Jewish holiday of Sukkot. Moshe, the film’s main character, knew these creeps in another life and reads their arrival as a test from God. The film offers a comical examination of the Jewish struggle with interpreting and living out Torah, using Jerusalem as its backdrop.
Starring Kirk Douglas (whose own personal relationship with Judaism could be the subject of a movie), this film is based on the life of Colonel Mickey Marcus, a United States Army general who helped Israel during the War of 1948 and “became Israel’s first modern general.” This biopic studies the tense relationships between American and Israeli Jews, as well as America and the fledgling Israel at large. Marcus himself struggles with his Jewish identity as he works to craft the Haganah, a renegade fighting force, into a real army. With powerful performances from a star-studded cast, Cast a Giant Shadow provides inspiring insight into the struggle to establish a Jewish state. Pair it with Exodus for a thrilling double feature.
Based on the book of the same name by Neal Gabler, the film chronicles the Jewish impact on Hollywood, from its beginnings as a refuge for Jewish filmmakers who weren’t permitted to enter the ranks of Thomas Edison back east, to its role as public relations and morale powerhouse during World War II. So much of what we identify as American ideals and expressions of patriotism emanated from the creative minds of Jewish immigrants who saw the United States as a refuge, safe haven, and motherland. This entertaining and compelling documentary explains why 20th century Jewish and American psyches are so intrinsically intertwined.
Finally we have a Holocaust film where the Jews kick ass and take names. Based on the true story of the Bielski brothers, who led a group of 1,236 Jewish partisans in the forests of Nazi-occupied Belarus, this film is equal parts action, tragedy, and romance. Instead of seeing helpless victims abused by Nazi guards, the audience is given the image of strong men and women who confront insanity with the insatiable will to survive, even if it means wandering in the wilderness and confronting the unknown. The power of the film is in the simple fact that living is the greatest act of defiance.
Finally, a good Jewish girl falls for a good Jewish boy who falls for a good Jewish girl! Thanks to Joan Micklin Silver, Susan Sandler and Amy Irving, we were reminded of the sweet, albeit complicated romance that dwells in a good old-fashioned shidduch. Typical New York Jewess Isabelle Grossman (Amy Irving) struggles between lusting after gentile author/heartthrob Anton Maes (Jeroen Krabbe) and a Bubbe-forced matchmaking session with Lower East Side pickle boy Sam Posner (Peter Riegert). Capturing the essence of Jewish New York in all its forms (Yiddish theater star Reizl Bozyk gives a treat of a performance as Bubbe) this film is the best argument for sticking with — and even marrying into — the Tribe.