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Depicting the Joyous Jewish Experience in Film & TV this International Holocaust Memorial Day

The Jewish experience is a vibrant tapestry adorned with joy, brilliant food, and larger-than-life festivities. As we mark Holocaust Memorial Day (27th January), Milan Perera has compiled a list of movies that capture the Jewish experience in its various hues.

By Milan Perera, Arts Critic Columnist

The genocidal antisemitism decreed by the Nazi regime during WWII murdered over six million Jews, which was nearly half of the entire Jewish population at the time. It remains the single most harrowing moment of recent history where the unadulterated hatred and bigotry fanned into an inferno of raging racist violence.

The Holocaust is undoubtedly one of the most monumental chapters in Jewish history, which spans over three millennia, but it would be an equally gross injustice to reduce the Jewish experience to suffering and resistance.

The Jewish experience is a vibrant tapestry adorned with joy, brilliant food, and larger-than-life festivities, further gilded with songs and psalms of life affirmation. As we mark the Holocaust Memorial Day (27th January), I have compiled a short list of movies that capture the Jewish experience in its various hues.

Shiva Baby (2020) // Courtesy of IMDB
A Night at the Opera (1935) | Dir. Sam Wood

This evergreen Marx brothers classic scores a whopping 97 per cent Rotten Tomatoes aggregator despite being made at the dawn of the Golden Age of Hollywood when it was making the transition from vaudeville and Broadway into cinema.

The five brothers, Chico, Harpo, Groucho, Gummo and Zeppo, mesmerised audiences with their effervescent brand of entertainment in both vaudeville and cinema.

A Night at the Opera revolves around a case of mistaken identity made by Groucho’s character, Otis B. Driftwood, a business manager for Dumont’s rich art patron. He recruits the wrong singer, Baroni (Alan Jones), for the New York Opera Company after the singer’s manager, Fiorello (Chico), declares him ‘the greatest tenor in the world’. 

There’s a romance between Baroni and soprano Rosa (Kitty Carlisle) amid the usual musical interludes. Inspiration for British rock band Queen’s fourth studio album (1975) of the same name.

Courtesy of Warner Bros. on IMDB
Shiva Baby (2020) | Dir. Emma Seligman

A multi-faceted laugh-out-loud comedy on the challenges of adulthood. In the remarkable debut movie of director Emma Seligman, Shiva Baby (2020) walks on a delicate tightrope that keeps the audience guessing, jumping genres from comedy to thriller at every turn.

The Shiva in the title refers to the mourning period in Judaism after the bereavement of close relatives, and a funeral forms the core of the story. College student Danielle (Rachel Sennott) is faced with the awkward encounter of bumping into an ex-girlfriend AND her sugar daddy while attending a Shiva for a relative who she hardly knew.

To make matters worse, she is surrounded by her overbearing relatives. If things could not get worse, her sugar daddy arrives with his wife and baby.

A razor-sharp comedy which joins a long tradition of movies delving into the culture and rituals of the Jewish experience with disarming candour.

Courtesy of IMDB
Fiddler on the Roof (1971) | Dir. Norman Jewison

Fiddler on the Roof is so well-known and so widely loved that only someone living under a rock would be surprised to find it on this list. Adapted from one of the greatest Broadway musicals, the film depicts two of the defining Jewish experiences of the last 200 years: the breakdown of traditions and the mass migration of Russian and Polish immigrants to the new world.

Israeli actor Topol was only 35 when he played the lead role of Tevye, but he gave the role its due emotional intelligence. This Oscar-winning adaptation of the life of the Jewish community of pre-revolutionary Russia revolves around a poor milkman determined to find good husbands for his five daughters. He consults the traditional matchmaker - and also has a word with God!

The music for the film was conducted and adapted by John Williams from the original score by Jerry Bock.

Courtesy of IMDB
The Awakening of Motti Wolkenbruch (2018) | Dir. Michael Steiner

This Swiss comedy-drama film directed by Michael Steiner tells the story of Motti, a good-living Orthodox Jewish boy falling madly in love with Laura, a shiksa (Yiddish for a gentile woman) Motti starts to hang out with Laura. She wears blue jeans and drinks gin and tonics.

At the same time, Motti is still being set up on dates by his mother. On one of his dates, Motti and the girl, Michal, agree to act as if they are dating to stop their mothers from bombarding them with date proposals. Motti's mom wrecks her car with excitement over the news. Meanwhile, Motti and Laura keep dating.

A laugh-out-loud frolic from the beginning to the end credits.

Courtesy of IMDB
The Meyerowitz Stories (2017) | Dir. Noah Baumbach

This award-winning movie (Cannes Film Festival 2017) features some of the biggest names in the industry, such as Dustin Hoffman, Emma Thompson, Ben Stiller and Adam Sandler. Directed and written by Noah Baumbach, the story revolves around retired art professor and sculptor Harold Meyerowitz (Dustin Hoffman), his children and his fourth wife, Maureen.

This is a fine exploration of family dynamics in all their complexity. A poignant story punctuated with brooding sadness and loud laughter.

Courtesy of IMDB
Disobedience (2017) | Dir. Sebastián Lelio

Based on the bestselling novel by Naomi Alderman, Disobedience captures the childhood friendship of two women in an Orthodox community that blossomed into a romance. Starring Rachel Wiesz, Rachel McAdams and Alessandro Nivola, Disobedience is a delicate exploration of the boundaries of friendship, family values, faith and sexuality.

Ronit (Rachel Weisz) leaves England to forge a new identity and career in America and put the past behind her and Esti (Rachel McAdams), but her world turns upside down she hears the news of her father’s passing, Rav Krushka.

Ronit has to return home and confront the past again. Esti is married to her father’s prized student Dovid.

A chain of events unfolds at a rapid pace.

Courtesy of IMDB
Call Me By Your Name (2017) | Dir. Luca Guadagnino

This 2017 movie based on the novel of the same title by Andrè Acimen is widely considered a benchmark movie on the LGBTQ+ experience, but it remains distinctly Jewish in its essence.

It captures the friendship and sexual awakening of a young Jewish boy, Elio, when a student of his father, Oliver, also Jewish, spends the summer in their holiday home in Italy.

Michael Stuhlbarg, who gives an iconic performance as Professor Samuel Perlman, captures worldly wisdom and empathy, which is akin to the shared wisdom of rabbis and scholars of Jewish tradition.

His monologues, especially the one he delivered when Elio was heartbroken at the departure of Oliver, were both soothing and poignant.

Courtesy of IMDB

Featured Image: Some of My Best Friends (1969) // Courtesy of Neville Smith and Tom Heritage, BFI Archives

What films do you think encapsulate the Jewish experience?