Favorite Jewish Movie Scenes of All TimeA Moment Symposium
Omer Bartov / Mayim Bialik / Tovah Feldshuh / Glenn Frankel
Anne Goursaud / Lee Grant / Roberta Grossman / Molly Haskell
Amy Heckerling / Agnieszka Holland / Aviva Kempner / Leonard Maltin
Marcia Nasatir /Avi Nesher / Carl Reiner / Kenneth Turan
Marcia Nasatir was the first female vice president of a major Hollywood film studio (United Artists). She helped develop and produce films such as Rocky, The Big Chill, Carrie and Coming Home.
It’s a scene from The Jazz Singer. Jakie Rabinowitz’s father, a Jewish cantor, is dying; Rabinowitz, played by Al Jolson, has long been estranged from his family because he wants to be a showbiz singer. In the pivotal scene, he has to choose between fulfilling his dream by going to opening night for his new show or attending shul to sing “Kol Nidre” in his ailing father’s place. He goes to synagogue. Jews who wanted to be seen as Americans made this movie in the 1920s. It’s about Jewish people, religious immigrants who don’t speak English, their son who sings American jazz in blackface and probably marries a shiksa. But in the end, he returns to the Jewish religion. He sings “Kol Nidre.” The Warner brothers, all Jews, had the courage to make this movie and to pick their biggest star, Al Jolson, to play the lead. That’s the miracle of Hollywood.
Carl Reiner is an American director, actor, writer and comedian. His credits include The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Jerk and The 2000 Year Old Man.
It’s a scene from The Jolson Story, a biopic about singer Al Jolson. Larry Parks plays Jolson, which is about as Jewish as it gets. Jolson comes out on stage and sings “Toot, Toot, Tootsie!” against his father’s wishes. That was quite a moment.
Anne Goursaud is a French-born American filmmaker who has frequently collaborated with Francis Ford Coppola and Jack Nicholson. Her most recent movie is the documentary A Classy Broad about Marcia Nasatir.
It’s a scene from Night and Fog, the French documentary film about Auschwitz and Majdanek. My father took me and a friend to see it. He said, “You girls have to know what happened.” It was by the famous French film director Alain Resnais in collaboration with screenwriter Jean Cayrol, who was a survivor of the Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camp. It was a silent documentary film. I remember the disconcerting feeling of going from a regular day with colors and sunshine inside a dark theater to see a black-and-white film about the horrors of the concentration camps. As a non-Jew, that was my introduction to the Holocaust. It was important for me to know about it. The scene I remember most was of hundreds of bodies being thrown down and pushed into a grave. It was very powerful. And I remember leaving the theater and feeling surprised that the sun was still shining and flowers were still blooming outside despite the horrors I had just witnessed on the screen.
Roberta Grossman is an American filmmaker. Her documentaries include Blessed is the Match: The Life and Death of Hannah Senesh, which was nominated for an Emmy and shortlisted for an Academy Award.
The wedding scene in Fiddler on the Roof is one of my favorite Jewish moments on film. The scene is drenched in family, nostalgia and an aching foreknowledge of the Holocaust. By the time Fiddler (the play and the movie) came out in the 1960s and 1970s, many American Jews, including my family, were very assimilated, yet still very strongly identified as Jews. Many of us had pride without deep knowledge of history or religion or language. Fiddler was a shortcut to accessing what we knew to be a very rich lost civilization from which we were forever barred. I think a longing for a continuity that was slipping away was behind the fact that my grandmother called me every single time Fiddler played on local channel 13 when I was growing up—as if to say, they’re playing our song!
Aviva Kempner is an American documentary filmmaker, best known for The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg.
I love Hester Street, a wonderful movie about the immigrant experience. My favorite scene is the one where Gitl first arrives in America. Her husband Yankle has already been in the U.S. for a while. Gitl, the main protagonist, is nervous and uncertain of what she will find when she arrives at Ellis Island. Yankle comes to greet her and is embarrassed that she still wears a sheitel (a wig). Conversely, Gitl barely recognizes Yankle because he looks so American. It’s a story about assimilation and the difficulties of adjusting to a new country. I came to America after the war, so I tend to identify with movies about immigrants trying to make it in America.
Amy Heckerling is an American film director. She is best known for Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Look Who’s Talking and Clueless.
It’s the scene from Annie Hall when the Woody Allen character, Alvy Singer, is with Annie Hall’s family for Easter dinner. Earlier in the movie Annie had said to Alvy, “You’re what Grammy Hall would call ‘a real Jew.’” In an aside to the audience, Alvy points Grammy out as a big Jew-hater, and then the movie cuts to how Alvy imagines she sees him: It’s the iconic image of Woody Allen dressed as a Hasidic Jew with a big beard, payos and the whole black outfit. It’s very funny and of course relatable because we all think about how other people see us and how ridiculous we might look to them. Woody Allen took this to a funny extreme to show how Jews are stereotyped as foreign and strange.
Mayim Bialik is an American actress and a neuroscientist. She is best known for her TV roles on Blossom and The Big Bang Theory. Bialik has been nominated for four Emmys.
Woody Allen’s appearance as the Hasidic Jew in his mind as shown in Annie Hall is the quintessential “fear” moment for so many Jews; that no matter what we do or say or act like, gentiles may always see us as that prototypical “Hasid” who is out of place and time.
Lee Grant is an American actress and film director. She won an Academy Award for Best Actress in a Supporting role for Shampoo and was nominated for seven Emmy Awards, winning twice.
It’s a scene from Tell Me a Riddle, a movie I directed and Rachel Lyon produced, about an elderly Jewish immigrant couple who have arrived at a very rancorous point in their marriage. They have been at war with each other for years, and now he wants to move to California and live with his old friends but she wants to stay in their family house. He tricks her and sells the house, and the two travel across the country, visiting their children along the way. My favorite scene is near the end. She is sick and dying and they fall in love again. Two old and feeble people who have long been bitter enemies come to recognize and remember what they first loved in each other. Ultimately, they appreciate each other and remember how wonderful their lives together have been. He realizes how much he will lose when she dies. The last scene between the two is a love scene, not a sex scene—a final touching, embracing and kissing each other after having hated one another for so many years.
Avi Nesher is an Israeli film director, producer, screenwriter and actor. His most recent film is Past Life.
It’s a scene from the Woody Allen movie Crimes and Misdemeanors. Lester (Alan Alda) has become engaged to Halley Reed (Mia Farrow), the woman whom Clifford Stern (Woody Allen) is desperately in love with—he also despises Lester. After hearing how Lester wooed Halley by sending her dozens of bouquets of white roses, Clifford confesses that he plagiarized the one love letter he sent Halley from James Joyce. But, despite his heartbreak and dislike, when Clifford talks to Lester, he is completely civil. This shows an acceptance of imperfection and a willingness to behave well even when upset. That’s why I love this movie; it is about accepting the imperfections of life. As an Israeli, I live in a part of the world where people have been fighting for 70 years; each side is completely sure that they are 100 percent right and that the other side is 100 percent wrong. There has been an absolute unwillingness to accept the imperfections of the other side and of the situation. We could learn a lot from this movie.
Leonard Maltin has been the movie reviewer on Entertainment Tonight for 30 seasons and currently writes for leonardmaltin.com. He is the author of Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide, publishing a new annual edition for nearly 30 years.
Barry Levinson’s Avalon lives in my head. It’s not a perfect film but everything in it rings true—and it is perfectly cast. It tells the story of a Jewish immigrant family that settles in Baltimore and experiences the good and not-so-good results of assimilating in pursuing the American dream. One scene in particular stands out, where the character Lou Jacobi plays arrives late for Thanksgiving dinner with the family, which has moved to the suburbs. When he discovers that they have begun to eat without him and his wife, he explodes. His anger reflects everything he has come to resent as the younger generation sheds its parents’ traditions.
Glenn Frankel is a Pulitzer Prize-winning Journalist. His most recent book is High Noon: The Hollywood Blacklist and The Making of an American Classic.
Fargo is not a Jewish movie per se, but it’s made by a couple of genuine diploma-carrying Jews, the Coen brothers. To me, once you get past the accents and the Midwestern shtick, the essence of the movie is in the scene at the end where the police chief, played by Frances McDormand, turns to one of the murderers, played by Peter Stormare, and says, “And for what? For a little bit of money. There’s more to life than a little money, you know.”
She’s summing up a very important life value and also saying something about how we can only live in the world successfully if we accept that other people have the right to live and the right to pursue happiness. To me that’s a very important Jewish ethic. It looks evil and all of life’s absurdities and difficulties straight in the eyes and says, “Wait a minute, why don’t we try to act like decent people?” We don’t have to be good, necessarily, but we do owe each other decency, basic human decency. To me, that’s a very Jewish value, and that’s what this scene and the movie are really about.
Omer Bartov is a professor of history and German studies at Brown University. His books include The “Jew” in Cinema: From the Golem to Don’t Touch my Holocaust.
My favorite scene is from the French language movie Train of Life, by the Romanian filmmaker Radu Mihaileanu. It’s kind of a crazy film. It’s about a shtetl in central Europe that decides to escape Nazi deportation by creating a fake deportation train. They divide themselves up into Jews and Germans—some members of the shtetl dress up as Nazis, which immediately affects their behavior. They then try to cross the Russian border to get to Palestine. In one scene, they encounter another fake deportation train. Both trains try to pretend to the other one that they are actual trains with Germans deporting victims to concentration camps. It turns out that the other train is one with gypsies trying to do the exact same thing as the Jews; some gypsies are dressed as Nazis and others as gypsies. Once they figure this out, the two groups have a celebration together. It’s a very powerful scene. It’s funny but also scary because there is another side to it, a more ominous one: You can easily transform people by putting them in a uniform and telling them to behave in a certain way. Everyone has it in them to be the Jew or the gypsy, but everyone also has it in them to be a Nazi.
Tovah Feldshuh is an American actress, singer and playwright. She has been nominated for four Tony Awards and two Emmys. Her movie credits include A Walk on the Moon, She’s Funny That Way, and Kissing Jessica Stein.
My favorite is the porch scene from Kissing Jessica Stein. This was well before so many different gender identities had been codified in American society. Before it was a popular topic, this movie dealt with the nature of bisexuality in a heterosexual world. There is a scene between the mother Judy Stein (whom I played) and the daughter Jessica Stein, on the porch, where the mother reveals, at great cost to her own psyche, her unconditional love for her daughter. We shot this scene at two in the morning in only two takes. I was working with a writer I loved and knew well—Jennifer Westfeldt who, along with Heather Juergensen, wrote a fantastic screenplay. She placed the scene in Scarsdale (where I grew up) and named the character of the husband Sydney, after my father, who had just died. This carried on his memory in a secret kind of way. As a mother I felt this scene was very close to how I would have felt and behaved in this situation.
Agnieszka Holland is a Polish film and television director and screenwriter, best known for Europa, Europa and In Darkness, which was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.
It’s a series of scenes from the Coen brothers’ movie A Serious Man. The main character, a Minnesota Jewish man named Larry Gopnik, has a lot of problems: His wife is leaving him for his best friend, his daughter stole money for a nose job and his son smokes marijuana and listens to rock music in Hebrew school. He tries to find the answers to his problems by talking to different rabbis, but to no avail. One of the rabbis is never available, no matter how often he calls, and none of the others gives him any useful advice or even solace. It is very funny. The Coen brothers know how to capture the absurdity of life; this portrayal of a Jewish life was a particularly intimate one for them. They made a satirical image of themselves. I like their mix of satire and the grotesque with familiar warmth. This movie seemed close to how I would like to see the world: a mix of sharpness, humor and nostalgia.
Kenneth Turan is a film critic for The Los Angeles Times and NPR’s Morning Edition as well as the director of The Los Angeles Times Book Prizes.
My favorite scene comes from Footnote, the brilliant film from Israeli writer-director Joseph Cedar about the bitter rivalry between two Talmudic scholars at Hebrew University, who happen to be father and son. It’s a big confrontation in a small room that initially echoes the claustrophobic humor of the Marx Brothers in A Night at the Opera. But then, almost imperceptibly, comedy and tragedy begin to intertwine in a way that feels both classically Jewish and completely new.
Molly Haskell is an American film critic and author. she has written for New York Magazine, Vogue and The Village Voice. Her most recent book is Steven Spielberg: A Life in Films.
It’s from Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem. Gett is about divorce and it takes place completely within a courtroom, yet it’s one of the most fascinating dramas around. You never go outside the courtroom; different witnesses come and go. That’s the uniqueness of it. There is all this drama within this very tight structure, both in terms of mise-en-scène and the religious community. The most electrifying moment in this somber one-set divorce drama is when Viviane (Ronit Elkabetz) lets down her previously bound hair—a shocking gesture of liberation in the context of the rabbinic court.