In honor of Jewish American Heritage Month, I wanted to highlight important entries in Jewish cinema from 1960 to 2020. This list does not include films about the Holocaust or anti-semitism, which was a deliberate decision in order to highlight positive elements of the culture as opposed to violence or oppression.
The Little Shop of Horrors (1960)
dir. Roger Corman
Many don't know that the original The Little Shop of Horrors is a Jewish movie. Roger Corman had difficulty finding distributors because American Independent Productions felt that some viewers would interpret the film as Anti-Semitic, specifically with the characters Gravis Mushnick (Mel Welles) and Mrs. Shiva (Leola Wendorff). Mel Welles, who was Jewish, made the creative decision to use a Turkish Jewish accent and mannerisms to add a playful side to his character. Nevertheless, The Little Shop of Horrors was not a smash hit like the musical remake was in 1986, which lacked the Jewish aspects of the original.
The film follows dopey florist's assistant Seymour (Jonathan Haze), who cultivates plants in his free time. Constantly being threatened to be fired, Seymour is desperate to appease his boss, Gravis Mushnick. He brings in his latest project that just won't seem to grow. When Seymour accidentally cuts his finger and bleeds on the plant, he discovers that the plant only grows if it is fed human blood.
The original Little Shop of Horrors often gets overlooked. It even features young Jack Nicholson, who is an absolute hoot. The film doesn't take itself too seriously and contains a familiar charm that makes it feel like a classic Jewish movie.
The Little Shop of Horrors is available to stream on Prime Video and Paramount+.
Fiddler on the Roof (1971)
dir. Norman Jewison
It is almost guaranteed that when someone mentions Jewish movies, Fiddler on the Roof comes up. Not only does it arguably have one of the catchiest soundtracks of all time (specifically "Tradition" and "If I Were a Rich Man"), but it also brought more attention to Jewish film. Before Norman Jewison and Joseph Stein adapted the screenplay, Fiddler on the Roof was the first Jewish Broadway musical, opening doors to many more.
The movie takes place in a small Russian shtetl (village) during the turn of the 20th century. Tevye, a poor milkman, and his family receive a visit from the shtetl's matchmaker, Yente, who brings news that a man wants to marry his oldest daughter, Tzeitel. But, Tzeitel is in love with her childhood best friend and is repulsed by her geriatric suitor. Now her other sisters also want to be married. Tevye is torn between choosing what is right for his daughters or following tradition.
Fiddler on the Roof was a huge success, grossing $83.9 million and becoming the highest-grossing film of 1971. It was nominated for eight Oscars and won three of them: Best Sound, Best Cinematography and Best Original Score. Critics were pleased with the adaptation and how it managed to maintain the same charm as the musical. Fiddler on the Roof is beloved by all generations, Jewish or not; the Broadway musical is still running today.
The Fiddler on the Roof is available on HBO Max and Prime Video.
The Frisco Kid (1979)
dir. Robert Aldrich
A few months ago, my grandpa lent me a copy of The Frisco Kid, and my expectations were relatively low. I'm not really into westerns, and I had never seen a Jewish western before. Safe to say, I was pleasantly surprised.
The film stars Gene Wilder as Avram Belinski, a Polish rabbi traveling to San Francisco to become a congregation's new rabbi. He befriends Tommy (Harrison Ford), a lonely and grumpy bank robber who accompanies him on his travels. Their journey to San Francisco continuously gets delayed because Avram refuses to travel during Shabbat. They get attacked by Native Americans and assaulted by robbers while attempting to haul Avram and his Torah to the congregation.
The Frisco Kid is a goofy, lighthearted Jewish classic, but it wasn't always as beloved as it is today. Upon release, the film and Robert Aldrich received brutal criticism for projecting stereotypes of Hasidic Jews and Native Americans. Some critics even noted that it was too similar to Mel Brooks's Blazing Saddles (1974). As someone who has seen both movies, I don’t think they compare. Sure, they are both Jewish westerns, but The Frisco Kid’s plot is more of an adventure film than a straight comedy. Despite the criticism, Gene Wilder's charm eventually won over, and The Frisco Kid is now regarded as an essential Jewish film.
The Frisco Kid is available to stream on HBO Max.
Wet Hot American Summer (2001)
dir. David Wain
During the 80s and 90s, there was a gray area in Jewish film. There weren't too many movies other than children's cartoons, and the ones made aren't very memorable except Yentl and Schindler's List, which have not been included on this list due to their subject matter.
It is the last day of camp at Camp Firewood. The counselors are itching to find their final summer hookup, the ludicrous camp musical is looming, and there is only so much time before the campers must pack their bags and go home. I remember watching Wet Hot American Summer when I went to sleepaway camp. Since then, many of its cast members have gone on to high profile work, such as Amy Poehler, Paul Rudd, Bradley Cooper, and Elizabeth Banks, to name a few.
Now a popular TV series on Netflix, Wet Hot American Summer is the Jewish summer camp movie. Wet Hot American Summer isn't evidently Jewish, but it's implied. Many of the film's actors are Jewish, and the summer camp it's based on is a Jewish summer camp that director David Wain attended. The film is a satirical parody of other sleepaway camp movies and teen movies of the 90s. Originally, Wet Hot American Summer was an utter failure but has developed a cult following, specifically in the Jewish community.
Wet Hot American Summer is available to rent on Prime Video.
A Serious Man (2009)
dir. Joel Coen & Ethan Coen
I couldn't make this list without including a Coen brother's movie, and what better movie to include than my personal favorite, A Serious Man. Originally from St. Louis Park, a predominantly Jewish neighborhood in Minnesota, Joel and Ethan Coen wanted to base A Serious Man on their hometown.
Taking place in suburban Minnesota in the 1960s, the film follows Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), a middle-aged college professor whose life is crumbling to pieces. His wife Judith (Sari Lennick) has developed a relationship with Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed) and asks Larry for a gett (Jewish divorce document) to remarry. Meanwhile, Larry's homeless brother Arthur (Richard Kind) is living with the family, his son Danny (Aaron Wolff) is studying for his Bar Mitzvah, and one of his physics students is trying to bribe him to raise his grade. Larry begins to question his faith and seeks help from numerous rabbis.
The Coen brothers truly created the quintessential Jewish movie of the 2000s with A Serious Man. I'm a sucker for Richard Kind; he could be in anything, and I would give it five stars. Although I was not alive in the 60s, the film makes me nostalgic. There is a scene where Danny is trying to explain to the principal what a walkman is, and the principal yells “ivrit” which means he wants Danny to explain it to him in Hebrew. That scene alone gave me vivid flashbacks to Hebrew school.
A Serious Man is available to rent on Prime Video.
Shiva Baby (2020)
dir. Emma Seligman
Shiva Baby is undoubtedly the black sheep of this list. Most of the films I've included are deemed classic or traditional, but Shiva Baby is not. It was released in 2020, but I firmly believe that it will be a prominent staple of Jewish cinema in the near future.
The film follows Danielle (Rachel Sennott), a post-grad student who makes a living being a sugar baby. She goes to a shiva (Jewish wake) with her family, where she runs into her sugar daddy. Shiva Baby also adds elements of queer culture into the film, which had never really been seen before in Jewish movies other than Call Me by Your Name. Danielle is forced to interact with her ex-girlfriend Maya (Molly Gordon), and they still have unresolved issues from their relationship.
Neither Jewish nor queer, Rachel Sennott does a fantastic portrayal of Danielle. Critics heavily scrutinized Seligman for casting Sennott as Danielle and noted that it was because of her "Jewface." Seligman elaborated that Sennott reminded her of someone she would run into at a family event. Other than that comment, Shiva Baby has received primarily positive feedback and holds an average of 3.9 stars on Letterboxd and 97% on Rotten Tomatoes. Shiva Baby highlights that uncomfortable familiarity that most Jews can relate to like the awkward small talk you’re forced to do when seeing extended family and the constant prying questions your nosey relatives love to bombard you with. It is one of my favorite Jewish movies, and it will surely enlighten many about the more discreet elements of Jewish culture.
Shiva Baby is available to stream on HBO Max.