By Bill Simons
With winter bringing us inside again, this column recommends 10 great Jewish-American films available through a growing cadre of online platforms. International cinema, documentaries and television mini-series will receive separate treatment in future columns. The following movie minyan touts Jewish-American feature films.
- “Hester Street” (1975) reflects the 1881-1924 era when over two million East European Jews migrated to the U.S., and New York was the promised city. Shot in black and white with dialogue primarily in Yiddish, supplemented by English subtitles, “Hester Street” realistically captures the Lower East Side – crowded streets, fetid tenements, thwarted ambitions, and tension between Jewish traditions and American freedoms. Gitl, brilliantly played by Carol Kane, liberates herself from a philandering husband, remarries and creates a synthesis between her Jewish identity and the secular society.
- “The Jazz Singer” (1927), the first film to integrate sound into the storyline, dramatizes the ascent of the son of an immigrant cantor who rejects the holy chants of his father for secular American music. As Jackie Rabinowitz/Jack Robin, Al Jolson animates the passion and charismatic talent of the son. After years of estrangement, Jackie reconciles with his dying father and performs the Kol Nidre on Yom Kippur, even though it means cancelling the opening of a Broadway revue in which he and his beautiful Gentile girlfriend co-star.
- “Funny Girl” (1968), a rousing musical, announces Barbra Streisand’s film debut. She wows audiences with her singing, comic/dramatic acting and charisma. Funny Girl Streisand depicts, with embellishment, the real-life story of Fanny Brice’s rise to stardom. Like Streisand, Brice was a popular Jewish singer, comedienne and actress with an unconventional beauty, complicated love life, driving ambition and New York attitude. Streisand, with transcendent emotion and incredible “pipes,” makes “Sadie, Sadie,” “My Man” and other songs showstoppers. “Funny Girl” demonstrates that a Jewish woman can be brash, quirky, funny, intelligent, professionally successful, romantically appealing – and proud of her ethnic identity.
- “Once Upon a Time in America” (1984) is the ultimate Jewish gangster movie, borrowing details from real mobsters while creating fictive episodes. The film traces the rise of a group of Jewish delinquents from early mischief on the Lower East Side to powerful positions in organized crime during Prohibition. Through bootlegging and labor racketeering, a quartet of cunning and ruthless Jewish friends acquire illicit wealth before their fall. A serious and tragic meditation on the dark side of the American Dream, the movie spans decades in its rumination on loyalty, ambition, violence, guilt, betrayal and loss.
- “The Chosen” (1981), based on Chaim Potok’s classic novel of the same name, begins with a ballgame on an asphalt diamond in Brooklyn. The star batter on the Hasidic squad, Danny Saunders, hates the largely assimilated players on the opposing Modern Orthodox team, particularly pitcher Reuven Malter. From Danny’s bat, a ferocious line drive smashes into Reuven’s face, nearly blinding him, providing the genesis of a sacred friendship defined by divergent journeys. World War II, the Holocaust and the struggle for Israeli independence provide background. Maximilian Schell and Rod Steiger deliver towering performances as the antagonistic fathers of the boys.
- “The Pawnbroker” (1965) depicts the lingering devastation wrought by the Holocaust. The Shoah visited anguish upon survivors, as well as their intimates. In “The Pawnbroker,” director Sidney Lumet and lead actor Rod Steiger portray Holocaust survivor Sol Nazerman as emotionally dead, haunted by concentration camps memories. Stark black-and-white images communicate the bleakness of Nazerman’s soul. A refugee in postwar New York, he plies the pawnbroker’s shoddy trade. Nazerman eschews compassion until at film’s end – during a pawnshop robbery – his young Puerto Rican assistant takes a fatal bullet meant for him.
- “Avalon” (1990) is part of the quartet of movies inspired by director Barry Levinson’s Jewish-Baltimore roots. Over four generations, from early 20th-century immigration to 1950s suburbia, the Krichinskys evolve from a large, supportive, extended family to small, fragmented, nuclear units. Assimilation, geographic dispersal and socio-economic differences undermine familial cohesion. For decades, Sam Krichinsky (Armin Mueller-Stahl) impressed on his descendants the sense of wonder and possibility he felt upon arrival in America. At film’s end, an aged Sam suffers from dementia and is devoid of memory. A remnant survives, however. As the film concludes, Sam’s adult grandson Jules recites the elegiac Krichinsky genesis tale to his own young son.
- “Exodus” (1960) is an epic drama concerning displaced refugees, Zionist opposition to the British Mandate and the Israeli War of Independence. “Exodus” is not an American film defined by content, major characters or location shooting. However, it is an American film in terms of authorship of its literary source (novelist Leon Uris), screenwriter (blacklist survivor Dalton Trumbo), producer/director (émigré Otto Preminger), Hollywood casting (paced by leading man Paul Newman) and a dominant U.S. theater audience. Unequivocally pro-Israel in its ideology, “Exodus” depicts epochal history, diplomatic intrigue, the heroic battle for a Jewish homeland and taut performances.
- “Dirty Dancing” (1987) is the quintessential film about the now lost summer world of Jewish resorts. Jewish families escaped the heat of metropolitan New York City in comfortable accommodations nestled atop hilltops in the Catskills. The Borscht Belt featured banquet-style meals, pools and sports, nightclub entertainment and informal matchmaking. In “Dirty Dancing,” Frances “Baby” Houseman, an 18-year-old Jewish beauty (Jennifer Grey), accompanying her family on their annual Catskill vacation, falls in love with a charismatic, Gentile dance instructor much to her protective parents’ discomfiture. Love ultimately prevails, buttressed by rousing music and exuberant dance.
- “Crimes and Misdemeanors” (1989) confronts questions of guilt and responsibility within a Jewish milieu. Allegations of pedophilia against Woody Allen, the movie’s auteur, heighten moral ambiguity. A successful and respected Jewish ophthalmologist, Judah Rosenthal (Martin Landau), arranges for the murder of his former mistress when she threatens to reveal their affair and thus deconstruct his marriage and reputation. Temporarily tormented by guilt, Rosenthal seeks solace in Jewish teachings and discussion with a rabbi/patient, who literally and symbolically goes blind. By film’s end, Rosenthal sheds the burdens of conscience and regains his composure in a bleak, indifferent universe.
Bill Simons is a professor emeritus at SUNY Oneonta where he continues to teach courses in American history. He is also the co-director of The Cooperstown Symposium on Baseball and American Culture, and served as a speaker for the New York Council on the Humanities.