Snuggle up With These Non-Holocaust-Related Jewish Movies Over the High Holidays
Shana tova u’metuka (a good and sweet new year) to everyone observing Rosh Hashanah this weekend, which kicks off the High Holiday season ending with Yom Kippur on September 25. I’ve been Jewish for 5 years, having joined the Jewish faith in 2018. Since I wasn’t born or raised Jewish, I’ve had the pleasure of growing into Jewish culture and learning all about its beautiful diversity.
Contrary to what you might gather from most media, not all Jews are white. Of those that are, not all have Eastern European ancestry. There are Jews all over the world, born Jews who live in diaspora on every continent and of all races and ethnicities. Here in the U.S., Ashkenazi Jews (those of Eastern European ancestry) are the majority, but here and elsewhere there are also Sephardi (Jews descended from Portugal and Spain), Mizrahi (Jews descended from the Middle East and North Africa), Beta Israel (Ethiopian Jews), and Kaifeng Jews (the oldest Jewish community in China).
And, of course, there are those of us who’ve been adopted into the family, who could be from anywhere.
This means that for many of us, certain narratives resonate more than others. While stories that reference pogroms or the Holocaust often dominate Jewish film and TV (understandably so, in the rush to tell as many of these stories as possible while there are still survivors alive), these are not the only stories our community has to tell.
Also, sometimes you just want to experience a story about your community that isn’t steeped in genocide, you know? Stories that are unapologetically Jewish and showcase our resilience, intelligence, diversity, and humor without being re-traumatized by the horrors and suffering of the past. Especially as we celebrate the New Year!
With that in mind, here are ten Jewish films of various genres to check out during the High Holidays. These films feature Jews of different races, ages, sexualities, and levels of observance, but with no genocide or persecution in sight (well, except for one movie that features Russian Cossack cats).
1. TAHARA (2020) – Directed by Olivia Peace, written by Jess Zeidman
Madeline Grey DeFreece (Love Life) and Rachel Sennott (Bottoms) play Carrie and Hannah, two Jewish teenagers who end up kissing at the funeral of a Hebrew School classmate who died by suicide. Yes, it’s a dark comedy, but it is a comedy, and a beautiful, queer coming-of-age story about grief giving way to first love.
2. DISOBEDIENCE (2017) – Directed by Sebastián Lelio, written by Sebastián Lelio and Rebecca Lenkiewicz
In this adaptation of the Naomi Alderman novel of the same name, Rachels Weisz and McAdams play Ronit and Esti, two Jewish women who grew up in an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood in North London. While Ronit left the community and the country, Esti stayed behind and got married to their other childhood friend, Dovid (Alessandro Nivola). When Ronit returns to London for her rabbi father’s funeral, it rekindles feelings she thought were long-buried.
While Disobedience is a well-told, beautifully acted story, it’s important to acknowledge that no group is a monolith and that Orthodox women have criticized the film as an inaccurate portrayal of their lives and community. Still, it’s worth a watch to get at least a small glimpse of a version of Judaism that’s not often given attention. Also, from a purely superficial standpoint, the Rachels are really hot together.
3. ATTACHMENT (2022) – Written and directed by Gabriel Bier Gislason
So, by now I’ve made my queer, Jewish femme agenda abundantly clear, right? Cool. If horror is more your bag than dark comedy or dramatic romance, check out the English/Danish film Attachment. It stars Josephine Park as Maja, a Danish woman who has a meet-cute with a Jewish woman named Leah (Ellie Kendrick) in a library. When Leah suffers a seizure that injures her and goes to her mother’s house to recuperate, Maja tags along. And it’s in this Orthodox home that the spooky stuff starts happening.
So many horror movies use Christian imagery and folklore to the point that they have become secular shorthand in horror, despite their cultural and religious origins. It’s nice to see a Jewish writer-director using Jewish folklore and imagery in a supernatural horror story, offering new points of reference to the genre. I’m actually planning on watching this one next month during my Spooky Season movie marathon.
4. A SERIOUS MAN (2009) – Written and directed by Ethan and Joel Coen
See? I can include films centering on dudes and straight people! A Serious Man is the Coen Brothers’ most Jewish film. In this period dramedy, Michael Stuhlbarg (Call Me by Your Name) plays Larry, a physics professor in 1967 whose life is going to total crap. As he rides a seemingly endless wave of misfortune (Job, anyone?), he turns to his faith for answers, going to rabbis to figure out what he’s doing wrong. Or what God is doing wrong. A Serious Man dips into Jewish folklore and acts as a genuine exploration of the wisdom that can be found in this religion and culture.
5. NICHT GANZ KOSCHER (Not Quite Kosher) (2022) – Written and directed by Stefan Sarazin and Peter Keller
Ben (Luzer Twersky), an Ultra-Orthodox Jew from Brooklyn, is sent to Alexandria, Egypt to be the much-needed tenth man to celebrate Passover (ten people, a minyan, is the minimum to conduct Jewish prayer services and for Orthodox folks, it needs to be ten men). Once the largest Jewish community in the world, the Jews in Alexandria are now the smallest (only 12 Jews lived in Alexandria as of 2017) and need to bring in diaspora Jews in order for their community to survive.
After missing a flight and being kicked off a bus in the Sinai desert, he meets Adel (Hitham Omari), an Egyptian Bedouin who’s out looking for his camel. The film is a buddy comedy where they help each other get to where they need to be while learning more about each other’s cultures.
By the way, for some reason the film is listed as “No Name Restaurant” in various places, which is not what the German title means. Not Quite Kosher is accurate, but if you’re searching for it, No Name Restaurant is the same film (for some reason).
6. YOU ARE SO NOT INVITED TO MY BAT MITZVAH (2023) – Directed by Sammi Cohen, written by Alison Peck
If you’re looking for something for the Jewish teens and tweens in your life (or feel like one in your soul), Netflix’s You Are So Not Invited to My Bat Mitzvah, based on the YA novel of the same name by Fiona Rosenbloom, might be just what you need. The film tells the story of best friends Stacy (Sunny Sandler) and Lydia (Samantha Lorraine), who have been planning their bat mitzvahs forever! But their relationship becomes strained when Lydia starts going out with Stacy’s crush.
It’s cool that this film (and book!) includes Jews of different races and ethnicities. We have a Latina Jew in Lydia Rodriguez Katz, and the popular girl who throws a party pivotal to the plot is Kym Chang Cohen, a Chinese Jew.
It’s also sweet to see that this film is a family affair. Sunny Sandler is Adam Sandler’s real-life daughter. He plays her dad in the film (and is a producer, too). His other daughter, Sadie, plays Stacy’s sister, and his wife, Jackie Sandler, plays Lydia’s mom.
7. THE FABELMANS (2022) – Directed by Steven Spielberg, written by Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner
Steven Spielberg saved his best directing for this non-genre, non-epic, semi-autobiographical story about a kid with a tumultuous family life who finds comfort and a calling in filmmaking.
The Fabelmans is a beautiful family drama, depicting a family weathering infidelity and divorce and showing us characters in all their human imperfections. Sammy’s (Gabriel LaBelle) growing love of filmmaking will resonate with artists and creators as well.
But what’s truly remarkable is how unapologetically Jewish the film is. As he’s discussed in interviews (and in the awesome documentary, Spielberg), for a long time Spielberg downplayed his Jewishness because of the discrimination he experienced growing up. It wasn’t until he made Schindler’s List and married his wife, Kate Capshaw (who became Jewish), that he began to find his way back to his culture again. That struggle is all over The Fabelmans, and it’s compelling to watch.
8. KEEPING THE FAITH (2000) – Directed by Edward Norton, written by Stuart Blumberg
When I first saw this movie back in the day, I was Catholic and very much identified with Edward Norton’s priest character, Brian. I’m curious to know how I’ll experience this movie now that I’m Jewish.
Keeping the Faith is about best friends Brian and Jake (Ben Stiller), each of whom found a religious path as adults (Brian as a priest, Jake as a rabbi). Both of them are passionate about revitalizing their respective congregations and are working together to build an interfaith community center. But when the third member of their BFF trio Anna (Jenna Elfman) returns to New York after living in California, the trio rekindles their friendship, and a love triangle ensues.
So often in film, religion is used as an obstacle to overcome or a signifier that someone is backward or oppressive. It’s awesome to see this rom-com portray both Judaism and Catholicism as a genuine part of these characters’ lives, not as something to be laughed at or shed in the name of character growth.
9. SHIVA BABY (2020) – Written and directed by Emma Seligman
Having to attend a shiva observance (the week-long Jewish mourning period) at your parents’ request is hard enough. Having your ex-girlfriend there is even harder. But having your sugar daddy also in attendance? Awkward …
Rachel Sennott (who’s also in Tahara above) plays messy bisexual Dani, the titular “shiva baby” who has to navigate this complicated situation. She’s a fresh, nuanced character in a hilarious film that ratchets up the tension in a way that will feel very familiar to queer Jewish women everywhere. Seligman and Sennott re-team for the hilarious and queer high comedy Bottoms, currently in theaters.
AN AMERICAN TAIL (1986) – Directed by Don Bluth, written by Judy Freudberg and Tony Geiss
You know I had to end this list with a classic. An American Tail tells the story of the Mousekewitz family, a family of Russian-Jewish mice, who live in the same house as the human family the Moskowitzes. The families board a ship and immigrate to the United States after Russian Cossacks (and their Russian Cossack cats) attack their Jewish village and burn it down. Seven-year-old Fievel gets separated from his family during a storm on the way, and the rest of the film is him trying to find his family.
An American Tail is a sweet, heartwarming immigrant story that was (for many of a certain generation) the first introduction to Jewish characters. And the song “Somewhere Out There” is still the best.
What are your favorite Jewish movies? Shout them out in the comments!
(featured image: Film Movement)
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