Check out these Jewish-related films and TV episodes perfect for the holiday season
Nate Bloom Special to the Jewish News
Who doesn’t love a good Christmas movie, right?
But if you crave a dose of Jewishness this holiday season, check out our list of eclectic, somewhat eccentric selections of Jewish-related films and TV episodes to cozy up to.
All are pretty upbeat. Some are pretty familiar but come with some notes that may enhance your viewing. Some will probably be newfound pleasures. Except otherwise noted, each is available on Amazon streaming for $3; some are free on Amazon Prime and other premium streaming services.
CASABLANCA (1942). Last year marked the 75th anniversary of this film — among the “most Jewish” of Hollywood film classics. Michael Curtiz, a Hungarian Jew, won the Oscar for directing and the film’s Jewish screenwriters, Howard Koch and the brothers Philip and Julius Epstein, won the best screenplay Oscar.
Drink a toast as each Jewish member of the cast first appears: Paul Hernreid as freedom fighter Victor Laszlo; Peter Lorre as Ugarte, the crook who steals “letters of transit”; S.Z. “Cuddles” Sakall, as Carl, the cute waiter; Curt Bois as “the pickpocket”; Marcel Dalio, as Emil, the croupier; Joy Page as Annina, a refugee who is almost blackmailed into sex; and Dan Seymour as Abdul, the doorman.
DINER (1982). Barry Levinson directed and wrote this film, his first. He perfectly captured the way funny young Jewish guys schmooze and banter.
The setting is Baltimore in winter, 1959. It centers on six old pals, all around 21, who often meet at a diner. We find at the movie’s end (a Jewish wedding) that all but two are Jewish. Virtually everyone in the cast was an unknown in 1982 and, for many, it was their first film role. The Jews playing Jews: Paul Reiser and Daniel Stern, both now 61, and Steve Guttenberg, now 60. Mickey Rourke plays a Jew, with Kevin Bacon and Tim Daly playing the non-Jews. Ellen Barkin (Jewish; now 64) plays Stern’s wife. Diner has it all — funny, touching and insightful.
FIDDLER ON THE ROOF (1971). A classic with one problem: Israeli actor Topol, now 83, wasn’t bad as Tevye; but he lacked the warmth that others who played Teyve on stage had (like Zero Mostel or Herschel Bernardi).
In a recent interview, Fiddler producer Hal Prince, now 90, detailed how difficult the super-talented Mostel could be, and it’s understandable that he didn’t get the film role. I was surprised, however, by two other Prince nuggets — the role of Tevye was first offered to Milton Berle! He wanted too much money and it didn’t happen. Berle was still a big star in 1963, when the show was being written, and he could draw crowds. Still, Berle’s persona was so far away from a humble, pious milkman that Fiddler likely would have closed in Philadelphia. Also: The semi-comic song “When Messiah Comes” was cut from the stage and film version because they discovered it just didn’t work in context of the story.
THE FRISCO KID (1979). This film has so many Jewish things going for it that you can forgive that it sometimes gets too cutesy-heartwarming. The late Gene Wilder stars as Avram, a Polish rabbi who arrives in Philadelphia with the intent of traveling to a post in San Francisco. Long story short: Con men rob him; the Amish (who Avram first thinks are Jews) help him; more troubles ensue, but he’s helped by a bank robber (Harrison Ford, then 37), with a heart of gold. Everything turns out great in the end. Footnotes: Wilder didn’t know that Ford’s mother was Jewish as they began filming. He started to explain a Jewish custom to Ford and Ford quickly interrupted him with “I know, I know.” John Wayne was the first choice for the Ford role, but the producers couldn’t pay what he asked. Wayne could have been a better choice — his legendary Western tough-guy “aura” would have been very funny as a counterpoint to Wilder’s meek, greenhorn rabbi. Ford now has legendary status, but back then he had made just one big movie — Star Wars.
KNOCKED UP (2007) marked the arrival of a new wave of GenX/millennial Jewish comedic actors and writers with a little different sensibility. Judd Apatow laid the groundwork for this film with his first film, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, a hit that featured charming pathos with some raunchy (but often funny) buddy talk. That balance of touching and raunchy was perfected in Knocked Up. Like Virgin, there was also a love story in the mix.
As in Diner, we have a group of guys schmoozing and often comically insulting each other. Unlike 1959, they also get high. Like Diner, virtually all the guys are revealed to be Jewish near the end (see hospital scene). All are played by real-life Jews: Seth Rogen, Jason Segel, Jonah Hill and Jay Baruchel. The first three went on to write and star in comedies that have a similar DNA (like Forgetting Sarah Marshall).
The interesting coda is that the “Apatow-esque” romantic comedy (well-written raunchy male buddy movie) has been taken up by women writers and it’s been morphed into successful female buddy movies (like Trainwreck by the Jewish Amy Schumer, now 37).
MONKEY BUSINESS: THE ADVENTURES OF CURIOUS GEORGE’S CREATORS (2017). This wonderfully made documentary tells the story of Hans Rey (1898-1977) and his wife, Margret Waldstein Rey (1906-1996). The Reys were both born into cultured, upper-middle class German Jewish families and became famous in the 1950s as the creators of best-selling children’s books about Curious George, a monkey. Hans was the illustrator and Margret the main writer. A series of very unlikely events allowed them to escape the Nazis to America, in 1941, with just one thing of value: the manuscript of the first George book.
The film masterfully interweaves interviews, photos, home movies and George-like animation segments to tell their story.
RADIO DAYS (1987). This and Crimes and Misdemeanors are Woody Allen’s most Jewish films. But unlike the dark Crimes, Radio Days is sweet and consistently funny. It follows a working-class Brooklyn Jewish family from 1940 to New Year’s Eve, 1943-44. Allen (unseen) narrates as “Joe,” an adult looking back to these years when he was a young boy. A subplot covers the rise from obscurity of a waitress who becomes a radio star.
The large cast includes (Jewish actors) Seth Green as Young Joe, Michael Tucker as Joe’s father, and Julie Kavner as Joe’s mother. The voice of a then-unknown Larry David is heard as a Jewish Communist neighbor who loudly refuses Joe’s uncle’s request that he turn down his radio on Yom Kippur.
WHAT’S UP DOC? (1972). Barbra Streisand, 76, has become such an icon that it’s hard to remember (or if you are young, know) that she could do zany comedy and be sexy while doing it.
Streisand is perfect as a wacky woman who seems to be interfering with a scientist’s (Ryan O’Neal) work, but actually ends up helping him. Lots of laughs, some romance and funny chase scenes. The late great Madeline Kahn co-stars.
CAR 54: Yiddish theater star Molly Picon played Yente, the matchmaker, in Fiddler. My mother thought that Picon was usually too schmaltzy and I agree with Mom. Still, she was perfectly cast as a little old Jewish lady in New York City who refused to leave her apartment in two episodes of the early ’60s sitcom Car 54, Where Are You? These episodes are amazingly Jewish and very funny. Series co-star Joe E. Lewis (Officer Toody) was Jewish, too, as was the late Charlotte Rae (Sylvia Schnauser).
LOVING LEAH (2009) was a Hallmark Hall of Fame film that aired on CBS. More than 500,000 people have already viewed a blurry version on YouTube (it’s that good). A high-quality copy is now on YouTube (free) and I can recommend it without reservations.
Short synopsis: Lauren Ambrose (Six Feet Under) plays the young childless wife of a young Chasidic rabbi who suddenly dies. The rabbi’s brother (Adam Kaufman) is a secular heart doctor. At the last minute, he balks at participating in the traditional ceremony in which he, in effect, denies his brother’s existence and, therefore, doesn’t have to marry his widow.
Instead, he enters into what he and the widow believe will be a paper marriage that will suit both their needs. Enough with the spoilers — just watch it!