13 Essential Jewish American Films

From foundational works to under-appreciated gems, these movies reflect some (but not all) of the rich history of Jewish storytelling onscreen, as well as varied American Jewish experiences.

by | May 19, 2023 | Comments


What makes a movie Jewish? If the filmmakers or the cast are Jewish, is that enough, or must there be Jewish subject matter? Do religious artifacts — a yarmulke, a tallit — need to make an appearance? What about movies that aren’t explicitly Jewish but just feel Jewish?  

Debate is essential to Judaism, both religiously and culturally — the saying goes “two Jews, three opinions” — and nowhere is that truer than at the movies. Because American Jews have a long, rich onscreen storytelling tradition, there are far more Jewish cinematic cultural touchstones than could ever fit on one list. Add to this the fact that there are many ways to be Jewish — levels of observance, Sephardic and Ashkenazi and Mizrahi, etc. — and narrowing the Jewish American filmic canon down to ten (or even 13) feels nearly impossible.  

The following collection, presented in chronological order, spotlights both foundational works and underappreciated gems — and almost certainly omits some of your favorites. (Where are the Safdies? Where is The Chosen? I know.) Argue away.   

To Be or Not to Be (1942, remade in 1983) 

Carole Lombard and Jack Benny, 1942. Courtesy Everett Collection.

Jewish director Ernst Lubitsch, a German-American master who left his home country for Hollywood well before World War II, was revered in his time for classics like The Shop Around the Corner (later remade into You’ve Got Mail). But To Be or Not to Be, a satire about a squabbling theater troupe that must prevent a Nazi spy from destroying the Polish resistance, wasn’t universally appreciated in its time. Eighty-odd years later, the movie, which feels a bit like a Jewish Casablanca, holds up brilliantly. Shot during wartime, it’s still genuinely funny today, and its ethos — of criticizing censorship and dealing with tragedy through dark humor — is deeply Jewish. It features Jewish film and radio star Jack Benny (born Benjamin Kubelsky), and Shylock’s speech from Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice plays a key role in the plot. The film was remade in 1983 with Mel Brooks in the leading role, the only film he starred in that he didn’t direct; he’s said it’s his favorite of his Brooksfilm movies. 

Fiddler on the Roof (1971) 

Chaim Topol in Fiddler on the Roof (1971). Courtesy Everett Collection.

The loss of star Chaim Topol earlier this year had many revisiting this musical classic. Though set in the fictional Ukrainian town of Anatevka at the turn of the 20th century, Fiddler deals with themes central to Judaism today — namely, how to balance tradition and modernity — and ends as its characters emigrate to America. Based on a series of Yiddish stories by Jewish author Sholem Aleichem, the movie is responsible for many Americans’ collective images of shtetl life (and a lot of childhood nightmares featuring Fruma Sarah). This funny, moving film, anchored by stellar performances across the board, is so well-loved that it inspired a 2022 documentary about its making, Fiddler’s Journey to the Big Screen. 

Annie Hall (1977) 

Diane Keaton and Woody Allen in Annie Hall (1977). Courtesy Everett Collection.

The details of Woody Allen’s personal life have called into question his place on any list. But it’s nearly impossible to talk about Jewish American movies without acknowledging him — and, specifically, Annie Hall. The Best Picture Academy Award-winner brought a neurotic Jewish protagonist into the mainstream, arguably for the first time; it has influenced most subsequent Jewish movies and has forever tied the American Jewish aesthetic to anxiety and New York. The scene in which Alvy Singer imagines himself as an Orthodox Jew at a WASP-y lunch stands out as particularly indelible, capturing the American Jew’s perception of himself as perpetual outsider. 

Girlfriends (1978) & The Heartbreak Kid (1972) 

Girlfriends director Claudia Weill and star Melanie Mayron, 1978 (courtesy Everett Collection). Jeannie Berlin, Charles Grodin in The Heartbreak Kid, 1972 (© 20th Century Fox-Film Corporation, courtesy Everett Collection).

The two brilliant Jewish directors of the 1970s behind these films, Claudia Weill and Elaine May, deserve to take up more space in the canon. Weill’s Girlfriends, a Jewish predecessor to Frances Ha, follows Jewish artist and photographer Susan Weinblatt (played by Jewish actor and director Melanie Mayron, a possible Natasha Lyonne role model) after her friend gets married and moves out of their shared New York apartment. Weinblatt balances ambition and independence with her desire for connection, flirts with a charming young Christopher Guest, and banters with the rabbi who employs her to photograph weddings and bar mitzvahs.  

May, best known as Mike Nichols’ comedy partner, had directed the Neil Simon-penned The Heartbreak Kid a few years earlier. It’s a hilarious and heartbreaking movie that shares some DNA with The Graduate, about what happens when a New York Jew meets a “shiksa goddess” on his Miami honeymoon. Both filmmakers demonstrate a genius for spontaneous, lived-in directing, full of pauses and real behavior, and a knack for capturing the textures and personalities of American Jews. 

Yentl (1983) 

Barbra Streisand and Mandy Patinkin in Yentyl (1983). Courtesy Everett Collection.

What can’t Barbra Streisand do? She was the first woman to win Best Director at the Golden Globes for this musical tale of a woman who, after the death of the beloved father who taught her Talmudic law in secret, disguises herself as a man so she can continue her studies. The film, based on an Isaac Bashevis Singer story (he didn’t care for the adaptation), features a young, sensuous Mandy Patinkin and a lot of genderbending sexual tension. It also won an Academy Award for Best Original Song Score. Like Fiddler, its final image shows its protagonist on a boat to a new life, presumably in America. 

An American Tail (1986) 

An American Tail (1986), from left: Papa Mousekewitz (voice: Nehemiah Persof), Fievel Mousekewitz (voice: Phillip Glasser), Mama Mousekewitz (voice: Erica Yohn). © Universal Pictures / Courtesy Everett Collection.

The immigration theme continues in this animated family movie about Fievel Mouskewitz and his family, Eastern European Jewish mice who flee antisemitic pogroms in Russia for a new home on the Lower East Side. For a kids’ movie, An American Tail is surprisingly nuanced about the American immigration experience: how the fantasy of a land of opportunity (encapsulated in the song “There Are No Cats in America”) gives way to disillusionment, hard work, assimilation and, ultimately, ownership of a new American identity. The ballad “Somewhere Out There” also deserves a shoutout. 

Crossing Delancey (1988) 

Amy Irving and Reizl Bozyk in Crossing Delancy (1988). Warner Bros. / courtesy Everett Collection.

Joan Micklin Silver directed not one but two excellent movies about New York’s Lower East Side. Crossing Delancey follows Isabelle (Amy Irving, also in Yentl), who has one foot in uptown, secular New York and one foot in the traditional Lower East Side. Isabelle is torn between her attraction to bad boys — a married filmmaker, a problematic literary star — and the quiet persistence of a pickle man she meets through a matchmaker friend of her Bubbe. This charming romantic comedy, which features an incredible scene at a self-defense class for older Jewish women, never stereotypes its characters and still rings true more than 30 years later. Also of note: Micklin Silver’s previous feature, Hester Street, set 100 years earlier but dealing with some of the same dilemmas and settings. 

Keeping the Faith (2000) 

Ben Stiller, Jenna Elfman, and Edward Norton in Keeping the Faith (2000). Touchstone Pictures, courtesy Everett Collection.

Edward Norton’s directorial debut casts him as a charismatic Catholic priest opposite rock star rabbi Jake (Ben Stiller). The religious power duo finds their lifelong friendship threatened by the reappearance of their childhood pal, businessperson Anna (Jenna Elfman) — who, it turns out, they’re both still really into. It won’t spoil this sweet early-aughts rom-com to reveal that the Jewish lead is both a conventionally attractive love interest and a great rabbi: Stiller’s Jake proves equally adept in romantic scenes and while helping awkward bar mitzvah boys navigate their changing pubescent voices.  

A Serious Man (2009) 

Michael Stuhlbarg in A Serious Man (2009). Wilson Webb, ©Focus Features, courtesy Everett Collection.

No Jewish American movie list is complete without the Coen brothers, and A Serious Man is far and away their most Jewish work. After opening with a 19th-century folktale of the Coens’ invention, featuring a visitor who may or may not be a Jewish demon called a dybbuk, the film moves to 1960s Bloomington, Illinois, where physics professor Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) is having a very hard time. His wife wants a divorce, he’s forced out of his home, and he can never get an audience with his senior rabbi. Like the Dude, Llewyn Davis or Barton Fink, Gopnik’s not exactly a sympathetic character — but as his misfortunes pile up, it does start to seem like more than he deserves, and he can’t stop asking “Why me? The bleak and funny tone characteristic of the Coens — the protagonist who ends up in bad situations far above his pay grade and approaches them with a kind of shrug — takes on a distinctly Jewish flavor here, which reveals the inherent Jewishness of all their films.

Shiva Baby & Tahara (2020) 

Rachel Sennott in Shiva Baby, 2020 (© Utopia, courtesy Everett Collection). Madeline Grey DeFreece in Tahara, 2020 (© Film Movement, courtesy Everett Collection).

In 2020, a pattern emerged in Jewish first features: a mourning event becomes a site of extreme anxiety and queer sexual tension for a young Jewish woman played by Rachel Sennott. Or at least, both Emma Seligman’s Shiva Baby and Olivia Peace’s Tahara fit this mold. In Shiva Baby, Sennott’s Danielle arrives at the shiva for a relative and finds herself trapped in a room with her family, her ex-girlfriend, and her sugar daddy. The teenaged main characters of Tahara practice kissing after the funeral of a Hebrew school classmate who committed suicide — and Carrie (Madeline Grey DeFreece) discovers that the kiss means something to her. These painful, darkly funny movies make a strong impression in their short runtimes (each clocks in at under 90 minutes). It’s exciting to see a new generation of Jewish filmmakers channel the age-old traditions of panic and black humor while better reflecting Jewish diversity, featuring queer Jews and Jews of color on both sides of the camera.  

The Fabelmans (2022)

Gabriel LaBelle and Judd Hirsch in The Fabelmans (2022). Merie Weismiller Wallace, © Universal Pictures, courtesy Everett Collection.

There’s a strong case to be made that the quintessential American cinematic storyteller is Jewish — specifically Steven Spielberg. The prolific director has made several explicitly Jewish films (Best Picture winner Schindler’s List merits a mention). But The Fabelmans, Spielberg’s most personal movie, shows how profoundly his Jewishness influenced his identity as a storyteller. Spielberg’s analog Sammy Fabelman gets through to his antisemitic bullies by editing footage of their class beach day into a movie that makes them see themselves — and the boy behind the camera — in a different light. This might be the most Jewish impulse of all: to humanize yourself by turning your pain into universally relatable humor and pathos. And isn’t that what movies are all about? 

Archival curation for this feature was done by Tim Ryan and Rob Fowler.

On an Apple device? Follow Rotten Tomatoes on Apple News.