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The Scroll

No. 1: E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial

The greatest Jewish movie ever made

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(Corbis)

1982, dir. Steven Spielberg. What kind of a movie is E.T.? It’s a children’s fantasy and an adult melodrama. It’s an action-adventure, a love story, a buddy movie, a family drama, and a screwball, complete with madcap cross-dressing scene. It’s the quintessential ’80s popcorn movie, but it takes in the moods, and the motifs, of other cinematic golden ages. There’s a hint of 1970s paranoid political thrillers—those sinister government agents hunting down the extra-terrestrial, with their roaring off-road-vehicles and flashlights and surveillance equipment. There is midcentury Hollywood Americana, Frank Capra’s idyllic middle-American small towns relocated to suburban California, where kids tool around subdivisions on BMX bikes. E.T. holds echoes of Peter Pan, and The Wizard of Oz, and Spielberg’s own Close Encounters of the Third Kind. It’s a movie that includes some of most shameless product placement you’ll ever see—E.T. gobbling up Reese’s Pieces—yet it feels as timeless, as transcendent, as a fairytale.

And it is the greatest Jewish movie ever made.

Many viewers have detected religious overtones in E.T.—Christian religious overtones. The critic Andrew Nigels likened E.T. to Jesus, citing his third act death-and-rebirth, and few could look at the original E.T. movie poster and miss the allusion to Michelangelo’s “The Creation of Adam.” But squint closer and the film’s Jewishness comes into focus. Spielberg himself called E.T. “a minority story.” The saga of the spaceman marooned on planet Earth follows the classic, folkloric outline of the foundling myth. But there is another, archetypally Jewish story here, a minority story, indeed: an immigrant’s tale. E.T. is the ultimate greenhorn—an anxious, bewildered creature, adrift in a strange land. Like generations of newcomers before him, E.T. learns to speak a few halting, oddly accented English words, including the phrase that migrated from Melissa Mathison’s script straight into pop-culture lore. Your great-great-grandparents recited Psalm 137 and sang “Mein Shtetle Belz.” This alien says “E.T. phone home.”

But there is more here than Jewish exilic longing. There is Jewish existential dread. In the opening sequence, E.T. is collecting botanical samples in a redwood grove when Jeeps lurch into view and black-silhouetted agents sweep through the forest. For the rest of the movie, E.T. is a refugee, hiding out in a bedroom closet, stalked by a ruthless enemy. The film’s most harrowing scenes find the alien stretched on a slab by military scientists. All that stands between E.T. and doom is Elliott, the brave little boy who spirits the creature to safety in his bicycle’s handlebar basket. (And you thought Schindler’s List was Spielberg’s first Righteous Gentile movie.)

E.T. was a megahit, shattering the box-office record held by Star Wars to become the highest-grossing film in history, a record it held for a full decade. Spielberg is often described as the creator of the modern blockbuster, the man who unleashed the assaultive, special effects-packed enormo-movie on the world. But nearly 30 years after E.T. arrived in theaters, what impresses is how small the movie feels. The heart of the film is an intimate little family drama, three kids and recently divorced mother, muddling through their middle-class lives. E.T. begins and ends with a spaceship, but it is no Star Wars. It is messily, gloriously terrestrial.

Not that it stays earthbound. Spielberg is a technically masterful filmmaker, and in E.T. he’s as virtuosic as he’s ever been, summoning his powers as pacer of scenes and composer of shots to make pure movie magic. Spielberg is shamelessly sentimental, as his critics have often pointed out, but in E.T. he is sentimental in the right proportions—and about the right things: love, friendship, tolerance, the siren-call of home and family, the difficult passage from innocence to experience. He’s wise enough to know that, occasionally, unguarded enchantment is what’s required—the strains of a full symphony orchestra swelling to a crescendo as a boy peddles his bicycle up, up, right off the ground, toward an improbably bright and gigantic full moon. It’s a very Jewish lesson, which Spielberg has taught us again and again, never more powerfully than in E.T.: Sometimes, art and schmaltz can be one and the same.

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You guys are weird

A very odd collection.

I don’t know how Dr. Zhivago (Jewish Love Affair with the Soviet Union), The Heartbreak Kid 1972 (Jewish-Gentile relations in the USA), and Planet of the Apes 2001 (Oppression of Palestinians — written by two former Golan-Globus screenwriters) could have been left out. I would probably also have included Sallah Shabati, which happens to be a Globus production. The name סאלח שבתי is a pun on סליחה שבאתי (slihah shebati) — sorry that I came.

By the way “sorry” in this case is “pardon me.” The pun is a sarcastic assessment of the lack of enthusiasm with which ethnic Ashkenazim (Vusvusim) greeted Jewish Arabs, who came to the State of Israel.

Marc Peskin says:

Seriously – after waiting 5 days this is the best conclusion you can arrive at? Well, I guess that’s why it is only one person or group of person’s opinion. No argument with the inclusion of the 10 below, but “12 Angry Men” 30th? It may be one of the finest films ever made. The ranking of 68, 77, 78 ,79 is an insult to the movies so ranked:

No. 8: The Graduate
No. 9: The Apartment
No. 11: Miracle on 34th Street
No. 12: Casablanca
No. 14: The Producers
No. 30: 12 Angry Men
No. 68: Tootsie
No. 77: The Way We Were
No. 78: The Wizard of Oz
No. 79: The Pianist

Missing? Try this one on for size:

“JOSHUA THEN AND NOW” (1985) – the story of Joshua Shapiro (James Woods), his gangster Father (Alan Arkin), stunningly beautiful shiksa wife Gabrielle Lazure and her Gentile Father beautifully performed by Alexander Knox – a comedy/drama – it has it all! Arkin steals the show. The scenes with Arkin and Knox where Arkin teaches Torah to this Bible reading old Gentile are priceless! I think it mmay have been one of his best performances; and there were many. Based on the book and screenplay written by Mordecai Richler.

As a small “Indie” from the “Great White North” it did not receive the attention it most decidedly deserved.

allwearesaying says:

I’m dissapointed that the “other” great contribution to Jewish Americana (the first being “schtick” a la Marx Brothers), baseball, is not represented on the list. Surely some room for something obvious like Chaim Potok’s “The Chosen” may have been made, There is inherent Jewishness in “Field of Dreams” with its blind faith in a wildly impractical dream to ressurrect legendary baseball stars of yesteryear. Admittedly, Kevin Costner’s character is WASPy enough, but James Earl Jones, in all his literary eccentricity, plays a very Jewish character. “City Slickers” uses baseball as a means of relating when there are few others, and its themes are weaved throughout the story, which also has a very Jewish flavour to it.

In fact, failing to recognize the contributions of Billy Crystal to American film is a notable oversight. While some thing like “Mr. Saturday Night” is shamelessly maudlin at times, once you get by the squeamishly awkward makeup, it does open a window on the dysfunctionality of Jewish family relations in a way that is far more accessible, more gritty and less artsy-fartsy parlour style than Woody Allen.

I do applaud the very broad definition of Jewishness you have applied to the list, and the lack of obsession with Holocaust-related films.

allwearesaying says:

I must apologize, as I didn’t notice The Natural and When Harry Met Sally initially. So I should have said “limited” rather than not represented at all regarding baseball and Crystal.

I always thought that any story where the main character comes back from the dead is not quite Jewish.

I believe with perfect faith that the exclusion of the Zucker and Abrahams classics “Kentucky Fried Movie” and “Airplane” is a gross oversight which time, repentance, and a weekend in Milwaukee would easily rectify.

“Der Dybbuk”? “Eyes Wide Open” (the Israeli film)? “Ushpizin”??
A great list of GREAT films, but so much missing and so many puzzeling selections. Glad someone else didn’t love “Shindler’s List” very much, I’ll give you credit for that….

elliot cohen says:

Miracle on 34th Street? The Lady Vanishes? Sunset Blvd? Citizen F*****g Kane? And E.T. as #1? Very, very odd picks for a Jewish movie list. And where is Goodbye Columbus? The Pawnbroker? Bye Bye Braverman? You guys may know from something but you don’t know from Jewish movies.

Andy, I’m booking my hotel room in Milwaukee right now. The exclusion of Zucker/Abrahams is sinful. Let the repenting begin…

mark epstein says:

I have already made comment on Munich, so wont go there. Obviously you should have retitled the article to say: The 100 Greatest American Jewish Films. Forgotten are such films as Lies my Father Told Me (Canada); The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (Canada); Beufort (Israel); The Train of life (romania/france); Kippur (Israel); Lebanon (Israel); The Fixer ; Bless the Beasts on the Children (USA); Meatballs (USA); Cast a Giant Shadow–story of Micky Marcus (USA); Odessa file; boys from brazil; Marathon Man; kadosh (france/israel); James Journey to Jerusalem (israel); Walk on Water (Israel); The Bands visit (israel); the Lemon Tree (germany israel); les enfants (france); Europa Europa (France)among many; come on you can do alot better

How could you have possibly left out “Avalon?” One of the best and most poignant American success stories. Not that’s a real shonda!

I like Mr. Epstein’s list. Is a film Jewish because Jews wrote, starred in, or directed it? No. “Sunset Blvd.?” Not on your tintype. “The Apartment”? Because of the grotesque stereotypes of the doctor and his wife? No. Frickin’ “E.T”? Made by a Jew about the whitest white bread gentiles. Why isn’t the great “Hester Street” which has the ultimate quotation of Jewish wisdom ever, “You can’t pee up my back and call it rain!” As a life-long movie enthusiast, the assertions that these are Jewish movies are purely subjective and highly suspect. “Kane”? “Casablanca”? “Potemkin”? Please. Where does it end? Does a movie with a Jewish Best Boy qualify it as Jewish?

No Frisco Kid ????

Chaim Potok says:

!@#^&! nonsense. Stupid in the extreme. A movie is “jewish” if either a) includes some mention of Jews?, b) is made by/includes a Jew actor/director?, or c) forget it – they’re all *produced* by Jews anyway…?

Basically, every movie is Jewish, and your criteria is basically “how much money it made”. pathetic. You should be embarrassed.

And The Chosen isn’t even *on your list*. (slow clap) Well Done.

mark epstein says:

I mentioned a number of films previously that should have been added and totally agree with Bruce too. To ignore foreign cinema and independents is problematic. What constitutes a great film? What constitutes a Jewish film? In Canada we have a debate each year called Canada Reads on the CBC Radio (Canadian Broadcast Corporation), our Public Radio wherein educated professionals make a case for the year’s great books and then listeners vote on them. It might make sense for the Tablet to embark on such a method, in order to decide what are the great Jewish films. Certainly a good portion listed here I would leave off and a number would be added from other countries. Let the patrons make a case for these films. Just because a guy named Spielberg makes a flick does not make it great, case in point Munich, Blecch, dreck.

I guess the creator of this list didn’t want it to look “too Jewish”. So he included “Miracle on 34th St.” and left out “Europa, Europa”. It reminds me of articles I have read about the New York Times’ coverage of the Holocaust during WWII. Lest it be accused of being “too Jewish”, the paper included only a few articles on the mass murders, and then only towards the back of the newspaper.

Arnie B. says:

A poor list that doesn’t understand the heartiness of Jewish culture, I say. Any list that ranks ET over Duck Soup is suspect, to say the least. The Marx Bros. masterpiece is Jewish anarchy at its finest…without the forced goyish love story of A Night at the Opera.

And instead of everything with Jeff Goldblum, I would suggest all of Chaplin’s films, which are infused with what I think are the finest of Jewish values and moral sensibilities….as well as the spirited anarchy of the outside giving a well-deserved kick in the pants to authority

And why was “Hester Street” left out?

Does it work with wars too ? Can you make a list of the 100 greatest jewish wars, ie wars started by Jews or in the interests of Jews or Israel ?

For example, how many American wars were actually jewish ?

Jacob.Arnon says:

Joachim keeps appearing here sometimes as Joachim sometimes as Jules or George.

He just picks a name and post his hateful anti-Jewish bile.

Jacob.Arnon says:

ET is not a Jewish Movie nor are most of the films on your list.

A Jewish movie is one that tackles Jewish themes ET doesn’t do that.

If you are going to read it allegorically than I would suggest that it’s more a Christian movie than a Jewish one.

Exodus at least is a Jewish film and so was Schindler’s List.

Jacob.Arnon says:

The Graduate is another Christian film.

Read the book and you will see.

Nichols the director may have been Jewish (actually anarchist) but the script writer Calder Willingham and the book’s author Charles Webb are hecht goyim.

I found it boring, but perhaps A Gentleman’s Agreement should have been included.

By the strange criteria of this list the Nazi propaganda film Jud Süß might qualify as Jewish because it was based on Feuchtwanger’s 1925 novel also entitled Jud Süß.

Here is my attempt at the screenplay for a Jewish film entitled Devorah’s Two Weddings: http://www.eaazi.org/ThorsProvoni/NewTwoWeddings.pdf

It is not as serious as mine, but the Spanish language film Seres queridos (2004, Harari and Pelagri — released as Only Human in the USA) deals with some similar themes.

BTW, מלך ליום אחד might have merited inclusion as well as חתונה מאוחרת.

A list of NY upper middle class Ashkenazi films

You forgot Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz? Dirty Dancing? (well, we know how Liel feels about that. Guess his opinion is the only one that counts)

allwearesaying says:

It’s certainly no surprise that a list such as this would generate much controversy. What may have been less troublesome would have been to have more specific lists, such as the top 10 Holocaust films, top 10 Jewish filmmakers, top 10 Jewish actors, top 10 non-American English language films (to include Canadian gems as as an example) top 10 pre WW2 movies, top 10 Israeli films, that sort of thing. Having 2 specific Christmas films among “Jewish” movies is bound to rankle, although it is arguable that Jews bought into this mythical “White Christmas” thing more than anybody else.

Veritas says:

The top two choices, and many others in the list, make it clear that the paradigm here decisively favors films made by Jewish directors, without explicit Jewish content, based on the claim that the film’s themes encode a Jewish worldview or sensibility. This is not a very compelling definition of Jewish films. The discussions of the films themselves do not convince this reader that the top choices should even be called Jewish films. And “kal v’chomer” they are not convincingly shown to be the greatest Jewish films in cinematic history.

I have tuned in and out to this list of “greatest Jewish films” and though I understand Rosen’s general reasoning, I don’t understand his persistence in designating great films as Jewish, that are more about assimilationism than distinctly Jewish culture and meaning. There is a disconnection here.

I’ll repeat what I said several places ago and second Helen and eli’s comments.

No Frisco Kid, and No Ushpizin? Yet we get 34th Street, and we get E.T.

And what “A Prince of Egypt was too “Jewish” to include in the list? Was it the cast of characters or the plot that put it off.

Same thing with Fiddler on the Roof.

Joey B says:

But hellooooooo … where all the movies from Billy Wilder???
“The Sunshine Boy”s. Probably the best Jewish directed comedy of all times.

Chaim LieberPerson says:

I am glad there is almost unanimous disappointment with this list. It saves me time. Here is my two sheckels: “Everything is Illuminated” and “Life is Beautiful.”
Such a blown opportunity to discern the bravely Jewish from the universilistic tendencies of Judaism done right. “Defiance” was pretty good too…
And lastly, by virtue of their cultural impact “Fiddler” and “Schindler’s List” are simply the “Let it Be” and “Stairway to Heaven” of any bona fide top ten foray..

Chaim LieberPerson says:

ps: Much was written about the Kabbalisitc/Messianic under tones of the first “Matrix” film… also making cultural impact; forgot to mention “A Serious Man” very thoughtful and challenging to pretend Rabbinic utility; the missing “Gentleman’s Agreement” tells us that we are forgetting our history despite the list makers love affair with ET…. Keeping the Faith… Neil Simon’s trilogy… all good stuff and more Jewish than some of the generics listed

Oy. Designating E.T. as a Jewish film? What, will Harry Potter show up on the next list? Please! Any film that involves a magical resurrection of the protagonist IS. NOT. JEWISH. That concept goes COMPLETELY against Jewish theology. Doesn’t matter if everyone from the director to the errand boy on the set of the film is Jewish; if the plot runs counter to the central concepts of Judaism, it does not belong on a list of Jewish films. Period.

Mike Spindell says:

Conceptually your list just does’t work and your arguments vis a vis the inclusion of certain films are quite hollow. Let’s face it your editorial staff thought it had a winner doing this and while it certainly does attract attention, the execution is puerile. It worked in getting me to view this site, but it turned me off when I saw your list and many of the inclusions. “Miracle on 34th Street” really? As mentioned by many, the dissing of “Gentleman’s Agreement” shows a lack of understanding of the topic. That 1947 movie was groundbreaking in its treatment of anti-Jewishness.
Perhaps your writers are too young to understand that anti-Jewish feeling was pervasive in America in the 40′s and the decades before. This film brought the subject out into the open and so was a milestone and a very good film to boot.

That is but one example of a film given short shrift by your ersatz list. The article was literary bait and switch. I came to your site expecting to read about movies that dealt with Jews thematically and found a list that
imposes Jewishness where none exists, save for reading into a particular director’s sensibilities.

A list of any works of art is in the end quite silly. Shall you next have The 100 Greatest Jewish Paintings of All Time? However, if you are going to do it then don’t waste my time. “ET” was done by a Jewish director period. It was not by your ridiculous stretch of imagination a Jewish themed film.
We of Jews of course focus on our age-old persecution. Yet persecuted minorities is a theme replete in human history. Talk honestly with an Armenian sometime and if they know their history they are as furious with the Turks, as we are with the NAZI’s and with just as good reason. A Jewish Director, commenting on the
miserable human condition in a film, does not make the film a Jewish film. I must say that I was initially happy to have discovered this sight today, but if this is an example I may not return.

As long as we’re using this mostly inappropriate list as an opportunity to share films (thanks Jody), I want to add “The Life of Emile Zola” and “Crossfire.” Both were groundbreaking in their day.

Emile Zola in its romantic bio-pic way, played with breathtaking fury by Paul Muni – the great Yiddish theatre and American stage actor (the original Scarface and Drummond in “Inherit the Wind”), who created the project with his own team, for the Brothers Warner, recreating a Yiddish Art Theatre experience in an unprecedented way in Hollywood. The film deals with anti-Semitism using the Dreyfus affair a a counterpoint to what was going on in Europe in 1938. Won Academy Award Best Picture. Jos Schildkraut won Best Supporting Actor as Dreyfus.

Then “Crossfire” directed by Edward Dmytryk (one of the original blacklisted Hollywood 10) with Robert Ryan, Robert Young, Robert Mitchum, Gloria Graham, and Sam Levene — a gritty film noir treatment about anti-Semitism among American servicemen after WWII. This film came out at about the same time as “Gentlemen’s Agreement” and got lost in the hoopla and glitz of the “GA” production. But it is a dark, slow, and melodramatic meditation on pure hate. It is a little known gem of a film.

joan h. chelemer says:

This stuff is nonsense. What convulted ways the author has of trying to make these films Jewish. It’s really a joke, isn’t it? April Fool’s Day is only four months away. But-why wait–right? I could only get through three “interpretations,” then I quit reading.

If a goy is allowed to have a vote for number one:

Train of Life (in French Train de Vie, in Romanian Trenul vieţii) is a tragicomedy film by France, Belgium, Netherlands, Israel and Romania made in 1998 in the French language. It tells the story of an eastern European Jewish village’s plan to escape the Holocaust.

I guess my vote goes for this movie, because after some great and not so good films, the constant repeating of ‘you are all sinners’ the whole Holocaust topic just got over-represented in daily life, knowing that in almost every country there were minorities chased and killed at some point of history hardly receiving any media attention. Still, this movie made me smile and feel sorry at the same time, like Robert Benigni’s Life is beautiful.

Waltz with Bashir was a nice choice, self-critics usually never appears in media, it made me accept the whole war-country attitude much more than all the other attempts to show muslims as the evil.

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No. 1: E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial

The greatest Jewish movie ever made

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