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What Makes a Film Jewish?

Critic Daphne Merkin’s all-time top ten

Daphne Merkin
December 06, 2011

On the occasion of Tablet Magazine’s 100 Greatest Jewish Movies list, film critic Daphne Merkin weighs in.

What makes a film Jewish? Aside from the obvious identifying characteristic of a specifically Jewish theme, can a film “feel” Jewish because of its sensibility? Or is the presence of a Jewish director or Jewish actor enough to qualify a film as Jewish? What about films that deal with a family or character who seems Jewish without it being explicitly stated? And what about a certain kind of humor that strikes one as inherently Jewish?

It’s a vexed subject, to be sure, but it seems to me that the wider one sets the parameters, the better—both for the form and for the Jews. Surely the entire Marx Brothers oeuvre can be fit under this rubric, for what are they if not a bunch of quintessentially funny Jewish guys? A historical signpost or two might help place things: one might point out that the postwar preoccupation with Jewish themes probably began with Gentlemen’s Agreement and that Barbara Streisand paved the way for overtly Jewish characters. Of course, the problem with this loose-limbed approach is that one can begin by projecting Jewishness wherever one feels like and end up sloshing in a sea of choices that verges on the absurd, with every other film considered as a potential contender.

Somewhere between the rigorously objective and the entirely subjective, then, are a batch of movies that feel authentically Jewish—at least to me—and artistically worthy of inclusion on a list of favorite Jewish films. Here they are.

10. The Shop on Main Street
9. The Graduate
8. Intimate Grammar
7. Waltz With Bashir
6. Europa, Europa
5. Footstep
4. The Garden of the Finzi-Continis
3. Fiddler on the Roof
2. Hotel Terminus
1. Shoah

Related: 100 Greatest Jewish Films [Tablet Magazine]

Daphne Merkin, a contributing writer at the New York Times Magazine and a contributor to the TLS, The Times Book Review, Bookforum, and Departures, teaches writing at Columbia University. Her latest novel,Twenty-Two Minutes of Unconditional Love, will be out in June, 2020.

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