Jewish Movies

Films and television shows are comfortable with Jewish themes and characters--and, often, with distorting Judaism.


Reprinted with permission from Over the Top Judaism: Precedents and Trends in the Depiction of Jewish Beliefs and Observances in Film and Television (University Press of America).

For more than a quarter of a century, a lot of movies and TV programs have been obsessed with Judaism. One can argue that many American Jews were infatuated first with film and then, simultaneously, with television. The movies, and then television, have imposed standards, aesthetics, values, and even vocabulary that American culture, including American Jewish culture, had to engage, whether in imitation, protest, or adaptation. Yet such engagement, for all of its occasional valor, has not been without distortion of Judaism, of Jewish teachings and observances.

The Goldbergs Become Molly

At first these seductive media mesmerized Jews. But Judaism was left alone. It was kept offstage, to the side, as a precious relic or heirloom. One thinks of the 1950 film, Molly, originally entitled The Goldbergs, and based on the famous television series of that name.

depictions of jews on screenGertrude Berg assumed her classic TV role as Molly Goldberg, beloved Jewish matriarch. Most of the film came across as a rather general nostalgia for European parents, not much different from the I Remember Mama genre. Toward the end one sees covered challah rolls and Shabbat candles, though the actual rituals are only suggested and not performed.

It was a bold statement in the 1950s just to show challahand Shabbat candles at a time when the name of the film had to be changed from The Goldbergs to Molly. For most of the Jewish audience, the immigrant experience and the close-knit family were still realities, and there was no need to translate or to fill in between the lines. Likewise, the presence of ritual objects in the homes of parents was still widely taken for granted. (By the 1970s, ritual objects in film and TV began to be more the domain of immigrant grandparents.) Just the image of a Sabbath table spoke volumes more than any dialogue.

In the 1960s and 1970s, however, depiction of Jews and of Jewish practices became more aggressive, more pointed. There was a determined and concerted effort to stand up for Jewish identity and to throw Jewish practices back into the face of a film culture that had ignored them or shunted them aside. The irony was that the “film culture” consisted of many Jews who had been embarrassed about delving into their heritage, but now sanctioned, with a vengeance, an explosion of Jewish references, associa­tions, and even ambivalences.

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Elliot B. Gertel is the rabbi of Congregation Rodfei Zedek in Chicago and media critic for The Jewish Post and Opinion of Indianapolis.

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