Jewish Movies

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

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All of this came to a head in the 1973 film, The Way We Were, starring Barbra Streisand and directed by Sidney Pollack. The well-known singer-actress was taking her stand that ethnic women with a not-so-typically-Hollywood screen look, in this case Jewish women, can success­fully chase after matinee-idol Gentile men.

Whatever one thinks of Streisand’s “cause,” it should be noted that The Way We Were was one of the first portents that Judaism would not go untouched or unscathed in the process of the new Jewish self-determina­tion, even self-infatuation, in flimmaking. In one scene in The Way We Were, Streisand’s character presents her Gentile lover (played by Robert Redford) with a typewriter and calls it a “Rosh Hashanah present.” One can imagine Gentile viewers wondering at the time whether Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, was a time when they should be sending gifts to Jewish friends.

One can safely assume that at the time, Jewish viewers were savvy enough to realize that Streisand and Company were inventing this gift as an inside joke to make the point that the public ought to realize that Jews have holidays other than Hanukkah. This was their way of "opening up” Judaism. Little did they know that they were starting a trend that would become widespread and shameless--namely, the concoction, or, more often, the corruption, of Jewish customs and observances under the rubric of “creative media writing.”…

Paradoxically, such retreading of Judaism, even when misleading, represented the height of comfort with Judaism in the general culture, on the part of both Jewish and non-Jewish writers and producers. It also revealed an antipathy on their part toward religious Jews that rivaled and even exceeded early Hollywood denigration of Jews as ridiculous or embarrassing.

The acceptance, in the 1980s, of Judaism as a prominent theme in television and in the movies did not come without baggage or cost. The new emphasis on “interpreting” Jewish ritual practices provoked both caricature or censure of Judaism.

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Rabbi Elliot B. Gertel

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