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Classic Jewish themed movies to watch on Christmas

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A still from Crossing Delancey (Warner Brothers Pictures photo)

Hollywood and Jews go together like lox and bagels, or if you prefer, pastrami on rye. The movie industry at one time was a top-down family business, from the studio moguls to producers and script writers. While directors were a more diverse lot, notable Jews at the helm included Hungarian-born Michael Curtiz of Casablanca fame, Kiev native Anatole Litvak, Oscar-nominated for his unflinching look at mental illness in The Snake Pit, and the legendary Billy Wilder, who fled Europe in the 1930s and whose classics, Some Like It Hot and Double Indemnity, continue to score new generations of fans.

As vintage film enthusiasts, my husband and I have seen hundreds of silver screen classics, often revisiting favourites through fresh eyes. On moving to Montreal almost 20 years ago, we found ourselves watching an old movie the first New Year’s Eve in our new home, and every one thereafter. Early on, we decided to move up the festivities to Christmas Eve and make a simcha of it with picnic fare. In retrospect, our annual ritual has its roots in the Jewish tradition of going out to the movies Dec. 24, when crowds are light and pretty much everything is closed.

Technology has transformed theatrical releases, especially for home audiences. But whether you watch on a giant wall-mount or (as we do) on an unfashionably small screen, consider inaugurating your own film-fest this time of year; given the strong bond between Jews and making movies, especially during the studio-era reign, why not begin with films showcasing a Jewish subject or a central Jewish character?

Here are some favourites, grouped thematically. The titles may be familiar, unknown to you or forgotten, but all are memorable.

ANTI-SEMITISM:

Crossfire (1947); An anti-Semitic soldier is suspected in the death of a Jewish war veteran. The cast alone is worth the price of admission, featuring Robert Mitchum, Robert Ryan, Robert Young, and among the era’s finest Jewish actors, Sam Levene.

Gentleman’s Agreement (1947): A Best Picture Oscar winner, it’s also Hollywood’s most identifiable exploration of anti-Semitism in postwar America. The incomparable Gregory Peck plays a magazine writer who gets up close and personal with prejudice when passing himself off as a Jew.

NEW WORLD/OLD WORLD:

Crossing Delancey (1988): Calling all single millennials seeking a shidduch flick that’s managed to stay socially relevant in the age of online dating. Amy Irving’s Isabelle Grossman is a Manhattan single whose bubbie teams up with a matchmaker to fix her up with a Jewish businessman. It’s a pickle business, and Isabelle is picky about dating a pickle man, even one as nice as Sam Posner (played to perfection by Peter Riegert). Nu shoyn, will Izzy change her mind? Will bubbe get to dance at Izzy’s wedding?

The Last Angry Man (1959): Paul Muni (who acted in Yiddish theatre) earned an Academy Award nomination for best actor as Dr. Samuel Abelman, a devoted “old school” practitioner whose determination to stay in his rundown Brooklyn neighbourhood galvanizes a television producer into following him for a documentary. Gripping and grim.

Marjorie Morningstar (1958): Clashing generational values of a spirited Jewish college student and her well-off family drive this timeless drama pairing Natalie Wood and Gene Kelly.

Liberty Heights (1999): A gem written and directed by Baltimore native Barry Levinson, about a mid-century Baltimore Jewish family in the currents of a changing society. Make it a double bill with Levinson’s 1982 Oscar-nominated Diner.

Hester Street (1975): It’s almost the 20th century and you’re newly-arrived to America from a shtetl in Russia. Overwhelmed? Who wouldn’t be?! But you’re joining a husband who emigrated several years earlier, giving him time and opportunity to change his Orthodox ways. Your tsuris is just getting started.

The Quarrel (1991): Maybe it’s unfair to say this treasure is under-appreciated. Canadian actors Saul Rubinek and R. H. Thomson are compelling as former yeshiva friends whose survival of the Holocaust takes their religious faith in polar opposite directions.

Private Benjamin (1980): A pampered Jewish daughter newly-widowed on her wedding night, Goldie Hawn’s Judy Benjamin is at loose ends until she responds to a U.S. military recruitment ad, signing up for more than she ever imagined.

ISRAEL:

The Juggler (1953): Kirk Douglas is cast as the lone Holocaust survivor in his family, a German Jewish juggler whose attempt at a new life in the fledgling state of Israel is complicated by post-war trauma. According to Turner Classic Movies, this is Hollywood’s first film shot in Israel.

Exodus (1960): It wasn’t long ago that I finally got around to a first-time viewing of this epic drama about the founding of Israel. Really, what’s not to like with Paul Newman in the lead, Lee J. Cobb as a passionate Zionist and a stirring musical score that’s likely accompanied more than one Jewish bride down the aisle?

JEWISH CHARACTERS:

Numerous movies have characters who are identifiably Jewish without ethnicity central to the plot. Among the best is Richard Benjamin in The Sunshine Boys (1975), as a harried talent agent doing double duty watching out for the welfare of his elderly uncle (Walter Matthau, who I’ll watch in anything).

THE SHMATTE BUSINESS:

No Jewish movie-fest would be complete without the needle trade. Three films that take on this competitive business do so from different perspectives: Save the Tiger (1973); I Can Get It For You Wholesale (1951); The Garment Jungle (1957).

Jack Lemmon, a perennial favourite in Save The Tiger, is a partner in a fashion business where survival is on the line. Throw in male mid-life angst and the potential for insurance money. You get the picture.

I Can Get It For You Wholesale may seem an antiquated notion in the era of online shopping, but one woman (Susan Hayward) pulls out all the stops to launch her own company, whose dresses sell for $10.95.

Garment Jungle is a must-see on the strength of Lee J. Cobb’s powerful performance as a garment manufacturer adamant on keeping his shop non-unionized, and who pays for it in more ways than one.

 

On a final note, mazel tov to Kirk Douglas, who just celebrated his 102nd birthday. And the Oscar statuette to Gentleman’s Agreement for best picture fetched US$492,000 at a recent auction.

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