Is there such a thing as a Jewish film?

There is a strong tradition of Jewish filmmaking in Hollywood and now in Israel. But what does cinema reveal about this unique culture? Emma Jones reports.

Woody Allen, Mel Brooks, the Marx Brothers, the Coen Brothers, Judd Apatow: they are all household names in Hollywood – and they’re all Jewish. So what significance does the prevalence of Jewish artists have in film history? And what makes a movie ‘Jewish’ today?

“The notion of what defines a ‘Jewish’ film has certainly changed within the last twenty years,” explains Jason Solomons, a British film critic, and Jewish himself. “I suppose before it was usually a typical type of comedy, usually made by Woody Allen. But now there’s an acknowledgement of the Jewish domination of Broadway during the last century – Irving Berlin, Gershwin, Rodgers and Hammerstein to name but a few – and we can see that their themes, of exile and outsiders, have filtered into film. I think they made it possible for a film to be Jewish without actually being about Jews, because they explore these issues.

“You could even go as far as to describe great 1950s film musicals such as Showboat or Porgy and Bess as being Jewish in origin. Their writers identified with the African-American struggle as their own. They understood the blues, the discrimination and the misery. The great American musicals are Jewish in their urge to create an idea of America as a homeland. Many of cinema’s great themes have filtered down from that point.”

Judy Ironside, a former drama therapist living in London, England, has been directing the UK Jewish Film Festival, which runs every November, for the last seventeen years. This year, out of more than 600 submissions from around the world, she has scheduled movies as diverse as The Jewish Cardinal, a French film detailing the true story of Jewish-born Jean-Marie Lustiger, who went on to head the French Church; Cupcakes, by Israeli director Eytan Fox, about a group of Tel Aviv girls who end up writing the Israeli entry for an Eurovision-style song contest; and The Congress, a Hebrew animation by Waltz with Bashir filmmaker Ari Folman that satirises today’s celebrity culture. Yet, Ironside maintains, stereotypes still apply and many are ignorant of the wealth of material she has at her disposal.

“People still come up to me and ask if I am programming Fiddler on the Roof,” she laughs. “I’d say these days I would define a movie as Jewish, if it’s either made by a Jewish director, or has a Jewish theme of some sort. As we’ve become more mature as a festival, we’ve become more relaxed about it. Sometimes that can mean we will programme an Arabic film about the Middle East, which directly affects life in Israel.

Identity politics

“I would say the biggest theme in these films that I see in this present climate, is the search for identity, whether it’s immigration, refugees, the search for belonging. It’s something so many of them have in common these days, whether it’s a Jewish film made in South America or Sweden. I think it’s certainly a result of so many of us moving homeland after the creation of the state of Israel, or the dispersion after the Holocaust. It’s certainly not just about Schindler’s List anymore.”

“It did used to be about the Holocaust,” Jason Solomons adds. “Always about the Holocaust. But yes, the themes are more everyday now – marrying, circumcision, keeping kosher, not believing in God but still being Jewish, honouring family and the past while moving on with the future. These are big confrontational dramatic points ripe for discussion. However, they are the same sort of questions other minorities ask of themselves too – such as the British Indian community in Gurinda Chada films, or Arab families in French films such as Couscous, by Abdel Kechiche.”

While America has dominated Jewish culture at the movies for decades, one of the biggest changes in the last ten years is the strength of Israeli filmmaking – according to American Jewish producer Diana Nabatoff. Five or six prominent film schools are producing a steady stream of young movie makers; while veteran directors like Ari Folman won at the Cannes Film Festival for Waltz with Bashir, his unique animation detailing the Israeli-Lebanese war.

“You cannot now be Jewish, and living in Israel, and not be politicised, or not be aware of the themes of war, and this can lend a greatness to local cinema,” she asserts. “You breathe it in in the very air around you.  War, grief, loyalty, the human cost of conflict − I think this has encouraged a new generation of very daring filmmakers, looking at these issues. It’s a young cinema and there is so much possibility. However, we don’t want war to be the defining characteristic in what an Israeli or a Jewish film now represents. My latest documentary, Dancing in Jaffa, is about a Palestinian dancing teacher bringing about reconciliation between Jewish and Palestinian children. I’m proud to call that a Jewish film too.”

Kosher comedy

Judy Ironside maintains that comedy is still the most successful defining characteristic of Jewish film, “the one everyone knows without actually recognising it –  to the extent that everyone thinks Woody Allen is say, ‘New York’ humour, it’s so much part of the American consciousness now.”

“Let’s be frank, American comedy is now all Jewish comedy,” declares Solomons. “From Judd Apatow to the hugely successful Seth Rogen, there’s very little in North America that isn’t Jewish-influenced. Jewish intonation and inflection has become the delivery method for the American one-liner. Comedy, is in fact, the Jewish vernacular. It bridges the religious and the secular.”

Despite its domination of the mainstream, and the aim of the UK Jewish Film Festival to reach as much of a non-Jewish audience as possible, Ironside believes the greatest value of its cinema is to educate their own.

“We have so many disparate people across the world, and so many dissimilarities – according to all our different nationalities and our beliefs, whether religious or secular. Often I have Jews watching films about other people of their own faith and saying, “I had no idea that happened.”

“That is the great thing about being a Jew – we are all so different, and yet we can go into any synagogue in the world and still hear the same prayers, in Hebrew. I think our cinema teaches us we are many people, and yet one at the same time.”

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