50 Greatest Jewish Movies book review

Kathryn Bernheimer’s The 50 Greatest Jewish Movies is the book I was wanting – or at least planning – to write, although I was going to include the top 100, not 50. No matter; it’s done now, and I am over the worst of the shock.

The 50 Greatest Jewish Moviesis both terribly familiar and unusually helpful.  The field of “Jewish film” has had many books in recent years, most notably Lester Friedman’s Hollywood’s Image of the Jew and Patricia Erens’ The Jew in American Cinema, and Bernheimer acknowledges her strong debt to each of these authors.  But for all of their great scholarship – and Friedman and Erens are real scholars, compared to Bernheimer, who comes from journalism – the earlier books never quite gave us the information we wanted to know if easy-to-use “bite-size” chunks.  This is Kathryn Bernheimer’s greatest achievement: in the course of less than 200 accessible pages, she has ordered, listed, described and analysed 50 of the most interesting “Jewish” films.  She has “cheated” a bit here (fortunately for us) by merging movies with similar themes and subjects: Biblical epics Ben Hur and The Ten Commandments; “the Jew goes west” comedies The Frisco Kid and Blazing Saddles; 1940’s classics Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be or Not To Be and Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator; 1947 releases on anti-Semitism Crossfire and Gentleman’s Agreement; and two by Joan Micklin Silver – Hester Street and Crossing Delancey.

Bernheimer’s real strength is in understanding what we need to know, and in paring away the extraneous.  Her three-page introduction is a model of brevity and clarity.  “What is a Jewish movie?” she asks.  Her definition is “a film that examines an aspect of the Jewish experience and features at least one clearly defined Jewish central character”.  I have talked about “Jewish film” for years, but have never found a better description than this one.  Her selections (ordered from most important downwards) will be the subject for debate, but she purposefully has tried to range far and wide across genres, directors and stars.  Representative works by important Jewish directors have been included, including Sidney Lumet (The Pawnbroker), Martin Ritt (The Front), Robert Rossen (Body and Soul), Woody Allen (Annie Hall), Paul Mazursky (Enemies A Love Story, Down and Out in Beverly Hills), David Mamet (Homicide), John Schlesinger (Marathon Man), Barbra Streisand (Yentl), Fred Zinneman (Julia), Meryvn LeRoy (A Majority of One), Barry Levinson (Bugsy), William Wyler (Funny Girl), Otto Preminger (Exodus), Steven Spielberg (Schindler’s List) and Mike Nichols (Biloxi Blues).

Her top ten?  The Chosen at number 1, “encompassing most of the major themes of twentieth-century Jewish life … (and) one of the only Jewish films to deal meaningfully with religious and spiritual matters”.  Fiddler on the Roof at number 2, giving us Tevye (played by Chaim Topol), “arguably the single most positive, sympathetic and best-known Jewish character in film history”.  Schindler’s List at number 3, “hands down the most widely seen, universally acclaimed, and ambitious feature film on the Holocaust ever made, as well as one of the most artistically accomplished”.  Shoah at number 4, “the definitive documentary about the Holocaust”.  Following are The Jazz Singer (1927 version, with Al Jolson) at number 5, Annie Hall, Funny Girl, Gentleman’s AgreementExodus, and Ben Hur/The Ten Commandments.

The 50 Greatest Jewish Movies is a wonderful book, but not without some faults, some greater than others.  Like just about everyone, I will fault her selection of films:  Bugsy at number 23 and the amazingly confused Homicide at 29 are just two I would demote way down the list.  The author frequently refers to the “other 200” films she viewed in order to make her pick, but – frustratingly for the reader – never actually lists them.  (Her local Denver, Colorado video shop stocked all 250 films: we should be so lucky to have such shops here in Australia.)

There is an excellent index and a reasonably good bibliography, but no footnotes. Sure, reviewers don’t include footnotes, but she includes a whole lot of historical details which are not “common knowledge” and in fact were taken from Friedman, Erens and others.  Each film listing gives the year of release, studio, key cast, director, length and rating.  But what about Oscar (and Golden Globe and BAFTA) nominations and wins?  This is the sort of information which helps the reader to decide what to see and informs us as to the reaction to the film that year; sometimes the information is here, and sometimes not.

My final analysis: well-written, highly accessible, thought-provoking but falling somewhere in-between – not nearly enough information for a good film reference book (have you read a Leonard Maltin film guide recently?), and not provocative enough to work as a set of 50 essays.

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