6 films that explore the Jewish experience, history and faith

This Jewish Heritage Month, explore a selection of films that span across all genres and audiences. From historical dramas and comedies to a love story for the ages, these narratives will open your eyes to some of the remarkable realities, heavy histories and extraordinary experiences of the Jewish community.

“Life is Beautiful” (1998)

Roberto Benigni’s Academy Award-winning film — including Best Foreign Language Film and Best Actor for Benigni, in a first for a non-English, male performance — is a heart-wrenching look at the Holocaust’s devastating impact on humanity. Inspired by Benigni’s own father, who spent two years in a Nazi concentration camp, the story centers on a Jewish-Italian bookshop owner, who uses his gift for playful imagination to help his son survive the horrors of their imprisonment. 

To weave in a central, light-hearted element in a film with such a somber setting was no easy feat. “The movie actually softens the Holocaust slightly, to make the humor possible at all,” wrote Roger Ebert. “In the real death camps, there would be no role for Guido. But Life Is Beautiful is not about Nazis and Fascists, but about the human spirit. It is about rescuing whatever is good and hopeful from the wreckage of dreams. About hope for the future. About the necessary human conviction, or delusion, that things will be better for our children than they are right now.”

“Liberty Heights” (1999) 

Written and directed by Barry Levinson, this semi-autobiographical comedy-drama follows the Kurtzman clan, a Jewish family living in Baltimore during the 1950s — a place and time rife with racism, segregation, and anti-Semitism. Through the lens of a coming-of-age story, we watch two brothers (Ben Foster and Adrien Brody) as they get ready to leave the nest against a backdrop of sociopolitical and personal challenges. Critically acclaimed for its all-star performances (which also feature Bebe Neuwirth and Joe Mantegna as the boys’ parents), as well as its authentic dialogue and sensitive direction, Variety says that Levinson “goes deep with Liberty Heights, and the result is a grand slam.”

“Keeping the Faith” (2000)

This light-hearted, romantic comedy, which happens to be Ed Norton’s directorial debut, presents an unexpected love triangle that stems from the opening of an old joke: A priest and a rabbi walk into a bar … and when their childhood best friend (Jenna Elfman) comes to town, the priest (played by Norton) and the rabbi (Ben Stiller) find themselves smitten. But when their crush starts to get in the way of their faith and test their friendship, they’ll have to figure out a new way forward. Variety calls Keeping the Faith, “well-shot,” “schematically constructed” and “a valentine to New York’s racial, religious and cultural diversity.”

“Everything Is Illuminated” (2005)

In another directorial debut from a Hollywood heavyweight, Liev Schreiber’s critically acclaimed adaptation of Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything Is Illuminated follows a young American Jew (Elijah Wood) who makes a pilgrimage to Ukraine to find the woman who saved his grandfather during the Holocaust. Escorted by a goofy grandson-grandad duo, along with their dog Sammy Davis Junior Junior, misadventures ensue as he makes his way across the country before their road takes a darker turn.

Ebert describes Everything Is Illuminated as one that “grows in reflection,” and wrote that upon his second viewing, he was “more aware of the journey Schreiber was taking us on, and why it [was] necessary to begin where he [did] in order to get where he’s going.”

“A Serious Man” (2009)

Directed by Ethan and Joel Cohen, this black comedy-drama follows the story of a Jewish man from Minnesota (Michael Stuhlbarg), whose personal and professional life is crumbling around him. His wife wants to leave him for a widower (Fred Melamed), he has to take care of his jobless brother (Richard Kind), his kids are jerks and his tenure as a physics professor is under threat — leading him to seek the guidance of a rabbi. As his world continues to unravel, “the Coen brothers deliver what might be their most mature — if not their best — film to date,” according to Rotten Tomatoes, by “blending dark humor with profoundly personal themes.” Rent or buy A Serious Man

“Footnote” (2012)

Filmed in Hebrew, this Israeli film focuses on two scholars of the Talmud and sacred Judaic texts, who happen to be father and son. However, that’s about as much as they have in common, with the elder working in obscurity while the younger enjoys frequent publication, praise, and accolades. The senior scoff’s at his son’s claims to fame, but when he mistakenly gets a call saying that he’s the recipient of a prestigious prize, his attitude begins to change.

Critics call “Footnote” “a poignant, witty, well-crafted film that employs exemplary cinematography and visual metaphoric reference set to a score that soars with lyricism and emotion, setting the tone for the non-Hebrew speaking audience.

Looking for more traditional Jewish programming, check out Jewish Broadcasting Service

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