It’s great to know that many Jewish people are constantly engaged with their directive of tikkun olam, or healing the world, extending even to their entertainment choices. A glance at the subject matter addressed at Jewish film festivals screened around the country provides the evidence: movies of all genres address a host of pithy topics that range from Holocaust history to the dilemma of the transgender Chabad congregant. At this celebratory time of the year, all-consuming gravitas has the potential to send moviegoers exiting the theater for the nearest happy hour. It’s sometimes difficult to remember that Jews are God’s funniest chosen people.
In this season of light and joy, listing a round-up of some of the year’s funny Jewish movies…well, it couldn’t hurt. The movies were made by people both young and old, but all of them delve into issues that have the potential to make people rethink their relationship to their faith and ethnicity, and the roles that Jews have played in bringing about change for the better, with a sense of fun and good humor. This is a good thing.
As conveyed by its title, “Jewtah,” a film by Jeremy Rishe and Cameron Bossert, transports Jewish viewers to a place they’ve all visited. It could be in Salt Lake City, or anywhere else. Consumed by his fear of Mormons, or rather, his fear of what he thinks Mormons think about Jews, our hero Pincus hasn’t left the basement of his grandmother’s Utah home for over a decade. When the unthinkable happens, God himself tells Pincus to clean up his act. Although the script is based on his own experiences as a Jew from Utah, it’s a distinct possibility that actor/writer Rishe didn’t really have a mystic encounter with a deity of any kind. However, he certainly enjoyed growing up with Mormons, taking pleasure and pride in being singled out as exotic in a community filled with people who were eager to know his traditions and wished him no harm. Ultimately, Pincus will revel in both his difference and in the ties that he forges with those around him, but you can bet that his “meshuga,” or crazy, road to self-actualization is going to be a bumpy one filled with ups, downs and laughs.
The viewer rides along Israel’s byways in a bus filled with a gaggle of non-Jewish American stand-up comics in “Land of Milk and Funny,” Avi Liberman’s documentary about the morale-building tour he led in that country during a particularly dark time in the early 2000s. Carrying their big shticks to audiences whose day-to day-lives were affected by the threat of terrorist violence, these comics win over their audiences just by showing up, not to mention their boffo material. For Liberman, the ongoing tours, benefitting a philanthropy which assists victims of terrorism, is “a way to combine what I do for a living with something positive for Israel. …. while it may not make me any more famous or advance my career…the rewards outweigh any of that.” Hailed by the Times of Israel as “both side splitting and moving,” “Milk and Funny” proves that you don’t have to be Jewish to score big laughs in Israel.
Showcasing recently discovered tapes, home movies and diaries, “Love, Gilda” presents an odyssey into the life of Gilda Radner, an original “Saturday Night Live” ensemble member whose zaniness on stage, television and in film delighted millions before she died at the height of her career. SNL luminaries awed by her gifts for physical comedy, over-the-top mimicry and improvisation bring Radner’s presence to life, while the star’s home movies reveal her sweetness and warmth, as well as the courage and humor with which she confronted her illness. Those of other generations who know her by reputation alone will be captivated by her and will find that much of her work holds up beautifully.
Our final trip will take many older Jewish viewers back in time, as memories of gilded dragons, beaded curtains, brocade walls and the aromatic bouquet of wonton soup evoke past celebrations of Hanukah and Christmas. Set in a doozy of a 1960s Chinese restaurant, whose staff welcomes customers on Christmas day, “Dreaming of a Jewish Christmas,” is part fantasy, part documentary as filmed by Canadian director Larry Weinstein. In it, he divulges a shocking and hitherto unknown secret: the lyricists, composers and performers who remade Christmas in the 20th century, universalizing the sentiments of the holiday to make it accessible by all, were Jewish. Told through interesting anecdotes, cultural history and archival material, the story of these musical outsiders is primarily conveyed through their own amazing songs. Selections by Irving Berlin, Mel Tormé, Jay Livingston and others are sung in diverse styles, from klezmer to country, by musicians including Kevin Breit, Aviva Chernick, Tom Wilson and Dione Taylor, while even the Chinese waiters take their turn as revelers. Although a nod is given to discussions questioning the morality of cultural appropriation, “Jewish Christmas” functions as an homage to America, and to a time when this kind of terrific thing could happen.
Please click the arrows below to see images from all the films.
Cheryl Kempler is an art and music specialist who works in the B'nai B'rith International Curatorial Office and writes about history and Jewish culture for B’nai B’rith Magazine. To view some of her additional content, click here.
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