Movies can spark the High Holiday spirit
Film spectrumChoose from heavy meditation on sin and guilt

Movies can spark the High Holiday spirit

Priming the High Holiday mindset may need nothing more than a movie or two.

Moviegoers attend screenings of Jewish-themed movies in Pittsburgh. 

Photo courtesy of Film Pittsburgh.
Moviegoers attend screenings of Jewish-themed movies in Pittsburgh. Photo courtesy of Film Pittsburgh.

For some, it’s the most wonderful time of the year. Whether it is a commitment to reflection and introspection or taking care to extend greetings and well wishes for the days ahead, various approaches to the High Holidays are quite familiar.

But priming the High Holiday mindset may need nothing more than a movie or two.

“I would suggest to readers to check out this streaming site out of the JCC in Manhattan,,” said Kathryn Spitz Cohan, executive director of Film Pittsburgh.

The easily navigable page allows users to browse by subject. After selecting “Jewish Holidays,” relevant titles emerge: “After all you are just a guest,” “Kaparot Sababa C’est Tout” and “GOAT TO HELL.”

No worries for viewers with only a tad of time on their hands, as the aforementioned films require roughly two hours for seeing screens. The first in the list, “After all” (1999), is a 50-minute documentary from director Ron Ofer of the annual pre-Rosh Hashanah trip of haredi Orthodox Jews to the village of Uman, Ukraine, to visit the gravesite of Rabbi Nachman of Breslav, an 18th-century Chasidic leader.

The other two films on the list, “Kaparot Sababa” and “GOAT,” concern Yom Kippur. The former is a 50-minute long 2011 documentary, in which the director, Ehud Segev, chronicled a decade of Yom Kippur observances. The latter, a 28-minute film with English subtitles from 2014 and directed by Roi Calvo, relates the story of an adolescent who steals his father’s car on the holiest day of the year and the events that follow.

For those seeking “heavy meditation on sin and guilt, but with a somewhat unsettling ending,” check out “Crimes and Misdemeanors” (1989), said Adam Shear, director of the Jewish Studies program at the University of Pittsburgh.

If it’s “classic Kol Nidre scenes” you’re after then “The Jazz Singer,” is a good choice, he added.

“I like both the Al Jolson and Neil Diamond versions. Unfortunately, I can’t recommend the 1959 TV special with Jerry Lewis — besides the blackface being hard to take these days (also a problem with the original of course) but also they don’t do much of Kol Nidre — just a few moments. I assume because they had to fit the whole story into 1 hour.” Finally, “The Frisco Kid” with Gene Wilder offers “wonderful reflections on different ideas of God and also the rabbi grappling with the Torah as symbol vs. the doctrine of pikuah nefesh. Can’t say more to avoid spoilers,” said Shear.

Keeping with Yom Kippur, in a 2014 post, the Jewish Book Council listed a few films that impart the liturgy of the holy day. These pictures include “Keeping the Faith” (2000), “Kissing Jessica Stein” (2001) and “The Believer” (2001). Fans of big-name stars should enjoy any of the early second millennium movies, as “Keeping the Faith” pairs Ben Stiller and Edward Norton as dueling clergymen, “Kissing Jessica Stein” features Jennifer Westfeldt and Tovah Feldshuh in an unexpected romantic comedy, and “The Believer” presents a young Ryan Gosling as Danny Balint, a conflicted character who ultimately encounters a Kafka-esque conclusion.

Yes, apples, honey and the High Holidays are coming. But whether this time of year, or a Tuesday in June, movies stills have an ability to arouse.

“For those of us that are visual learners, watching a movie can be as meaningful or more than other traditional types of learning,” said Spitz Cohan. “I think, or hope, that if the message of a film is powerful or inspirational that it can change lives and make the world a better place.” pjc

Adam Reinherz can be reached at

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