The story of American Jewry traces its origins to 23 Jewish refugees who arrived in the present-day port of New York City 368 years ago. Throughout May, organizations, corporations and President Joe Biden celebrated those travelers and the ensuing generations of Jews who contributed to this country’s growth.
Although Jewish American Heritage Month is coming to a close, the opportunity to explore the broader Jewish story continues. Thanks to technology and a host of streaming services, viewers can delve into the inspiring, evolving and occasionally complicated narrative of Jewish history. Readers likely need little help finding films within the genre. Even so, these six movies speak to me and may also stir you. The following films may result in hours of crying, laughing or soul-searching, and I’m confident this viewing exercise will keep you captivated, curious and entertained well beyond May.
“An American Tail” (1986), available on Amazon Prime Video, YouTube and Apple TV
For a generation of American Jewish children, a trip to the pet store was a puzzling ordeal: If there are no cats in America, why would anyone buy a three-tiered carpeted feline treehouse? Similarly confounding was the experience of looking at a map of the United States — where do you find a city where the streets are paved with cheese? Fievel Mousekewitz and “An American Tale” raised a host of questions for at least this viewer, but the 1986 animated film remains a classic primer on Jewish immigration and a larger desire to find peace and family wherever you call home. Spoiler alert: Keep the tissues close; when Linda Ronstadt and James Ingram hit the chorus of “Somewhere Out There,” get ready for the tears.
“Shoah” (1985), available on Amazon Prime Video
My great-aunt Jolene Mallinger often recounted the horrific details of getting rounded up, sent to Auschwitz and watching relatives get separated for death. Aunt Jolene died in 2007. Fifteen years later I still can’t fathom how she articulated terror with such clarity. That question — how do everyday people describe monstrosity in the most rational terms? — is at the heart of “Shoah.” Claude Lanzmann’s documentary isn’t easy viewing. It’s nine hours and 26 minutes; at points, the film’s subjects speak with haunting coolness. Europe’s concentration camps were liberated 77 years ago, yet “Shoah” generates a reckoning irrespective of time. How do we confront trauma’s scars? Do we retreat? Do we speak? And for those who choose the latter, is emotional detachment the most human way to tell a story?
“Gut Shabbes Vietnam” (2008), available on ChaiFlicks and Amazon Prime Video
Of Pew Research Center’s findings within “Jewish Americans in 2020,” the rise of Chabad was seen by many as most notable. According to the think tank, a growing number of U.S. Jews engage with Chabad, yet the overwhelming majority of Chabad-goers don’t consider themselves Orthodox. Pew suggested “Chabad’s outreach toward less observant Jews” may be one reason why the movement has attracted so many non-Orthodox American Jews. Shluchim (Lubavitch emissaries) may be another. Across the globe, more than 4,900 Lubavitch couples dedicate their lives to welcoming guests, educating them and bringing Jewish people closer to tradition. “Gut Shabbes Vietnam” offers a peek into this practice by following Racheli and Rabbi Menachem Hartman, shluchim and young Israeli parents, as they and their family move from Jerusalem to Ho Chi Minh City. Language, food and social norms all present barriers, yet the Hartmans find a way to connect. The 2008 documentary raises interesting questions about otherness and selective isolation, while opening a window into what Pew noticed a dozen years later.
“Bethlehem” (2013), available on ChaiFlicks, Amazon Prime Video and Apple TV
For those who enjoyed Netflix’s “Fauda,” familiar faces and themes appear in “Bethlehem.” Terrorism, counter-terrorism and the fraught relationship between Israelis and Palestinians provide the story’s backdrop, however, “Bethlehem” is ultimately about relationships and trust. The Israeli Academy of Film and Television celebrated “Bethlehem” with six Ophirs (Israel’s version of the Oscars), including Best Film. Americans seeking a greater understanding of Middle Eastern strife may find it instructive as well. Although “Bethlehem” doesn’t offer any great secret to achieving peace, the film reminds viewers that geopolitical conflict isn’t always an exercise in theoretics as much as a dispute between actual people.
“The Week Of” (2018), available on Netflix
Recent years have proven a pattern: Adam Sandler collaborates with Netflix; movie drops; critics pan it. But that belies the reality that consumers occasionally just want something fast, fun and forgettable. “The Week Of” is a silly film about a Jewish family from Long Island marrying off their daughter. The gags are predictable, the dilemmas too, yet there’s something sweet about this movie. Watching it likely won’t result in any great epiphanies, but “The Week Of” is a humorous reminder of those we love. For that, you may appreciate Jewish co-stars and “Saturday Night Live” alums Sandler and Rachel Dratch; or, you may realize that staring at a mirror (especially at a funhouse) isn’t always pleasant.
“Operation Thunderbolt” (1977), available on YouTube
Summer camp is weeks away, and anticipation is growing. Directors and staff are putting the finishing touches on programming. Campers and parents are reviewing checklists, while considering how many travel-size toothpastes to bring each session. Amid the feverish preparations, one constant remains: “Operation Thunderbolt.” For decades, the 1977 film has shown on a loop at Jewish summer camps nationwide. Whether watching it reminds you of Israel’s daring hostage rescue, Yoni Netanyahu’s death or 1970s cinema, “Operation Thunderbolt” is a bit of a cache. The movie isn’t always easy to find online, but once you do good luck making it through summer’s hot days without humming Dov Seltzer’s moving score. PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.