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Decider Essentials

8 Movies For Chanukah About The Jewish American Experience

Where to Stream

An American Tail

While Christmas movies and TV specials abound, you’d be hard-pressed to find a good Chanukah movie to get you in the menorah-lighting spirit. There’s Eight Crazy Nights (which doesn’t qualify as good), and then there’s… uh… A Rugrats Chanukah?

Chanukah celebrations show up in movies like Little Fockers or TV shows like The O.C. and Friends, but there isn’t much beyond that. Which is probably for good reason. Chankuah isn’t a major holiday. It’s a fun one, sure. And it commemorates a significant historical event. But it’s only due to its proximity to Christmas that it’s been swept onto the perceived holiday A-list, and that’s largely an American phenomenon.

It’s ironic that a holiday celebrating the Jews defeating assimilation in ancient times has turned into arguably the most Americanized of the Jewish holidays. Which is why other than watching Eight Crazy Nights eight times (please don’t), the best way to celebrate Chanukah through movies is by watching films that explore the Jewish American experience.

The major themes of Jewish American life in the 20th Century are all represented on film. The original immigration experience of crossing over and trying to establish a new home, followed by the assimilation of the second and third generations into greater American culture. The Holocaust and coming to grips with its aftermath. The subtle and less-subtle prevalence of anti-Semitism in post-war general society. And finally the nostalgia for the Old World or the good old days when the cycle first began, and for the experience of our grandparents.

To help celebrate the holiday, we’ve put together our own festival of eight movies to watch when you’ve finished the last latke and put the dreidels away for the night.

1

'An American Tail' (1986)

AN AMERICAN TAIL, Phillip Glasser as Fievel Mousekewitz, 1986. ©Universal/courtesy Everett Collectio
Photo: Everett Collection

Where better to start exploring the Jewish American experience than at the beginning? An American Tail is the first animated feature presented by Steven Spielberg. Appropriately enough, it opens with the Chanukah celebration of a family of Jewish mice in Russia. An attack by Cossack cats leads them to emigrate to America, but son Fievel gets separated during the journey. The Mousekewitz family expects to find the streets are paved with cheese and that there are no cats in America, but instead confront the same reality that all immigrants do. In the U.S., at least, the mice can stand up against the cats.

[Where to stream An American Tail]

2

'The Jazz Singer' (1927, 1952 and 1980)

THE JAZZ SINGER, from left: Alex Gerry, Danny thomas, Peggy Lee, 1952
Photo: Everett Collection

The Jazz Singer follows the son of a cantor who eschews generations of family tradition to pursue the most American of musical genres. The movie explores the tension between religious Old World family pressures and secular New World career aspirations, a major struggle as the children of immigrants settled into U.S. life. The 1927 original features the uncomfortable site of Al Jolson in black face, while the 1980 version features the uncomfortable site of Neil Diamond trying to act. That leaves the 1950s version as the safe middle option.

[Where to stream The Jazz Singer (1952)]

3

'Crossing Delancey' (1988)

CROSSING DELANCEY, Jeroen Krabbe (arms folded), Amy Irving (holding tray), 1988, (c) Warner Brothers
Photo: Everett Collection

Delancey Street functions as the physical and metaphorical divide between the Jewish Lower East Side and the uptown world of Isabelle (Amy Irving), a single, Jewish woman who works at a literary hotspot. While she’s attracted to intellectuals and poets, her Bubbie engages with a traditional matchmaker, who sets her up with the owner of a Lower East Side pickle shop, that ultimate symbol of Jewish New York past. Isabelle must discover how her traditional roots can still blend in with her modern life.

[Where to stream Crossing Delancey]

4

'Enemies, A Love Story' (1989)

Enemies--A-Love-Story

Based on a novel by Nobel Prize winner Isaac Bashevis Singer, Enemies follows Herman (Ron Silver), who survives the Holocaust by hiding in a hayloft and being cared for by his family servant, Yadwiga. After the war, they marry and move to New York. There he starts an affair with another Holocaust survivor, Masha, whom he gets pregnant. Trying to do right by her, he marries her as well, only for his original wife, whom he’d been told had died in a concentration camp, to turn up in the form of Angelica Huston. The shadow of the Holocaust looms over each character in this complex, Oscar-nominated film about fate, which is part comedy, part drama, part romance and ultimately hard to categorize.

[Where to stream Enemies: A Love Story]

5

'Gentleman’s Agreement' (1947)

Gentleman's-Agreement
Everett Collection

Gregory Peck plays a star reporter who poses as a Jew to uncover anti-Semitism in a tony Connecticut suburb. The movie explores a depth of anti-Semitism that would be easy for younger generations now to forget existed so widely in the U.S. for so long. Legendary producer Darryl Zanuck – one of the few studio heads of the time who was not Jewish – made the film after he was denied entry to a country club because they thought he was a Jew. Jewish heads of other studios tried to get Zanuck to drop the film for fear of it prompting further anti-Semitism. Instead, it won three Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director, and was nominated for another five.

[Where to stream Gentleman’s Agreement]

6

'School Ties' (1992)

SCHOOL-TIES-1156x600

Featuring a large, young cast that went on to make something of themselves, Brendan Fraser plays David Greene, a football hero at an exclusive Massachusetts prep school in the 1950s who hides his Jewish identity when he learns his friends are all prejudiced. Charlie (Matt Damon) discovers the truth and exposes him. When Charlie gets caught cheating on a test, he claims the crib sheet belongs to David and nearly gets away with his reliance on anti-Semitism to get out of it. The movie examines conflicts between ambition and pride; the price of wanting to be popular, accepted and get into Harvard at the expense of hiding who you truly are and suffering bigotry in silence.

[Where to stream School Ties]

7

'Avalon' (1990)

AVALON, Aidan Quinn, Elizabeth Perkins, 1990, (c)TriStar Pictures/courtesy Everett Collection
Photo: Everett Collection

Barry Levinson’s semi-autobiographical film features generations of a Russian Jewish family settled in Baltimore. Over five decades it traces the way a family can lose its tethers through time, expansion, ambition and assimilation into a changing, modern world. Warm, funny and touching with an underlying sadness, the movie is awash in memories.

[Where to stream Avalon]

8

'Radio Days' (1987)

RADIO DAYS, Seth Green, Dianne Wiest, David Warrilow, 1987
Photo: Everett Collection

Radio Days is a nostalgia piece like only Woody Allen could create. Allen’s teenage alter-ego (a young Seth Green) grows up crowded around the radio with his loud, over-crowded family in 1940s Brooklyn. Roger Ebert wrote that the movie is not just about the era it portrays, but the active memory of that era years later: “There is something about it being past and gone and irretrievable that makes it more precious than it ever was at the time.”

[Where to stream Radio Days]

BONUS! Eight More Great Movies to Choose From

Why settle for one present each night when you can get two?

  • Zelig (1983): An allegory on Jewish identity in the form of mockumentary, Woody Allen plays a non-descript man who can take on the appearance of those around him.
  • A Serious Man (2009): Perhaps their most personal film, this is what you’d get if someone dared the Coen Brothers to make the most Jew-y movie they could. The Book of Job transplanted to the 1960s Midwest, it features one painfully funny Bar Mitzvah ceremony gone awry.
  • The Frisco Kid (1979): Gene Wilder plays a Polish rabbi who finds himself in the old West. Harrison Ford is the bank robber who helps him. What more do you need to know?
  • Brighton Beach Memories (1986): Adapted from Neil Simon’s Tony Award-winning play, Eugene Jerome (Jonathan Silverman, in a role originated on stage by Matthew Broderick) comes of age in Depression-era Brooklyn.
  • Hester Street (1975): An Oscar-nominated film about Jewish immigrants living in the Lower East Side and the challenges of assimilation. It derives rich period detail from its source novella, published in 1896.
  • Dirty Dancing (1987): As Jewish a movie can get without coming out and saying so. Baby represents the next generation of Jewish families who have finally achieved upper-middle class success. This time it’s the Jews struggling against their own exclusionary behavior, with lines drawn along class rather than religious distinctions.
  • The Pawnbroker (1964): One of the first American films to deal with the Holocaust from the perspective of a survivor, who has become embittered and detached by his experience in the camps.
  • Eight Crazy Nights (2002): Fine. It has to be on the list.

RELATED: RABBI APPROVED! CHRISTMAS MOVIES THAT ARE KOSHER FOR JEWS