The Reel Dad: Movies to celebrate the Jewish holidays
For people of the Jewish faith, these weeks each fall hold special meaning. And movies join in the celebration. Here are a few of my favorites at this time of year, and all year long. Enjoy.
Fiddler on the Roof (1971)
It’s been a long day.
As the dairy farmer prepares to make his final deliveries before the Sabbath begins, he begins to wonder what keeps him and his fellow villagers going despite all the challenges they face.
“That, I can tell you in one word,” he says, “Tradition”. And a musical classic begins.
Of the films that celebrate family and ritual, change and commitment, Fiddler on the Roof continues to ring true more than 45 years after its release. That it delivers so much meaning within the framework of a traditional musical broadens our belief in what song and dance films can accomplish. This is not simply a musical. It is a drama that builds its relationships through music. And relationships is what Fiddler on the Roof is all about.
On stage, especially the ill-conceived Broadway revival a couple of years ago, Fiddler can come across as too obvious, almost strained, in its efforts to make us think as it entertains. But director Norman Jewison wisely underplays the story on film, and creatively integrates the musical numbers, to create a credible narrative that would work without the songs. The lovely music and lyrics by Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock simply ice the cake.
Years later, we may have forgotten how wonderful a family experience this movie can be. This weekend, treat yourself to a return visit. You’ll never forget the people of Anatevka, what they fear, and how they hope.
It’s not always a fair life.
This girl only wants to learn. Her curiosity drives every word she speaks, and sings, every action she takes. But the world around her frowns on a girl who wants more. And she is forced to pretend she is a boy to go to school. So she can become who she can be.
With Yentl, Barbra Streisand became the first woman in movies to star in, write and direct a film. Like her title character, the world around Streisand frowned on such ambition. She was labeled pushy and unrealistic, egocentric and brash. But she didn’t stop. Streisand knew she had to make a film filled with her passion for the content and belief in its message.
That message, still relevant today, emerges from a simple narrative of how the girl copes at playing a boy so she can study. Some situations she confronts are serious, others are filled with humor. Some relationships naturally develop, others are stifled by her disguise. But Yentl’s determination never bends. Only in the lovely songs by Michel Legrand, Marilyn and Alan Bergman can her voice be fully heard.
How Streisand weaves the music into the film is the heart of its magic. Still the lessons of Yentl reach beyond the screen. Its lasting contribution is the tenacity of its creator. For Barbra Streisand, Yentl remains a signature triumph. Because of what she believed.
Driving Miss Daisy (1989)
It can be a long life.
Some people simply don’t want anything new to happen to them.
They have experienced enough change and challenge and are now ready to relax with the known people who surround them. They are content — at whatever age they may be — to enjoy the routines they know. And while they may be courteous to new people they meet, they rarely reach out, because their lives full.
Miss Daisy, a retired teacher and widow, cherishes her routine. She plays mahjong with her friends, worships at her temple, and drives her large car when she wants to go to the Piggly Wiggly for the weekly specials.
But Miss Daisy reaches a point when it’s no longer safe for her to drive. At first, in her predictable manner, she declares she will use public transportation or taxis. But, in late 1940s Atlanta, that can be difficult. So her son hires a man to be Miss Daisy’s driver. At first she rejects the intrusion. But she slowly gives the driver the keys, and begins a meaningful friendship that lasts for more than 25 years based on what they share and not what separates them.
This lovely Oscar winner examines how we limit our lives when we let our biases define our lives. Only when we take leaps, and give others a chance, can we see what life can offer, even when we think we have experienced it all. We learn when we listen to voices other than our own.
Interested in reading about more films to remember this season? Check the Reel Dad below.
More films for the season
by Mark Schumann
The Reel Dad
The Diary of Anne Frank (1959)
People can be brave.
Certain chapters in history are essential to understand and remember, not only because of what we learn but, as important, because of how we feel.
The Holocaust is one of the most horrific moments in time in history. When Adolph Hitler and his Nazis sent millions of Jews to their death, he forever changed the rules of what some may do in order to advance their view of the world. Few at that time could understand the depths of this horror, not the soldiers who ultimately freed the few survivors of the death camps, nor others around the world as they learned of the tragedy. No matter how many films have been made about this tragedy, the power of the story never diminishes. Hopefully, we commit to make certain such atrocities never happen again.
In 1947, the publication of a young girl’s diary personalized the horrors of the atrocities of World War II. During this time, the Germans hunted Jewish people in Germany, Poland and other European countries, and sent most of them to concentration camps. Most of them died, the victims of a senseless hatred against people who simply dared to believe in a different faith. One girl, Anne Frank, hid with her family in an abandoned area above a business in Amsterdam for two years. Against all odds, they managed to survive in hiding, relying on the kindness of people who bravely delivered them food and water. Sadly, the family was discovered by the Germans shortly before the war ended, and young Anne died of typhus at a concentration camp. Her diary records the details of her life from June 1942 through August 1944.
Anne’s story, told with the engaging innocence of a young girl, strikes a chord as a literary experience as well as a meaningful film. The Diary of Anne Frank shares a great deal about the time and its challenges as it inspires to live more complete lives. We celebrate the young girl’s joy even when we realize what will soon follow.
Gentleman’s Agreement (1947)
People can be closed minded about issues they know little about.
Sometimes, people let their fear of others – especially those who may have the audacity to think, look or believe in unfamiliar ways – get in the way of any effort to understand. Some simply thrive in the disconnection that bias can create.
In the 1940s, as difficult as it may be to believe today, the United States was filled with strong, negative sentiments about Jewish people. In cities, they were forced to live in certain areas; in professions, they were refused the opportunities of others. Even after the nation had fought a war against atrocities, many of which had targeted Jewish people in Europe, many in the United States refused to acknowledge the fundamental equality that our nation promises.
Gentleman’s Agreement puts you into the shoes and the life of a magazine writer who, for a story he is researching, pretends to be Jewish to learn how people will react. He quickly observes that the prejudice he has heard about is real. His girlfriend – who knows he is pretending to be Jewish – becomes frustrated when she can’t reveal the truth to her narrow-minded friends. All of a sudden he is no longer welcome at certain eating and lodging establishments. Even his closest friends begin to experience the bias against those who are friendly to Jewish people.
Director Elia Kazan, in a brave film for its time, refuses to artificially sweeten the message he intends to deliver. By placing the writer in everyday situations, Kazan makes us see the impact of day-to-day bias. Some beliefs are difficult to change. Even today, as much as people have progressed, Jewish people continue to experience prejudice. Some unfortunate traditions simply continue on their own momentum. Only with time have Jewish Americans been able to, slowly, shake off the prejudice that permeated the country. Today, other religious beliefs face the same challenge. As long as we let the narrow define the conversation, we will get to say very little.
Schindler’s List (1993)
Some acts of heroism even shock the heroes.
Oskar Schindler, a self-absorbed German businessman, would never have considered himself a likely hero. This was a man who always seemed to find someone to charm, a transaction to close or a dollar to secure. But world events can change anyone. And Schindler, though claiming to be a man without political conviction, surprisingly found himself in a position to help others. So this reluctant hero, through his efforts to advance his business, became the hero to many.
Schindler’s List takes us into Oskar Schindler’s extravagant life, dining at lovely restaurants, drinking fine champagne, enjoying the company of beautiful people. He would be, actually, the last person anyone would consider likely to stick out his neck to save others. That he would try to capitalize on the business opportunities the Germans created when they began to oust Jewish people from their homes. Just as he when he learns about the horrific atrocities being committed by the Germans against the Jews, he realizes he can’t stand idly by. And he uses his position as a businessman to protect and ultimately save hundreds of Jews who, otherwise, would have faced certain death.
What makes this film so easy to talk about is the heartfelt emotion Steven Spielberg brings to every frame. At the time of the film’s release, Spielberg movingly described how the film expressed his pride in his Jewish heritage. Whatever the inspiration, the director reaches a level of emotional impact he would find difficult to match in later films. Each character, situation and challenge are so movingly portrayed by a filmmaker so in touch with the power of the medium and so true to his voice as a director.
That one man would make it is personal mission to save so many is one of the miracles of this dark period. From Schindler, and through his eyes, we can learn how we might act in a similar circumstance. He inspires us to reach for the best in ourselves to, hopefully, counter the absolute worst in others.