From Streisand to Spielberg, Jewish artists have made undeniable contributions to the world of American cinema. Throughout the first half of the 20th century, Jewish trailblazers — many of them immigrants to the U.S. — became some of the most prolific vaudeville actors and Hollywood stars. Entertainment was one of the few American industries in which Jewish creatives could establish themselves at a time when antisemitism and xenophobia raged in the United States. Jews were often barred from working in fields deemed more “respectable” — so they flocked to Hollywood. Despite facing discrimination and persecution, these pioneers managed to establish a strong presence in movies, helping to forge the entertainment industry we know today.
So why does it feel like diverse Jewish representation in media, in Hollywood and beyond, is hard to find even in 2023? From casting non-Jewish actors in Jewish roles to Ashkenormativity and stereotypical portrayals, unsavory representations of Jewish life have crossed all of our screens — and that’s when we’re included onscreen at all.
The following collection gathers contemporary short films that center Jewish voices and issues that spoke to me — and that I hope will speak to you. Some stories are told in English and some in Hebrew; they are told from different points of view and through different visual styles. Some might make you laugh, and some might make you cry. Some might make your stomach turn — and they’re supposed to. Some you might love, and some you might hate. For me, each film on this list made me think a little more deeply about my own identity and the ties that bind us.
dir. Davina Pardo (2018)
“116 Cameras” haunts me. Is this documentary on the preservation of a Holocaust survivor’s story through AI intimate or invasive? It is undeniably heart-wrenching, unexpected and necessary. We are introduced to survivor Eva Schloss through an enveloping maze of cameras and lights. An offscreen voice directs Eva to repeat after her: “Why don’t you ask me a question about Auschwitz?”.
If this technological process seems impersonal, it is. However, Eva has dedicated decades of her life to telling her story; preparing a hologram of herself to teach Holocaust education to future generations as if she were still alive is an enlightening — or dystopian — evolution of her resolve.
dir. Shira Haimovici (2020)
Addressing girlhood, ritual, sexism and culture clash in a heterogeneous society, all through a decadent summertime haze, this Israeli coming-of-age film challenged my preconceptions of Orthodox communities. The characters of “Summer Shade” are selfish, immature, masterfully authentic and complex. Bear in mind that this tale unfolds through the eyes of a biased narrator.
dir. Rose Knopper (2021)
A quick watch at only a minute long, this animated menagerie of emotions still manages to make me cry. “Kaia’s Misheberach” tackles themes of relationships, grief and the beauty that grows from the traditions that change us, even when they’re rooted in pain. A misheberach — an ancient prayer for the ill — is recited to request a blessing from God. One word I’d use to describe this film would be “magical.” The short is a vibrant visual treat with a nostalgic, deeply calming soundscape to match. I’d be content to stay within the walls of this film for hours.
dir. Billy Lumby (2014)
Shmilu is a young Londonite and Hasidic Jew struggling to balance the draw of an unknown, enticing secular life with his obligations to his family and community. Stomach-turning and thought-provoking, this fiction film poses uncomfortable questions about the nature of faith and the tension between tradition and individualism, all through an unmistakably Jewish lens. The movie employs the enveloping appeal of a close-up camera in perpetual motion to great effect. It seems rare in media to find an honest, good-faith depiction of the Hasidic community; I can’t speak as a member of the community myself, but I believe “samuel-613,” the first fiction film developed with the participation of the Hasidic community in London’s Stamford Hill neighborhood, fits the bill. Jewish people are not a monolith, the film shouts at us, and identity is never static.
“Noch Am Leben“ (Still Alive)
dir. Anita Lester (2017)
“Noch Am Leben” approaches questions of the nature of survival and the lasting impact of our scars through a tender lens. The film, which shares the story of a Holocaust survivor through a secondary narrator, doesn’t sugar-coat or romanticize the trauma it portrays, but rather allows it to exist in all its grisly and intimate truth. The commanding presence of the narrator, ephemeral animation and a haunting score kept me transfixed.
dir. Jacque Pche (2022)
Ready for a change? Here’s a film that’s pure Jewish joy. I’m a sucker both for stop-motion animation and for a Purim story that’s simple, universal and full of familial love. This film leaps into action when a child’s Purim costume rips with no time to spare before celebrations are set to begin. The characters, set design and attention to detail in this film are remarkable.
“Happy New Year”
dir. Simon Dymond (2013)
“Happy New Year ” makes me uncomfortable. It makes me flinch, it makes me squirm and it makes me contemplate hitting pause, but I just have to find out how it ends — and that’s all the more reason to watch it. Tackling imposter syndrome and the urge to belong through a child’s eyes, this film is unlike any Rosh Hashanah story you’ve seen before.
“Adieu My Beloved”
dir. Susan Shulman (2018)
How do we learn to share our love? Told through the recitation of a letter written by a Russian emigré to Montreal at the turn into the twentieth century, “Adieu My Beloved” is poignant and elegiac; the film confronts its audience through its intimate dealings with love and loss, fragility and hope. It’s also visually gorgeous in a way I haven’t seen before; rather than adhering to the kind of familiar buttoned-up, sepia representation that tends to distance us from depictions of the past, “Adieu My Beloved” turns a transatlantic journey into a vivid kaleidoscope of collage with an impressionistic tinge.