10. The Naked City (1948)
In a bit part, Yiddish theater star Molly Picon (as the “soda-selling shopkeeper”) provides the missing clue in Det. Lt. Dan Muldoon’s quest to capture a killer. A handful of Hasids stand bewildered during the subsequent chase scene over the Williamsburg Bridge. Whether they’re confused by the chase or director Jules Dassin’s camera crew is anyone’s guess.
9. I Love You, Alice B. Toklas! (1968)
At first, you’re not even sure if Harold Fine (Peter Sellers) is Jewish, but then the subtle signifiers start piling up: an inhaler, a job as a personal injury lawyer, an overbearing mother…. The coup de grace? Hippy bombshell Nancy (Leigh Taylor-Young) prepares to make pot brownies and opens up Harold’s kitchen cabinet where, for a brief instant, you catch a glimpse of boxes of matzah and farfalle.
8. Annie Hall (1977)
It’s funny but also one of the most bizarre scenes in the pantheon of Jewish movie moments. Spending Thanksgiving (starts at 6:42) with Annie’s (Diane Keaton) gentile family, Alvy Singer (Woody) imagines himself through the eyes of Granny Hall: as an Hasidic Jew. The scene is less a comment on gentile antisemitism than a sign of Singer’s own paranoia. Besides, could anything — even Hasidic garb — make Woody Allen look more Jewish?
7. The Graduate (1967)
Mike Nichols, nee Michael Igor Peschkowsky, came to the U.S. from Berlin in 1939. Upon his arrival in New York, he noticed a delicatessen with Hebrew letters lit in neon and asked his father, “Is that allowed?” His father replied, “It is here.” Twenty-eight years later, he cast Dustin Hoffman as Benjamin Braddock and cracked open the door for the Jewiest of actors to be credible as romantic leads. (Let’s put it this way: Without this film, there’s no way Adam Sandler would be Jessica Biel’s, Penelope Cruz’s or Kate Beckinsale’s leading man.). After Hoffman, conventional good looks never mattered the same way. The scene with Benjamin reclining on a float to the sound of two Jewish folk singers from the Village, was not just iconic — it was an epiphany.
6. The Frisco Kid (1979)
Robert Aldrich’s most underrated film veers effortlessly from poignant to funny, but when the rabbi (Gene Wilder) tells the Indians — sincerely, without any bluster — he’d die for the Torah, it just kicks ass.
5. Gentleman’s Agreement (1947)
Elia Kazan’s classic was the first Hollywood movie to deal head-on with antisemitism. The famous scene where Philip Schuyler Green (Gregory Peck) impersonates a Jew and attempts to check into a restricted hotel hasn’t dated a bit. Even better is the one in which the closeted Jewish secretary who talks about the “kikey ones” who make it hard for Jews like her. How ironic that of all of the studio heads, it took token goy Darryl Zanuck to make a movie about anti-Jewish bigotry.
4. History of the World, Part I (1981)
Not a great film, and certainly undeserving of all of the adoration it gets, but the Inquisition scene is still one for the ages. And with tongue-in-cheek celebration of bent ears, crushed knees, flattened fingers, branded buns, hot pokers up the ass, and ping-pong playing with Jackie Mason’s balls, it is also an improbable testiment to an era in American Jewish life when victimhood was the cornerstone of identity, when for many Jews it really felt like the Inquisition was “here and it’s here to stay.”
3. Harold and Maude (1971)
Toward the end of this beloved cult classic, Maude (Ruth Gordon) and Harold (Bud Cort) enjoy a beautiful sunset from the shore, and Maude says, “I’ve lived a long time, Harold, seen evil as well as good, and it has been my experience that kindness is what the world sorely lacks.” As she speaks, staring out at the sea, her young lover glances down and sees “P-876954” tattooed on her skin. Director Hal Ashby doesn’t allow the camera to linger and doesn’t even have Maude notice that Harold is shaken. It’s so subtle you might even miss it. Then, the eight most beautiful words you’ll ever read in a screenplay: “A sea gull flies across the reddening sky.”
2. Airplane! (1980)
Considered by many to be the greatest comedy in cinema history, it’s surprising how devoid it is of Jewish moments. Fret not: Abrahams, Zucker and Zucker are just waiting for the right moment and they find it when the Ted Striker-helmed Trans American Airliner prepares for an emergency landing. Chaos ensues and just when you think that things can’t get any more tense, they cut to a tallis-clad Jewish jetliner taking its sweet time to clear the landing strip. A slightly miffed voice comes from the control tower: “Air Israel, please clear the runway.”