Today, Tablet magazine published a list of the "100 Greatest Jewish Films," the kind of divisive round-up that will obviously invite scrutiny for its rankings and omissions. So the magazine has the chutzpah to avoid the obvious, giving its number one slot to…"E.T.: The Extra-Terrestial"? Followed by…"Sunset Boulevard"?
Wow. Where to begin?
Nowhere, really. The list is a terrific read, and definitely includes some viable contenders, especially when you consider the entire idea of Jewishness as an expansive concept. I certainly did when I programmed a weekend film series for Heeb magazine a few years back. It was easy enough to justify "My Mexican Shivah," but "My Mother's Garden" only qualified because its subject, a woman suffering from hoarding disorder, could easily merit description as a nebbish. She wasn't a certifiable member of the tribe.
Still, putting "E.T." at the top of the list pushes any kind of boundaries one might impose on a Jewish film list. I love the movie for all the obvious reasons--its magical synthesis of childhood awe, sci-fi creepiness, and suburban iconography. But I'm not totally sold on Jody Rosen's valiant attempt to explain the movie's treatment of "Jewish exilic longing" or that the "unguarded enchantment" of the climax is a particularly Jewish conceit.
Sure, Spielbergian sentimentalism has a lot in common with religious fervor, but it reached a fever pitch when the Hebrew folk song "Jerusalem of Gold" played in the closing minutes of "Schindler's List." Now that's a Jewish moment for you. E.T. heading home? The amazing thing about that moment is that it's a decisively human one, cultural or ideological associations be damned. If you have to bend over backwards to make a movie seem Jewish, putting it at the top of a list 100 movies strong is a dubious choice.
My own list of Jewish movies would probably start with Sidney Lumet's brilliant and undervalued "Bye Bye Braverman," although I would follow it shortly afterward with "The Jazz Singer," which Tablet placed in the number five slot. At least that much logic is sound. I also appreciate the placement of "To Be or Not to Be" and "Blazing Saddles," two especially Jewish comedies because they manage to import stereotypically Jewish reference points into a broader storytelling context (the espionage and western genres, respectively).
Nevertheless, the deeper you dig into Tablet's list, the higher your eyebrows are bound to rise. "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind"? "Miracle on 34th Street"? "Citizen Kane"? Come now. That third one is among the first movies I remember seeing that woke me up to the possibilities of the form, and that's partly because, to my Jewish-educated eyes, it seemed to hail from a different world--a place where ruthless men did maniacal things for purposes that had nothing to do with traditionalism. Even serious movies provide a form of escape. Labeling "Citizen Kane" or "E.T." Jewish is just a way of holding them down.
As a handy contrast, consider this list of 100 Jewish movie moments from Heeb magazine. I'm more than a little biased in singling it out since I had a hand in assembling it, but while the descriptions miss out on the same degree of insight as the mini-essays on Tablet's feature, the Heeb makes up in consistency what it lacks in depth. Which is to say, it invites a lot less tsuris.