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Don't Belittle My People!: A Cinematic Hanukkah Celebration

By Brian Prisco | Guides | December 21, 2011 |

By Brian Prisco | Guides | December 21, 2011 |

Hanukkah is the traditional Jewish holiday consisting of a floating period of 8 days that usually helps to complicate the already painful experience of Christmas retail. Since I cinematically represented the 12 Days of Christmas, I felt it would be remiss of me not to celebrate Jewish cinema. Seriously, the chosen people have chosen well for the most part when it comes to entertainment. But, much to the chagrin of my attempts at breaking into screenwriting, I am not Jewish. I was raised Roman Catholic. (Which is kind of like being Jewish. We still have the mother worship and the crippling guilt, but the only candles are lit by little old ladies and they do that every day and at our weddings instead of Hava Negila, they play Dominick the Donkey.)

So I consulted my friend Sarah who is not only Jewish, but has a birthday right before Christmas. God truly hates this wonderful little Jew. I wanted to know if there were special traditions — if Day 3 was Dreidel day, if the menorah lighting culminated in everyone gathering at the end of Hanukkah and having a big fireworks display, if you used the lit menorah to descend into the bowels of the earth for your Protocols of Zion gatherings (I gotta stop using Fox News as a legitimate research source). And I discovered that I really wasn’t going to be able to do a comparable list — there’s no significance to any of the days or representations for any of the candles. And since the holidays can fall anywhere in December, I can’t even make fun of the actual days. Oy, truly, now I can appreciate the struggles of the Jewish people.

But it does give me an opportunity to create kvetching and bitching and arguing, which is not just a proud Jewish tradition, but what happens when most families gather. And so I chose films for each of the nine menorah candles. Films that are empowering for not just the Jewish directors who made them, but the Jewish people. And, yeah, I left plenty off. There is no Yentl. And I tried to only stick to one per director, as I didn’t just want a list of The Three Wise Mensches: Woody Allen, Mel Brooks, and Steven Spielberg. So in honor of Hanukkah, Channukah, Cha-Cha-Ka-Kah, or as my old Pennsylvanian backwoods neighbors called it, Jewish Christmas, here are films that do Jews proud. You’ll be able to spend all 8 days declaring what a schmuck I am, and basking in the warm glow of seething revenge.

So put on your yarmulke, drink a gin-and-tonicah, smoke your marijuanicah, get a cherry slushee at Sonic-ah, buy Hooked on Monkey Phonic-ah, and have a happy happy Hanukkah! Shabat shalom, motherfuckers!

dir. Woody Allen


Even though he’s practically renounced his New York Judaism in favor of a more European ethic, at heart Woody will always be that stammering little wisenheimer. Nowadays, he just gets other folks to play him. Woody Allen became the stereotypical Jew that all rednecks would use as the target for their scowling, chawdrenched rage. So I chose Zelig, as it’s Allen’s version of Forrest Gump. A chameleon, able to blend seamlessly into any situation, Zelig (Woody Allen) eventually takes on the personality traits of the folks around him in order to avoid offending people. You know, like Jewish people do when overly effusive Christians bellow “Have a merry CHRISTmas!” at them during the holidays.

dir. Mel Brooks


The Empire Strikes Back was written by Lawrence Kasdan and directed by Irwin Kershner, two glorious Jews. But it is George Lucas, who clearly worships Satan, who gets all the credit. Clearly in an effort to avenge this wrong and also to make a little gelt on moichandising, Mel Brooks created his finest spoof, Spaceballs. When assembling this list, I knew it was an embarrassment of riches with the Brooks oeuvre — provided I do anything before 1990. It was hard not to include any of the Gene Wilder threefer (Young Frankenstein, Blazing Saddles, The Producers). But personally, I think Spaceballs is the most perfect spoof film ever made, and managed to trump another fine pair of Jewish men, The Zucker Brothers,, and their exploitation of Leslie Nielsen. However, like a seasonal dalliance, Brooks accidentally gave birth to an unwanted monstrosity in the [REDACTED], but like shameful relatives or Mel Brooks post Robin Hood, we just pretend it doesn’t exist.

For Your Consideration
dir. Christopher Guest


This time of year is about Awards Buzz, so you get to sit around listening to your friends and relatives expound upon the virtues of who’ll win what award — even though most of them are recycling what they read online having not seen more than three films theatrically themselves. Try explaining the virtues of Terrence Malick’s cinematography to someone whose favorite film was produced by Adam Sandler. Which is what makes Christopher Guest’s least appreciated mockumentary all the more brilliant. Plus, it’s about a the struggles of making a film based on another Jewish holiday, Purim. Christopher Guest’s dry wit and improved schtick is a bright beacon in a dreary dismal season. So when the family gathers to wax ecstatic about how funny Jack and Jill was, you can sit silently by and run the old man’s Raging Bull monologue from Waiting for Guffman in your head.

dir. Steven Spielberg


If there’s one thing the Jewish people are good at, it’s serving piping hot revenge as a cold dish. When Spielberg isn’t fiddling with aliens or Nazis, he’s damn good at atrocities. And so his searing and brutal film about vengeance for the slaughter of Israeli Olympians by Black September will have you signing up for Krav Maga lessons quicker than Eric Bana can snap a neck. While some folks (see NASCAR fans) will have you think Jews are ineffectual intellectuals, I give you The Mossad. And Spielberg’s been more than willing to fall back on his Roger Corman exploitation when it comes to bloodshed in his cinematic forays. It’s not exactly as feel good as E.T., but then again, how good would that flick have been if that little pisher had military training? That bike would have went up a moon, but the soldier who it belonged to wouldn’t have appreciated it.

Fiddler on the Roof
dir. Norman Jewison


You knew this was on the list. This is why there is a list. Fiddler is how most gentiles know about Judaism. If I were a rich man— You just clapped your hands, didn’t you? You just heard the klezmer music, didn’t you? DIDN’T YOU?! Like all musicals before the 1960’s, it’s about a father trying to marry off daughters. When you show up single to a family event, or have the temerity not to have created grandchildren, Fiddler is to blame. Not for your inability to procreate, but for the disappointment and disquiet caused among the tsking elders of your family. Along with a bar/bat mitzvah, seeing Fiddler on the Roof is actually a required rite of passage to become Jewish.

A Serious Man
dir. Joel and Ethan Coen


Now we get into the intellectualism. Mama Coen’s gotta be proud of her boychiks. They’ve done a wild and varying assortment of films and genres, and yet they leave the indelible stamp on their work. A Serious Man makes you realize what little you know about Judaism if you aren’t a Jew. It’s practically written in a coded language. Like Hebrew, it’s not a serious of simple letters, but pictures and images that have to be studied and examined and translated to find the deeper meaning. To laymen, it’s practically indecipherable. So while you can appreciate the drama, you also feel like you’re missing out on so much if you aren’t a Talmudic scholar.

dir. Darren Aronofsky


And this is the orthodoxy of intellectualism. I love when people see it for the first time and say, “This is the dude who made The Wrestler and Black Swan?” It’s almost a direct challenge to the viewer, a complex array of mathematics and religion where we watch a man obsessively destroy himself in the pursuit of knowledge. Why would this make you proud to be Jewish? Because it’s a thriller based on numbers. NUMBERS. Aronofsky’s first film shows that you can break open someone’s head with what inside a calculus book just as easily as you can by Jason Bourne-ing them in the noggin.

dir. William Wyler


It combines Jesus and the Jews! It’s got something for everyone! Except the billions and billions of people who don’t celebrate Hanukkah or Christmas. It’s the original revenge flick, with the biblical version of Death Race. Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston, who clearly enjoys the Bible) plays a Jewish merchant prince who gets his home and family taken away from him by greedy Romans. So he vows revenge, which he gets, spectacularly. Plus, Jesus comes along and there’s a whole I help you, you help me setup. Which just goes to show, Jesus loves everyone. Provided they are Charlton Heston.

The Hebrew Hammer
dir. Jonathan Kesselman


This was included at the insistence of the Jewish friends I consulted when making my list. It’s an unholy mashup everything that’s come before it on the list: spoof films, revenge, action, kvetching, neuroses, poor puns — all in the form of a Circumsized Shaft. It’s the kind of film that was tailor made to play edited on Comedy Central. Andy Dick plays Santa’s evil son, bent on eradicating Hanukkah by giving away free bootleg copies of It’s a Wonderful Life to little Jewish boys and girls. Plus, it’s one of the rare cinematic representations of Kwanzaa as well. I guess we’ll have to wait for the sequel to get Ramadan or Yule.

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