Since its first performance on stage in New York in 1964, the musical adaptation of Sholem Aleichem’s 1894 short stories about Tevye and his daughters has maintained its status as a classic Jewish tale – perhaps the classic Jewish tale. The film, directed and produced by Norman Jewison, was released in 1971 and is set in Imperial Russia in 1905. Its theme is tradition, as Tevye famously sings, and its centrality to Jewish life especially in the face of other cultures and changing times.
When I started to consider the poll results, my first thought was that I don’t know Fiddler on the Roof all that well. I didn’t watch it as a child, I haven’t read the book or seen the stage show, or performed it, like a group of my friends did on their gap year in Israel twenty years ago (they still regularly describe it as one of the defining moments of their cultural and communal experience). However, I was somewhat surprised to realise I know every song. With a soundtrack that encapsulates both the melancholy and joy of shtetl life, including “Tradition!”, “If I Were a Rich Man”, “Matchmaker, Matchmaker” and “Sunrise, Sunset”, the film brought catchy phrases and melodies into everyday language. Its celebration of Yiddish culture imbues audiences with a confidence of heritage, which marked a liberating change in post-1960s culture for diasporic Jewish audiences who had until then perhaps been keen to assimilate and play down their Yiddishe origins. Fiddler is so successful because it is a universal story, but it has a special place in many hearts as an origin story for modern Ashkenazi Jews. So how does it compare with its competitors for the poll’s top spot?
The other films in the top five are: 2. Schindler’s List (dir. Steven Spielberg, 1993); 3. The Producers (dir. Mel Brooks, 1967); 4. Life Is Beautiful (dir. Roberto Benigni, 1997); 5. A Serious Man (dir. Joel and Ethan Coen, 2009).
The Holocaust obviously looms large in our collective consciousness, with both Schindler’s List and Life is Beautiful recounting stories of concentration camps and survival. Interestingly, Yiddish features again in the extraordinary prologue to A Serious Man, setting the tone for the main story, a modern take on the book of Job set in 1967’s Minnesota, when fate seems to turn against suburban everyman, Larry Gopnik.
Most striking is the sense of nostalgia and memory which the list conveys, as all but one film are set in the past. Only The Producers is contemporarily-set, but it is also the oldest of the group.
There’s certainly an Ashkenazi-tone to the list, as well as a predominance of male protagonists (ok, Tevye had five daughters but what do you remember about the women in the other films?)
It is also interesting to think about what didn’tmake it into the top five. What about Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah, which was so instrumental in changing the visual language of representing the Holocaust? Indeed, there are no documentaries in the list. Nor are there any Israeli films. And perhaps Woody Allen is conspicuous in his absence – I imagine that Annie Hall may have been higher in the poll a few years ago, before Allen’s name became a hot potato latke as allegations of sexual assault resurfaced in the midst of the #MeToo movement. My vote went to Dirty Dancing, which, had it made it to the top five, would be a good representative of the 1980s surge in Jewish American women working in cinema – it was written by Eleanor Bergstein and starred Jennifer Grey, but I’d take a film written by Nora Ephron, such as When Harry Met Sally as an alternative in this vein.
A poll asking audiences to vote on the Best Ever Jewish Film suggests that we are voting not only for the most Jewish Jewish film (it’s worth noting that Roberto Benigni is the only non-Jewish, and in fact non-American director, in the top five); but we are also voting for the film which we think best represents us and our experience, as we want to be represented. The top five value music (Fiddler on the Roof,The Producers, and the classical score to Schindler’s List written by John Williams); Holocaust memory (Schindler’s List, Life is Beautiful, and The Producers in its inimitable way); Yiddish language or culture (Fiddler on the Roof, A Serious Man); and tragicomedy characterises all but Schindler’s List. Put simply, the selection of these films suggests that what we applaud in a Jewish film is its capacity to commemorate and celebrate… tradition!