Top Seven Best Jewish Comedies

Want to see a good video Saturday night? Having trouble deciding on a video with your group of friends? Sandy Chertok picks the best Jewish comedies


What do Harrison Ford, Ben Stiller, Jenna Elfman, Matthew Broderick, and Gene Wilder have in common? Contrary to what you might be thinking, they did not appear in the Star Wars, Indiana Jones, or Jack Ryan trilogies. Rather, they all appeared in Jewish-themed comedies. Harrison Ford even appeared as a Wild West bank-robbing cowboy in the 1978 film, The Frisco Kid before he traded in his cowboy hat for Indian Jones fedora.

Within the small category of decent Jewish themed movies, some of the best comedies are Crossing Delancey, Keeping the Faith, The Frisco Kid, Biloxi Blues, Kissing Jessica Stein, Brighton Beach Memoirs, and 20 Dates. Despite the wide range of time periods and main issues, these films are not only entertaining, but also enlighten the viewer to various issues facing the Jewish community.

One of the main characteristics of comedies is their ability to raise serious issues within a comedic set-up or environment. In this matter, audiences are exposed to issues that they may not want to or be able to face within a more serious genre. The Jewish themed comedies listed above delve into a number of important issues including anti-Semitism, Jews dating non-Jews, keeping the Jewish faith alive, and the importance of passing along Jewish traditions from generation to generation.

Another trait of comedies is their ability to bring comedy out of conflict or contrast. This includes two contrasting characters within one setting like an 1850s nave European Rabbi with a Wild West bank-robbing cowboy (The Frisco Kid), two conflicting viewpoints like the old traditional values with a modern day values and lifestyles (Crossing Delancey and Brighton Beach Memoirs), contrasting two different religions through various characters (Keeping the Faith), or contrasting dating styles from the traditional to the unorthodox (Kissing Jessica Stein and 20 Dates).

The Jewish themed comedies listed above are all well written films whose dialog is brought to life through the performances of the talented actors/actresses. The acting talent in these films help bring alive the complex characters as they face their individual journeys, adventures, and conflicts in an entertaining and enlightening fashion. These films are well worth your time to view on video, DVD, and even cable.

Rated #1 Jewish Comedy

Crossing Delancy Buy It!

Profile
Came out in 1988
Running time of 1 hour and 37 minutes
Available on VHS
Directed by Joan Micklin Silver
Written by Susan Sandler (based on her play of the same name)
Main Stars: Amy Irving, Peter Riegert

What’s it all about:

Isabelle is a single, Jewish woman with roots on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. She lives uptown and has found success running an upscale bookstore on the Upper East Side. Despite her professional success, she is unlucky in love. Her bubbie (Yiddish for grandmother) decides to take measures to fix her granddaughter’s love life and hires a matchmaker. The film depicts Isabelle’s romantic tryst between a writer named Anton, who is a regular at her bookstore talks, and a pickle-store owner named Sam, who has been picked by the matchmaker for Isabelle.

Why I Recommend It:

1 – It’s a story set against the backdrop of the modern Lower East Side. The film exposes viewers to a modern look at this historic neighborhood.

2 – The relationship between the bubbie (with her old world views) and the granddaughter (with her new world ideals). Not only is it realistic, but well acted.

3 – Matchmaking! Okay, so matchmaking may seem to some as “too old fashioned” but as the film shows, it still can work.

4 – The film also exposes various modern day concerns and views of a modern, Jewish, single woman through Isabelle and her female friends.

Distinguishing Jewish Appeal:
1 – The film gives the viewer a look at what the famous Lower East Side looked like in the 1980s. Viewers who do venture to “cross Delancey street” will still find many of the famous locales featured in the film. However, Guss’ pickles, which was Sam’s pickle store in the movie has just moved off of Essex Street to Ludlow Street. The Lower East Side continues to evolve and thanks to the regeneration of Alphabet City, new, trendy establishments are moving into the neighborhood and making it a “hot spot” in Manhattan.

2 – The traditional shatchan or matchmaker. In the old days, matchmakers were a staple of how people met. Nowadays, the matchmaker tradition has somewhat lost it’s appeal. Isabelle’s reservations in the movie reflect the modern attitude towards this old traditional way of meeting the opposite sex. But, as the movie shows, you never know just how you’ll find that special someone.

3 – Depiction of a modern, Jewish individual who works and lives in the secular world and how tradition still plays a part in her modern lifestyle.

Of Note:
David Hyde Pierce from Frasier has a small role as a bookstore worker.

Rated #2 Jewish Comedy
Keeping the Faith Buy it at Amazon!
Profile
Came out in 2000
Running time of 2 hours and 8 minutes
Available on VHS
Directed by Edward Norton
Written by Stuart Blumberg
Main Stars: Edward Norton, Ben Stiller, Jenna Elfman

What’s It All About:
Brian and Jake, two childhood best friends, grow up to be a priest and a rabbi and fall for the same woman, Anna. The picture depicts the struggle both have in regards to Anna. For Brian the struggle entails being in love with a woman which is against the priesthood. For Jake the struggle entails being in a long lasting relationship with a woman who is not Jewish and hiding the relationship from Brian, his family, and his congregation.

Why I Recommend It:
1 – The acting. Ed Norton, Ben Stiller, and Jenna Elfman give fine performances and bring to life the struggles of each character onto the screen. Jenna Elfman in particular shines as Anna.

2 – The modern, realistic problem of a Jew falling in love with a non-Jew. The situation and the conflict presented in the film is handled very well. Although most interfaith couples remain interfaith through the course of their relationship, here, the film shows a case where one party takes the bold step of converting to the other faith, not just for love, but as a means to find fulfillment for herself.

Distinguishing Jewish Appeal:
1 – The friendly relationship between a rabbi and a priest. Their relationship proves that despite different religious views, people of all faiths can be friends and help each other out.
2 – The depiction of a modern, reformed rabbi and his congregation.
3 – The conflict of modern Jews in regards to falling in love and having a relationship with a non-Jew.
4 – How a non-Jew not only fell in love with a rabbi, but with the religion as well. (Anna takes Judaism and conversion classes throughout the film and exposes this fact at the end of the film.)

Of Note:
1 – This is Ed Norton’s directing debut. He did a fairly decent job directing the film.
2 – Ben Stiller comes from an interfaith family. His parents are Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara.

Frisco Kid
Rated #3 Jewish Comedy

Profile
Came out in 1979
Running time of 1 hour and 59 minutes
Rated PG
Available on VHS
Directed by Robert Aldrich
Written by Michael Elias and Frank Shaw
Main Stars: Gene Wilder, Harrison Ford

What’s it all about:
A naive and innocent Rabbi (Gene Wilder), who graduated 88th out of 88 students from a Poland Yeshiva, is sent to America in 1850 to become San Fransisco’s new Rabbi. The film depicts the Rabbi’s adventures across America and how a bank robber, played by Harrison Ford, helps him get to California.

Why I Recommend It:
1 – It’s a story set against the backdrop of 1850s America. The comedy comes from the contrast of the Rabbi with the common obstacles in the American Frontier.
2 – The relationship between the bank robber and the Rabbi. Not only does the contrast play out for funny laughs, but Ford and Wilder have great chemistry together making the relationship on-screen heartfelt besides comical.
3 – The acting. Gene Wilder is at his best playing the Rabbi. Harrison Ford is well, Harrison Ford. Best yet, every Jewish girl’s fantasy becomes a reality, when he wears a kippah at the end of the film!

Distinguishing Jewish Appeal:
1 – The devotion of the naive, innocent Rabbi in protecting the Torah during his many adventures across the Frontier. This includes the scene where the Indian Chief threatens to kill him or destroy the Torah. The Rabbi accepts his fate as long as the Torah is kept safe.
2 – The devotion of the Rabbi in following Judaism. This includes keeping the Sabbath by not riding on trains or on horses.
3 – Depiction of how many Rabbis came from Europe to help establish Jewish communities in various places in America.

Of Note: The film was originally called “No Knife.”

Biloxi Blues
Rated #4 Jewish Comedy

Profile
Came out in 1988
Rated PG-13
Running time of 1 hour and 45 minutes
Available on VHS
Directed by Mike Nichols
Written by Neil Simon (based on his play of the same name)
Main Stars: Matthew Broderick, Christopher Walken, Penelope Ann Miller

What’s it all about:
Matthew Broderick reprises his stage role of Eugene Morris Jerome in the second of Neil Simon’s semi-autobographical trilogy.
The film depicts Eugene’s adventures during army basic training during the late stages of World War 2. His colorful experiences include numerous confrontations with his eccentric drill sergeant and his fellow officers as well as finding the first love of his life.

Why I Recommend It:
1 – The acting. Christopher Walken steals the movie as drill sergeant Toomey, who plays the eccentric antagonist to Matthew Broderick’s Eugene Morris Jerome.

2 – The dialog. Neil Simon does an excellent job adapting his stage play into a witty and smart comedy screenplay.

3 – The movie is also a well done coming of age movie showing Eugene’s transformation into becoming a smart, young man that should appeal to a wide audience.

Distinguishing Jewish Appeal:
1 – The movie depicts the trysts of two young Jewish males in the US Army during the late stages of World War 2. Eugene and Epstein confront peers who constantly badger them with anti-Semitic remarks. Yet, through the course of the film, these peers come to an understanding about Eugene and Epstein and end up on friendly terms with them.

Of Note:
1- Biloxi Blues is the second of Neil Simon’s semi-autobiographical trilogy that includes Brighton Beach Memoirs and Broadway Bound.
2- This is the first film that Matthew Broderick plays Eugene, a character that he played on Broadway in the entire trilogy.
3- This is the first film that teams Matthew Broderick and Penelope Ann Miller together. They next appeared as co-stars and love interests in the comedy “The Freshman” (another comedy that I highly recommend).
4- Park Overall, who is known for her role on the TV show “Empty Nest” has a small role in the film.

Kissing Jessica Stein
Rated #5 Jewish Comedy

Profile Came out in 2002
Rated R
Running time of 1 hour and 36 minutes
Available on VHS and DVD
Directed by Charles Herman-Wurmfeld
Written by Jennifer Westfeldt and Heather Juergensen (based on their play of the same name)
Main Stars: Jennifer Westfeldt, Heather Juergensen, Tovah Feldshuh

What’s it all about:
Jessica Stein is a young, conservative Jewish girl who lives on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and works for a hip newspaper. While Jessica seems successful at work, her social life is another story. Her matchmaker-like mother and some of her friends try to constantly set her up on dates that never seem to work out. Fed up with the disastrous dating scene, Jessica boldly answers an appealing personal ad in the “women seeking women” section placed by an art gallery owner. The two women embark on a romance filled with numerous challenges as they try to make their relationship work.

Why I Recommend It:
1 – The film raises an interesting idea in regards to finding that special someone (it may not be from the opposite sex). While the film may not be for everyone, the premise is fresh for romantic comedies and reflects the openness of the new millenium.
2 – The openness of Jessica’s family and friends in accepting her relationship with Helen. Despite Jessica’s fear that the others in her life will have a negative reaction to her relationship, she is surprised to find support and acceptance, especially from her mother.

Distinguishing Jewish Appeal: 1 – The movie depicts the trysts of a modern, young Jewish female and the problems she has in the dating scene.
2 – The depiction of the importance of the Sabbath dinner as a means to gather family and friends together and celebrate the ritual.
3 – The film also shows the acceptance of Jessica’s family and friends in regards to her relationship with Helen. In particular, Jessica’s very Jewish mother displays an open acceptance of her daughter’s decision to date Helen since she sees that Helen makes her daughter happy. This is a refreshing view, since many that are in same-sex relationships find the other reaction to be true.
4 – The film depicts an interfaith relationship. Similar to Keeping the Faith, Helen, the non-Jew, is open to experiencing the various Jewish celebrations and rituals.

Brighton Beach Memoirs
Rated #6 Jewish Comedy

Profile:
Came out in 1986
Rated PG-13
Running time of 1 hour and 50 minutes
Available on VHS
Directed by Gene Saks
Written by Neil Simon (based on his play of the same name)
Main Stars: Matthew Broderick, Blythe Danner, Fyvush Finkel, Steven Hill

What’s it all about: In the first installment of Neil Simon’s semi-autobographical trilogy, the film depicts Eugene’s Jewish family in their overcrowded Brooklyn home in 1937. The film focuses on Eugene’s relationship with his parents who manage to worry and meddle into everyone’s lives, his brother who has work related problems, his female cousin who wants to be a Broadway dancer, and his own evolution into becoming a young man.

Why I Recommend It:
1 – The film is a well-done family comedy depicting the nuances of everyday family life and activites in 1937.
2 – The dialog. Neil Simon does an excellent job adapting his stage play into a witty and smart comedy screenplay.
3 – The movie is also a well done coming of age movie showing Eugene’s transformation into becoming a young man that should appeal to a wide audience.

Distinguishing Jewish Appeal:
1 – The movie depicts the trysts of Eugene’s Jewish family living in Brooklyn in 1937 (the onset of World War 2).
2 – At the end of the film, Eugene’s parents get word that their relatives have just escaped Poland and are coming to America. This reflects the importance of helping out family especially during this time period, when many were trying to escape Hitler’s path.

Of Note:
1 – Matthew Broderick played the role of Eugene in the Broadway play. None of the actors from the play appeared in the film version.
2 – Jason Alexander, George from “Seinfeld,” played Eugene’s brother’s boss in the film.
3 – Jonathan Silverman took over the role of Eugene on Broadway after Matthew Broderick left the production. He also reprised the Eugene role for the TV movie adaptation of “Broadway Bound.”

20 Dates
Rated #7 Jewish Comedy

Profile
Came out in 1998
Rated R
Running time of 1 hour and 27 minutes
Available on VHS
Directed by Myles Berkovitz
Main Stars: Myles Berkovitz, Tia Carrere

What’s it all about:
A single Jewish guy tries to find that perfect girl in Los Angeles. The film, shot in documentary style, depicts Myles’ dates and his quest to find true love.

Why I Recommend It:
1 – Unlike the other films on the list, this film depicts the Jewish male perspective of the dating scene.
2 – The film is shot with a documentary-style of filmmaking. Myles takes the camera with him on his dates, which are not scripted. Some like the attention of the camera, while others do not.

Distinguishing Jewish Appeal:
1 – The film gives the viewer a look at the modern, dating scene on the west coast from a Jewish male perspective.

Sandy Chertok is currently producing the short film “It’s All Relative”. Her comedy screenplay “That Kiss” advanced to the second round of the Austin Film Festival Screenplay Competition. Other recognision include: a finalist in the 1999 Chesterfield Writer’s Project Fellowship, finalist in the NBC sponsored Writer’s Foundation America’s Best Original Sitcom Competition for her pilot “For Pete’s Sake,” and quarterfinalist in the Quantum Quest and Cinestory screenplay contests. She received her BFA with honors from New York University.

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