This weekend, my people will gather will their families to celebrate the high holy holiday of Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year. Following the weekend festivities, Jews enter into a week of repentence, concluding with a day of fasting on Yom Kippur.
Technically, you're not supposed to be watching TV during Rosh Hashana, a certified "day of rest." I was raised in a reformed household though, so we play by a looser set of rules than more observant practitioners. Togetherness in my own family is usually punctuated by a movie or two. And since the Coen brothers' intensely Jewish "A Serious Man" doesn't hit theaters for a few more weeks, we've got to make do with what's watchable at home. Here are a few suggestions to bring along for your own gatherings...
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"Fiddler on the Roof"
Nothing makes a Jewish parent kvell more than when their son or daughter shows an interest in Norman Jewison's adaptation of the classic musical "Fiddler on the Roof." The music leans heavily on minor keys, the performers speak in thick accents and the story is all about promoting looser interpretations of religious dogma according to the demands of changing times. Want to see your Jewish parents smile this weekend? Show up with a copy of "Fiddler on the Roof" in hand.
It's not terribly uplifting -- not until the very end, at least -- but director Steven Spielberg tapped straight into the pulse of Jewish culture with his World War II-set story of history's favorite goy, Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson). Neeson was a badass Jedi Master in "Star Wars Episode I: A Phantom Menace," but before that he was a badass savior of the more than a thousand Polish Jews who worked in his factories during the Nazi reign in Europe. A mensch all the way.
"The Big Lebowski"
Two words: Walter Sobchak. John Goodman's quick-to-anger Jewish bowler is, if anything, an anti-stereotype. To look at the guy, it's easy to think "there's no way this guy is Jewish." And hey, maybe he isn't. Walter spouts a lot of nonsense; he claims he converted, but do we really know? Still, his ravings about not bowling because he's "shomer shabbos" is the stuff of comedy legend. Your grandparents might fill the air with schrais of "oy vey iz mir!," but your parents, aunts, uncles, cousins and siblings will be laughing hysterically in a corner along with you.
"Fiddler" will make your Jewish parents happy, but bringing "School Ties" along to a family holiday gathering is nothing short of a mitvah. Brendan Fraser may be a Gentile in real life, but he's somehow believable in the role of a closeted Jew at a Protestant prep school, and the character he plays shows a lot of chutzpah for enrolling. Things go well for him too, until his schmuck of a classmate Charles Dillon (Matt Damon) discovers the truth and mishegoss ensues.
Kind of obvious I know, but Mel Brooks' "Blazing Saddles" is a surefire crowd-pleaser. Scheming State Attorney General Hedley Lamarr hatches a farkakte plot to place a black sheriff (Cleavon Little) in an all-white frontier town. His hope is that the residents' intolerance will lead them to lynch the new sheriff, thus allowing him to empty out the town, thus clearing the way for a set of railroad tracks. It sounds serious, but it isn't. Prepare to laugh your tuchus off.