Another Jewish holiday is upon us, as Shavuot approaches! We’ve counted the Omer, which started at Passover, and now we’re ready to celebrate receiving Torah. If you can’t get enough dairy, this is the holiday for you. Before we spend the holiday stuffing ourselves with cheesecake and spend all night studying Torah, let’s look at some movies you can add to your festivities!
While Shavuot isn’t explicitly mentioned as the date that the Jewish people received the Torah from Mount Sinai, it was historically a harvest celebration, celebrating the wheat harvest in the land of Israel. Overtime, it has come to represent a celebration of receiving Torah.
Today, the Jewish community celebrates the holiday by studying Torah or engaging in other Jewish study all night. The Biblical Book of Ruth is featured prominently in modern Shavuot celebrations. The logic is that as the first convert, Ruth was also symbolically present at Mount Sinai when the Torah was given to the Jewish people. Finally, dairy foods are essential to many Shavuot celebrations. There may be several reasons for this.
Rabbinic commentaries speak to the fact that before the Israelites were given the Torah, they weren’t obligated to follow the corresponding laws, including kashrut. Since after the Torah, there were laws about the separation of meat and dairy, the Israelites opted to eat dairy foods. King Solomon says of the Torah, “”Like honey and milk, it lies under your tongue” (Song of Songs 4:11).
Now that you have some of the history and context, let’s talk about some movies you can add to your all-night celebrations!
The Story of Ruth (1960):
On a holiday that celebrates the first recorded convert, as detailed in the Torah, it only makes sense that a Ruth biopic of sorts should be part of your Shavuot experience. This classic Biblical tale is given a mostly accurate treatment, if liberties are taken with parts of the story. This story still speaks to those who have chosen to become a part of the Jewish community. Viewers are taken through Ruth’s journey to leave the faith of her upbringing, and join the Jewish people. It’s a timeless take on a story that continues to inspire.
Hester Street (1975):
This movie is an adaptation of Abraham Cahan’s late 19th-century novella “Yekl: A Tale of the New York Ghetto”. The movie tells the story of Yankl (Steven Keats) and Gitl (Carol Kane), Jewish immigrants to New York. It particularly focuses on Gitl, and her struggle to assimilate versus holding on to her Jewish traditions. Carol Kane’s performance was lauded at the time, and remains an example of her immense talent. A Jewish woman at a crossroads between her past and future is the perfect Shavuot entry to consider the meaning of the holiday.
The Frisco Kid (1979):
Fans of the late great Gene Wilder will appreciate this one. Wilder plays a rabbi from Poland, assigned to travel to San Francisco and deliver a Torah scroll. For a holiday dedicated to celebrating the receiving of the Torah, this is the perfect entry to watch. Harrison Ford is stellar as bank robber Tommy Lillard. This movie combines humour with an earnest look at early Jewish immigrants to the United States. This is Wilder at the height of his powers. Only he could have brought such a character to life in such an endearing way.
Catch Me if You Can (2002):
I know what you’re thinking. What does a story about a well-known con-artist have to do with Shavuot? The real-life con-man on which the movie is based, Frank Abagnale Jr. isn’t Jewish, nor was the real-life FBI agent who eventually caught him, Joseph Shea. Stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hanks aren’t Jewish either? So what makes this a good movie to watch for Shavuot? In the spirit of the holiday, there’s an iconic scene when the main character asks for a glass of milk while impersonating a pilot. It maybe should have been a giveaway, but who am I to judge.
Bruce Almighty (2003):
The chaos in this movie is unmatched, which alone makes it an appropriate movie to watch on Shavuot. This is the story of a news anchor who constantly feels wronged by everything and everyone in his life. There’s a phenomenal milk scene that also lends to this movie’s Shavuot credibility. Of course, this movie also harnesses the power that is Morgan Freeman. Of course, the Jewish tradition says that we can only describe what God is not. But really, is there anyone else who could play God quite like Morgan Freeman? Aside from all of Jim Carrey’s comedic antics, there’s a poignant meditation on the human relationship with the Divine. There’s also plenty of yelling at God, and what could be more Jewish than that?
This well-known Israeli drama tells the story of Eliezer Shkolnik (Shlomo Bar Aba), a philologist who studies the Jerusalem Talmud. In the spirit of textual learning and consideration, this movie has Shavuot written all over it. It’s also a touching story about fathers and sons. It’s a celebration of learning for learnings’ own sake. It was Israel’s entry into the Foreign Film category of the 84th Academy Awards. It ultimately lost to Iran’s masterpiece, A Separation.
Stay the Night (2022):
In the spirit of being up all-night, Canadian film Stay the Night certainly deserves consideration for Shavuot celebrations. Premiering at the 2022 SXSW Festival, it was a hidden gem. While the characters themselves may not be explicitly Jewish, the story is a captivating one. It follows two people, after a chance meeting, and their ensuing all-night wanderings around the city of Toronto. It’s breathtaking, with a side of meditation on the nature of relationships, and what matters when two people come together.
These are just some suggestions for holiday movies. Of course, you should also consider The 10 Commandments (see Pages and Pictures’ Passover recommendations), or even Yentl. Really, you should always be watching Yentl, not just on a holiday. Enjoy the cheesecake, rest up for the all-nighter, and never forget the sweetness of Torah. Chag Sameach!