The High Holy Days, as the name implies, are the holiest days in the Jewish calendar. Every fall (if you’re in North America), there is a poignant sense of renewal and possibility, even as the leaves fall from the trees and the ground becomes cold.
The High Holy Days are a time of reflection and renewal. It is not even a time to focus on sin. Rather, it is a time to reflect on the ways in which we’ve fallen short in the previous year, and how we can do better as we look to the year ahead. They’re a time to consider the ways in which we as a community can do better, as well as examining our own individual lives.
Before we get into the list, it has to be noted that The Jazz Singer (1927) would have been on the list if it wasn’t for the incredibly jarring and central use of blackface. While this racist practice was a hallmark of the time, there’s a jarring quality in seeing it centered as a part of the main character. It’s an incredibly misguided way to reflect on American Judaism. It’s a shame that this racist practice was so accepted. This movie had the semblance of an important message for the High Holy Days that is completely overshadowed.
After the chaos of the High Holy Days, consider watching any of these movies to maintain the spirit of the season, and to kick off your year ahead.
The Dybbuk (1937):
The Dybbuk is a foundational work of Yiddish theatre and Polish cinema. This fantastical story tells the tale of a woman possessed by a malicious spirit before her wedding. Relatable, honestly. This film is also a time capsule of pre-Holocaust shtetl life in Poland.
There’s really no better time to watch this movie, when one is raving with hunger from fasting. The surreality will just hit different when you’ve been without food for a sufficient amount of time. Joking aside, this is also a very spiritual, abstract way to portray Judaism, which ties in perfectly with the High Holy Days.
Fiddler on the Roof (1971):
Does Fiddler on the Roof even require an introduction? If you’ve missed out on the adventures of lovably chaotic milkman Tevye, you’ve missed out on a good time. This wholesome story follows Tevye and his family as they navigate life in the Pale of Settlement including finding the joy in being Jewish even when faced with violent hate.
Not only is Fiddler on the Roof a cultural touchstone for Jewish representation in Hollywood, it’s just a phenomenal story. Throughout the movie, Tevye has to wrestle with himself, and constantly ask how he can maintain his traditions in the middle of a rapidly changing world. There’s hardly a more appropriate message for the High Holy Days.
Groundhog Day (1993):
Groundhog Day tells the story of weatherman Phil Conners (Bill Murray), who travels to Punxsutawney, PA on Groundhog Day. He never makes any attempt to let everyone know that he feels himself above his assignment, and the small-town folks he encounters. He finds himself in a loop, and chaos ensues.
While this movie may not be explicitly Jewish, there are certainly themes that are worth exploring over the High Holy Days. Conners initially acts without consequences when he finds himself in this apparently unbreakable loop. Eventually, however, he must make ammends in order to move his life forward.
The Chosen (1981):
Based on Chaim Potok’s novel of the same name, The Chosen is a fascinating look at interdenominational Jewish relations. It’s also a coming-of-age story, as it follows the lives of friends Reuven (Barry Miller) and Danny (Robby Benson). This story also offers contrasting visions of Zionism, and the establishment of the State of Israel.
In addition to being a snapshot of post-War American Jewish life, this story is very much a meditation on the very concept of Jewish identity. How do the Jewish people navigate continuing to be Jewish in an ever-changing world? Rather than present definitive answers, this movie prompts even more questions for consideration.
Liberty Heights (1999):
Liberty Heights is another quintessential slice of Americana. It also captures mid-century Jewish American life as the Kurtzmans navigate 1950s Baltimore. The family is a dysfunctional one, to say the very least. Drugs, sex, and rock-and-roll lend themselves to this period piece that makes an impact.
In addition to the great performances, the message itself makes this movie worth watching over the High Holy Days. We see how flawed the Kurtzmans are, and how much atonement they need to do. More broadly, this story reflects on the broken and violent parts of America itself, with the violent racism that continues to exist. It’s an opportunity to ask how the Jewish people can play a role in repairing the world around them.
1945 has a simple enough premise. Two Holocaust survivors return to their Hungarian village. The story chronicles not only their stories, but the paranoia that follows them everywhere they end up.
1945 asks a difficult and important question: can atonement be demanded? Particularly in the shadow of the horrors of the Holocaust, these are necessary questions. Rather than presenting concrete answers, however, this movie poses questions that will linger for a long time.
This 2007 adaptation of Ian McEwan’s novel of the same name still leaves scars for so many who watched it. It’s a World War 2 period piece that goes from bad to worse so quickly. The tragedy is as overwhelming as the love story is enthralling.
While this may not be an explicitly Jewish story, the entire theme of the movie is apropos for this sacred time. One can spend a lifetime atoning for the brokenness that we cause. The question is, is it ever enough? It’s a sobering message to consider during the High Holy Days.
This 2017 Israeli drama tells the story of a poet and screenwriter who’s sentenced to community service after a motorcycle accident. He is instructed to teach juvenile offenders. Along the way, while he teaches his students, he learns a lot of important lessons about himself as well.
Again, while this may not be a story specific to the High Holy Days, themes of repair and reflection are everywhere. It would have been great to see the story delve into more global themes of how incarceration is an example of brokenness that the Jewish people have a role to play in repairing. It’s also a meditation on how healing relationships can be in this work of repair.
The Pin (2013):
The Pin is a tragic love story about love and loss during World War II. Two Jewish teenagers are forced to hide for their lives. It’s an expansive look at how young lives were impacted by the horrors of the war, and the regret and longing that was left in its wake.
Any story involving the Holocaust is an opportunity to reflect on how violent antisemitism continues to leave our world in a state of disrepair. This story also asks us to reflect on the legacy of the Holocaust, and how we can best ensure memory in the modern age. These are topics more than worth considering during the High Holy Days.
What are some movies you’d recommend for the High Holy Days? Share your suggestions in the comments below!