Within the vastness of Jewish culture, there exists an immense diversity of ethnic, religious, national, political, sexual, and gender identities. Although not regularly discussed in the mainstream media, the Jewish community’s diverse array of backgrounds bring their own unique voices to communities in America, Israel, and all around the world. There is no better way to understand how these overlapping identities are expressed in popular culture than by looking at modern cinema. Of particular importance are the ways in which Jewish characters are portrayed to the viewing public. This article will explore films that stand out for their honest and realistic depictions of Jewish life that ignore many of the stereotypical “Jewish” characteristics traditionally portrayed in film and other media. These unique pictures of Jewish identity allow filmmakers and Jews around the world who hold these unrepresented identities to be seen and heard as the giant pillars of the Jewish communities that they truly are.
In “Call Me by Your Name,” Armie Hammer plays Oliver, a Jewish-American student living in Italy who falls in love with another Jewish boy, Elio, played by Timothee Chalamet. Oliver and Elio’s love story is a far cry from the heteronormative portrayals of Jewish relationships in past romantic comedies like Woody Allen’s Annie Hall or Manhattan. Oliver is a character whose sexual identity is just as profound as his Jewish pride, giving Jewish LGBTQ+ identities a strong and appreciative portrayal of their presence in Jewish communities worldwide. Furthermore, the film explores the discovery of individual identity in ways that do both communities justice. In the process of falling in love with the openly-Jewish Oliver, Elio rediscovers his Jewish identity, which he and his family have kept hidden (3). A similar background is what draws the two together and is visually represented through a Star of David necklace, first worn by Oliver, then by Elio, as their relationship develops (3). Not only is the film incredibly directed and well-acted, but it expands upon the theme of individual self-acceptance with Jewish identity. The film is a touching and realistic testament to same-sex relationships, with some going so far as to call it the Jewish version of Moonlight.
Another film that explores the complexity of Jewish identity is the 2014 documentary, Little White Lies. The documentary explores the life of Lacey Schwartz and her journey to uncover the identity of her African-American biological father. Having had her heritage kept secret most of her life, Lacey embarks on a journey of self-discovery, exploring her family roots while grappling with the nature of her own identity. The documentary shows a side of Jewish life that isn’t discussed enough in contemporary conversations about Jews of color. As a true story, the documentary is able to show Jews who identify as black that their stories are not ignored and their identities exist. The story reminds the Jewish community that Jews like Lacey exist, some of whom are evenworld famous like Drake and Lenny Kravitz. It is also a reminder that people of color who identify as Jewish should not hide their Jewish identities from the public.
Next is the 2018 romance film from Mexico, Leona, directed by Isaac Cherem. The film tells the story of a Jewish woman, Ariela, as she falls in love with Ivan, a non-Jewish man. Although a taboo subject in some Jewish circles today, interfaith relationships exist in religious communities worldwide, and the Jewish community is no exception. Ariela becomes torn between her love for Ivan and her community’s strict observance of tradition, which places her at odds with her community’s beliefs and her own feelings. Not only is the film representative of Jews worldwide who deal with the same situations as Ariela, but the film sheds necessary light on the lives of Jews in Latin America. As a historically overlooked part of the community, Jews in Latin America are rarely included in global conversations about Jewish diversity. Furthermore, Jews have had a long history in Latin America going back to the times of the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions (1). Argentina currently has the most Jews of any Latin American country, with other notable populations in Brazil, Chile, and Mexico (1). The film explores aspects of Jewish life that don’t get enough attention and tells a story of old tradition and its clash with modernity, an increasingly important trend in Jewish communities across the globe.
Jewish portrayals in mainstream media are often deeply stereotypical and only depict well-known aspects of Jewish life. These diverse films should consequently be a breath of fresh air to audiences, as they explore deeper questions of identity and sexuality within the Jewish community . The films are also significant in their diverse portrayal of ignored, and often marginalized groups within the global Jewish community and throughout the entire world.
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