Hol­ly­wood Hills, Pho­to by Ven­ti Views via Unsplash

I didn’t ful­ly engage with Judaism until I start­ed writ­ing sto­ries. I was raised Reform Jew­ish — baby nam­ing, Hebrew school, bat mitz­vah, most of the hol­i­days — but because my moth­er is Catholic, I’ve always occu­pied a strange place in the com­mu­ni­ty. After my bat mitz­vah, I prac­ticed less, which stripped Judaism down to more of an inter­nal feel­ing I often didn’t think about. 

Then there was Hol­ly­wood. I spent the first six years of my post-high school life deep in the film indus­try, learn­ing its his­to­ry in col­lege, writ­ing screen­plays, work­ing in pro­duc­tion and man­agers’ offices. It was incred­i­ble to see the num­ber of Jew­ish last names scat­tered across IMDB — pro­duc­ers, actors, direc­tors — while so rarely see­ing the Jew­ish expe­ri­ence depict­ed on-screen. As diver­si­ty became a pri­or­i­ty for exec­u­tives, it was gross­ly fas­ci­nat­ing to see that despite Jew­ish peo­ple being a his­tor­i­cal­ly mar­gin­al­ized com­mu­ni­ty, they didn’t count” in Hol­ly­wood. As if there was no need for more Jew­ish stories. 

When I set out to write Siz­zle Reel, a queer adult rom­com fol­low­ing a tal­ent manager’s assis­tant as she comes out as bi at age twen­ty-four and tries to make up for lost time” by seduc­ing an ambigu­ous­ly gay A‑list actress, I want­ed to talk about Judaism and Hol­ly­wood in some way. I’ve always includ­ed Judaism in my works in some way — by fea­tur­ing Jew­ish pro­tag­o­nists or hol­i­days, or just by avoid­ing Chris­t­ian iconog­ra­phy and val­ues. But approach­ing Judaism through the lens of Hol­ly­wood and its his­to­ry was new cre­ative stomp­ing ground. Would my pro­tag­o­nist have found inspi­ra­tion in Jew­ish cin­e­ma? Which Jew­ish films was most inspired by? There are so many incred­i­ble films mold­ed by Jew­ish hands, yet it’s dif­fi­cult to con­jure long lists of films that fea­ture Judaism itself. So I made myself a map to inform how I wrote my pro­tag­o­nist, draw­ing on my own life expe­ri­ences and movies I’d seen. These are the ones that affect­ed me the most: 

The Prince of Egypt (1998

The quin­tes­sen­tial Pesach movie for chil­dren, this film has a puri­ty that brings me back to Hebrew school, a world with­out Chris­tians, and a mythol­o­gy com­plete­ly Jew­ish. This sen­sa­tion always hits me dur­ing the first song, Deliv­er Us.” The Jew­ish slaves are singing a prayer, and I instinc­tu­al­ly hear Elo­him, adon­ai. Inter­est­ing­ly, con­sult­ed rab­bis told the cre­ators to refrain from using the actu­al term for Hashem, replac­ing it with God on high. But it feels like a lit­tle whis­per to only the Jew­ish view­ers—You know what the char­ac­ters are actu­al­ly say­ing. Every time I rewatch this scene, I feel more Jewish.

Cabaret (1972)

I first encoun­tered this film in a movie musi­cal class my sopho­more year of col­lege, hav­ing been famil­iar with the stage musi­cal writ­ten by Jew­ish song­writ­ing team John Kan­ter and Frank Ebb. Although the main char­ac­ters aren’t Jew­ish, the writ­ers’ vision felt par­tic­u­lar­ly res­o­nant to me. To me, this movie cel­e­brat­ed those who would ulti­mate­ly be killed in the Holo­caust more than any­thing. It showed how peo­ple were just liv­ing their lives and would do any­thing to ignore the loom­ing dark­ness. To this day, this film feels uncom­fort­ably rel­e­vant — the big­otry felt by every­day peo­ple is all around us and seem­ing­ly per­pet­u­al. Cabaret has always felt like a safe space to feel that unease liv­ing as a Jew­ish per­son and know­ing my people’s history.

Dis­obe­di­ence (2017)

This movie was part of a wave of emo­tion­al sap­ph­ic dra­mas set in either niche or his­tor­i­cal com­mu­ni­ties. Star­ring Rachel McAdams and Rachel Weisz, it tells the sto­ry of two women in an ultra-Ortho­dox com­mu­ni­ty — one who left, one who stayed — as they strug­gle with their for­bid­den love for one anoth­er. While this movie depicts a patri­ar­chal sect of Judaism quite dif­fer­ent from my own Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty, there is still some­thing com­fort­ing about see­ing Judaism depict­ed across the scale of pro­gres­sivism. At a time when I was ques­tion­ing my own sex­u­al­i­ty, it was a vivid reminder that Judaism isn’t only for straight folks. Even if the fun­da­men­tal­ism wasn’t famil­iar to me, the prayers, the tem­ples, and the Hebrew were. See­ing two Jew­ish women in love with each oth­er, in lust with each oth­er — it felt spe­cial even if the sto­ry didn’t end the way I would’ve wanted. 

Black­kklans­man (2018)

By all accounts, Spike Lee and Adam Dri­ver aren’t Jew­ish, but empa­thy among mar­gin­al­ized groups is depict­ed so beau­ti­ful­ly in this film. Driver’s char­ac­ter, an Anglo-pass­ing Jew­ish cop who has to infil­trate the KKK with his Black fel­low offi­cer, gives a speech that has moved me more than any­thing else in the past decade of cin­e­ma. He talks about how he lived a life with Judaism on the periph­ery — he knew he was Jew­ish, but he didn’t talk about it, didn’t cel­e­brate many hol­i­days. But as he’s faced with the vile anti­semitism of the KKK sect, he has been think­ing about being Jew­ish so much more. Before watch­ing Blakkklans­man, I’d nev­er seen my own feel­ings about Judaism depict­ed that way before, to a T. It’s awful to think that many Jew­ish peo­ple recon­nect with their iden­ti­ties only because of grow­ing big­otry, and I think this movie knows it. Blakkklans­man has inspired me to no longer let Judaism fall by the way­side, but rather, to find Jew­ish joy and belong­ing before anoth­er tragedy strikes.

Shi­va Baby (2020)

Shi­va Baby is one of the most stress­ful movies I’ve seen in years. It’s also intrin­si­cal­ly Jew­ish. Fol­low­ing a bisex­u­al young Jew­ish woman as she attends a fam­i­ly friend’s shi­va where both her ex-girl­friend and cur­rent, mar­ried sug­ar dad­dy are present, this film feels both uni­ver­sal to med­dling com­mu­ni­ties and the ultra-spe­cif­ic ener­gy of any Jew­ish gath­er­ing. The way, Are you hav­ing chil­dren, Is your boyfriend Jew­ish, and What do you do for work are uni­ver­sal, but also speak to the Jew­ish anx­i­ety about per­pet­u­at­ing our peo­ple. It’s the conun­drum of a Jew­ish twen­ty-some­thing strug­gling, along with every oth­er twen­ty-some­thing, against a tapes­try of bagels and Yid­dish. Since so many Jew­ish films revolve around Jew­ish his­to­ry, it hit even hard­er to see a Jew­ish character’s anx­i­eties clos­er to my own every­day expe­ri­ence as a bi Jew­ish twen­ty-some­thing depict­ed onscreen. 

There will nev­er be enough Jew­ish films, and I hope their num­ber will con­tin­ue to grow across gen­res — fan­ta­sy, hor­ror, rom­coms. I’m grate­ful for the Jew­ish writ­ers who’ve come before me, and I can’t wait for read­ers to hope­ful­ly see parts of them­selves in both Siz­zle Reels depic­tions of an anx­ious, Jew­ish bisex­u­al, and in her expe­ri­ence of break­ing into Hol­ly­wood as a Jew. 

Car­lyn Green­wald writes roman­tic and thrilling page-turn­ers for teens and adults. A film school grad­u­ate and for­mer Hol­ly­wood lack­ey, she now works in pub­lish­ing. She resides in Los Ange­les, mourn­ing ArcLight Cin­e­mas and soak­ing in the sun with her dogs. Find her online on Twit­ter @CarlynGreenwald and Insta­gram @carlyn_gee.