Posted by Nat Bernstein
Since the advent of talkies, Yom Kippur has become a crux of the Jewish American narrative in film. So, though we usually focus on books — don’t worry, we have reading suggestions for the 5775 High Holidays, too — we’d be remiss to neglect the approaching Day of Atonement in the movies. Comedy to Drama to Musical to Romance, here are five films in which you might be surprised to hear the traditional Yom Kippur liturgy:
1. The Jazz Singer (1927)
Ok, this one shouldn’t come as a surprise. Al Jolson stars in the first talkie as Jakie Rabinowitz, the son of a strict Jewish cantor, who flees his parents’ home and community to sing jazz as “Jack Robin.” Over the years, Rabinowitz’s assumed persona achieves great success as a jazz singer but cannot garner his father’s acceptance, and when the aging cantor falls ill on the Eve of Yom Kippur our hero is faced with the decision of whether to return home and deliver Kol Nidre in his father’s stead or perform in the opening of his own Broadway show that same night.
2. Hollywood somehow felt compelled to remake The Jazz Singer with Neil Diamond in the starring role. Here’s hoping they left the blackface out the second time around.
3. Keeping the Faith (2000)
Ben Stiller and Edward Norton costar as two clergymen of different faiths who are best friends and in love with the same woman. The young rabbi’s moment of truth comes, of course, on the Eve of Yom Kippur, when he addresses his congregants immediately following the Kol Nidre recitation. (Tough act to follow, amirite?)
4. Kissing Jessica Stein (2001)
There was one thought running through my head the first time I finally saw Jennifer Westfeldt’s breakout film: HOW HAVE I NEVER WATCHED THIS BEFORE? It is SO Jewish, in all the best ways. But more to the point: The movie opens with the protagonist’s mother and grandmother analyzing Jessica’s dating life over our heroine’s head in the middle of Yom Kippur services. “Would you shut up? I’m atoning!” the harassed young woman finally bellows, drawing the startled attention of the entire congregation. Great scene.
5. The Believer (2001)
(Pre-hearthrob Ryan Gosling researched for this role at my friend’s bar mitzvah.) Based on the true story of an American Nazi Party and the KKK member who was secretly Jewish, The Believer sends its violent protagonist to the bima on Yom Kippur, but not to repent. (Spoiler alert on the clip!)
Honorable mention goes to that cute interfaith French couple arguing over eating on Yom Kippur in God is Great and I Am Not (2001). Man, the early aughts were great for fictional Jews on the Silver Screen.
Nat Bernstein is the former Manager of Digital Content & Media, JBC Network Coordinator, and Contributing Editor at the Jewish Book Council and a graduate of Hampshire College.