Welcome to Chai Brow, a new weekly arts column from Moment exploring contemporary film, TV and podcasts from a Jewish lens.
I want to tell you about my two favorite Jewish movies of the year. The only problem is, I’m not sure if they even qualify as “Jewish movies.”
One is set among the low-income immigrant and disability communities of Milwaukee, not typically recognized as hotbeds of Jewish activity, and it mostly relegates its Jewish material to background details. The other is about Israel, that most polarizing of Jewish topics—but it’s not even set in Israel, and it’s more interested in exploring a single psychological identity.
So why do I call these “Jewish movies”? Why, when watching them, did I find myself reflecting on my own Jewish identity? Because, with all due respect to the new documentary about Fiddler on the Roof, which I hear is lovely, I’m excited to embrace a more expansive definition of Jewish culture in the modern day. For all the threats we face, the global Jewish community is more culturally and ideologically diverse than it’s ever been before, and that means it’s harder than ever to agree on what exactly it means to be a Jew. It’s a big tent, and the world of Jewish film should reflect that, which means exploring beyond the shtetl and the Upper East Side.
So let’s part the waters and go on a journey to some unexpected places.
Give Me Liberty
Tikkun Olam collides with the struggles of Job in this indie-film marvel (in theaters now) about a Russian American who works as the driver of a medical transport van in Milwaukee. Our hero Vic (Chris Galust) just wants to get through his day helping his usual clients with disabilities. But the other displaced post-Soviet Jews in his low-income apartment building rope him into driving them, along with all his clients, to a friend’s funeral. Chaos soon follows, as Vic’s van becomes a de facto melting pot for many different social and ethnic groups, all just trying to get somewhere on time, and all failing miserably. It’s the old world colliding with the new, which means a street protest around police shootings of black men accented by an accordion performance of “Let My People Go.”
Writer-director Kirill Mikhanovsky looks at how forgotten communities can band together under the worst of circumstances. It’s a poignant message of Jewish resilience if there ever was one.
The winner of the Golden Bear at this year’s Berlin Film Festival, the latest from Israeli filmmaker Nadav Lapid (The Kindergarten Teacher) is getting a limited U.S. release this fall. Be prepared for anything before you walk into the theater.
Lapid’s dark comedy centers on Israeli ex-military officer Yoav (Tom Mercier), who moves to Paris, desperately trying to erase his national identity and “become French.” He’s stranded literally naked in the first scene—the first sign that trying to build new selfhood from scratch isn’t going to be easy. (The second sign? He can only find work at the Israeli consulate, yet refuses to speak Hebrew.) In the absurd vignettes that follow, Yoav will reckon with a host of wild character types, including a French pornographer who wants to fetishize Yoav’s Israeli background and a chest-thumping Israeli nationalist colleague who aggressively hums “Hatikvah” in other passengers’ faces on the Paris Metro.
Armed with his French phrasebook, Yoav declares his homeland “ignorant” and “nasty”…but there are times on his journey to French citizenship when he seems like he’s actually describing himself. Synonyms finds its raw, provocative sense of humor in the messy freedom of abandoning one’s own heritage.
There will be other films of note to watch out for before the year is over, including Jojo Rabbit, a polarizing World War II satire written and directed by Jewish-Maori comic Taika Waititi (who stars as…Adolph Hitler), and Uncut Gems, a gritty, high-octane crime dramedy starring Adam Sandler as a New York jeweler whose debts get him in way over his head. I don’t think either is likely to meet the standard definition of a “Jewish movie.” And that’s why I’m so excited to see them.