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Top 10 Jewish Movie Characters

posted by Esther Kustanowitz

jewishmoviecharacters.jpgWhen I decided to do a list of top 10 Jewish movie characters, I got to #4 and then stopped. Jews and pop culture are my thing…why could I only come up with four, with one of them being Yentl?? You could also award a slot to Sir Ben Kingsley, your go-to for Jews. His portrayals of Jewish characters make a lasting impact onscreen, from “Schindler’s List” to “Lucky Number Slevin.” Still, 10 memorable characters?

I turned to my Facebook friends for help in jogging my memory.  They recommended many characters I hadn’t thought of in movies I haven’t seen: Masha in “Enemies: A Love Story,” Harry Lime in “The Third Man,” Arnold Friedman in “Capturing the Friedmans,” and Vin Diesel’s character in “Knockaround Guys.”

Then came the cult faves: Eric Shoenstein in “Animal House,” Baby Houseman in “Dirty Dancing,” Feivel Mousekewitz in “American Tail,” Virgil Starkwell in “Take the Money and Run” (but oddly, no votes for Alvy Singer from “Annie Hall”), and Tevye from “Fiddler on the Roof.” Ben Stiller’s character in “Keeping the Faith” gets a nod from one friend who says, “I would have loved to have a rabbi like him!”

“Does Dr. Zoidberg from ‘Futurama’ count?” one fanboy asks, while another inquires about Magneto and Kitty Pryde from the “X-Men” series. If we include television, then “Dr. Joel Fleischman of ‘Northern Exposure,’” says one person. “Jesus, from the ‘Last Temptation of Christ,’” says notherafriend who always tries to select the most controversial choice.

After much consideration, here’s the final list. Feel free to disagree vociferously and say who you would have picked instead.

1. Mordechai Jefferson Hammer from “The Hebrew Hammer” (Adam Goldberg) – He gets the #1 position for being the most frequently referenced character in the myriad answers provided by mi amigos de Facebook. Also, it’s funny that the actor’s name is almost as Jewish as the character he plays, even though Goldberg is not Jewish.

2. Walter Sobchak from “The Big Lebowski” (John Goodman) – “Obviously,” a friend says.

3. Avram from “The Frisco Kid” (Gene Wilder) – Some mentions of this film, which featured Wilder as a rabbi dispatched to the Wild West of San Francisco, was reassuring since it’s not being forgotten. (Plus, it’s a special treat to see a young, pre-Indy Harrison Ford play a cowboy with his special smirk and observe Shabbat with the rabbi. As we know, from Adam Sandler’s Hanukkah song, HF is “a quarter Jewish; not too shabby.”)

4. Julius Levinson, as Jeff Goldblum’s father, from “Independence Day” (Judd Hirsch) – Judd Hirsch from “Taxi” that is, not Judd Nelson from “The Breakfast Club,” in case you’re one of those people who always gets them confused.

5. Obi-Wan Kenobi from “Star Wars” (Sir Alec Guinness) – His name seems more Japanese than anything else, but “don’t tell me he’s not Jewish,” a friend says confidently. Sir Alec Guinness’s rabbi-like Jedi talk of a Force that runs through us, penetrates us, and binds the galaxy together is proof.

6. Emily Eden from “A Stranger Among Us” (Melanie Griffith) – Those of us who lived in the Orthodox community watched this movie with a schmear of skepticism at the prospect of Griffith passing for a religious Jew. Yet one of my Facebook friends is in awe of her Hasidic love interest (Eric Thal): “A Chussid [Hasidic Jew] who can quote Kabbalah, fire a gun, and make out with Mel has GOT to be cool.

7. Governor William J. Lepetomane from “Blazing Saddles” and Rabbi Tuckman from “Robin Hood: Men in Tights.” (Mel Brooks) - Brooks was a Yiddish-speaking Indian in the former and a Jewish version of Friar Tuck in the latter.

8. Bubbie Cantor, the grandmother, and Sam Posner, the pickle guy, from “Crossing Delancey” (Reizl Bozyk, Peter Riegert) – This movie taught that sometimes, when you meet your true love, he could smell like pickles–a valuable lesson for all the singles out there.

9. Avner from “Munich” (Eric Bana) and Ari Ben Canaan from “Exodus” (Paul Newman) – I’m giving these guys co-billing because they serve, in different generations, as touchstones for Jewish strength. Both characters challenged the traditional stereotype of Jews as weak and non-assertive. I mean, even Judd Apatow gave Eric Bana’s character a shout out in “Knocked Up”….

10. Miracle Max and Valerie, the old married witch couple, from “The Princess Bride” (Billy Crystal, Carol Kane) – Just like Obi-Wan (even though they’re really nothing like Obi-Wan), the couple was a delight to those of us who have watched older, married Jewish couples banter roughly over topics such as true love and whether we’ll make it to the castle we’re about to storm. (“It would take a miracle.”)

 

Who are your favorite Jewish movie characters? Share below.



  • Scott R.

    Just a factoid:
    Adam Sandler was wrong – Harrison Ford’s mother was Jewish, so he’s 100% Jewish.

  • tricia

    oy vey – what about toby in the west wing – ok – so it’s not a movie but it was on enough times to be a movie.
    was dustin hoffman in the graduate jewish – somehow i think so
    the italian actor in a beautiful life? what a great represenation of a jewish hero
    alan arkin in escape from sorbibor

  • Annie

    How about Max Biyalishtack in the Producers?

  • Bonnie

    Not a movie per se, but how about SGT Brad ‘Iceman’ Colbert in HBO’s Generation Kill. (Alexander Skarsgard)

  • Your Name

    List devoid of historical sense or rootedness. Where are Rod Steiger (“The Pawnbroker”); Gregory Peck (“Gentlemen’s Agreement”); Meryl Streep (“Sophie’s Choice”), just to name icons from three different eras?

  • Your Name

    Speaking of older movies, The characters in the movie “The Chosen”. The book by Chaim Potok.
    Jessica Stein from the movie “Kissing Jessica Stein”. Don’t forget the grandmother, “…is she Jewish?”.
    The main character in “The Believer”. The Yeshiva boker who turns into a neo-Nazi.
    From what I have read, the brothers from the movie, “Defiance” will be in this list.

  • Tom Seubert

    How can anyone forget about Tevye, the poor milkman from Fiddler on the Roof? His spiritual journey through the changes of his days versus the traditions he was raised with and held dear speaks for the the rest of us on our personal spritual journies.

  • http://l Linda

    How ’bout Natalie Wood in “Marjorie Morningstar?” She is of Russian heritage, of course, and a gentile, but she was so Jewish in this movie, one of my all-time favorites.

  • Michelle

    Tovah Feldshuh as the Jewish mother in Kissing Jessica Stein, no contest.

  • Dan

    How could this list leave off Ben Stiller’s Character in Keeping the Faith? The coolest Rabbi ever. And speaking of the Stillers, Jerry performance in Zoolander, as the agent, not explicitly Jewish, but all of Jerry Stiller’s characters seem Jewish, even the explicitly non-Jewish Frank Costanza and Aurthur Spooner.

  • Laurie

    I’m a little disappointed by this list — so many of the characters are stereotypes played for laughs, and at whose expense? There are so many really good films with really interesting Jewish characters that it really is a shame they lost their place to Melanie Griffith.

  • Nicole

    Yogurt (Mel Brooks again) in Space Balls. I only remember because it recently came on.

  • Di1980

    What about Spock from Star Trek (The Original Series)? The Vulcan Salute and according to the actor (Leonard Nimoy, who is Jewish) Spock is a Diasporic character.

  • David

    “so many of the characters are stereotypes played for laughs, and at whose expense?”
    And just what is the basis of most Jewish comedy? Lighten up, babe.

  • http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0094921/ Don

    “Crossing Delancey” with Peter Reigert as Sam Posner, the pickle guy.

  • teej

    I think Topol’s Tevya from Fiddler on the Roof would have to be on the list.

  • Carl Craig

    Was Geppetto from Pinocchio Jewish?

  • Your Name

    How can we forget in indominable Miss Daisy in “Driving Miss Daisy” or any of the 3 versions of “The Jazz Singer” (although my favorite is the Neil Diamond, Sir Lawrence Oliver version).

  • Your Name

    I just saw ‘The Spirit’….. Jewish characters and sexy ones,too
    (Officer Morganstern).

  • Molly

    How about Judah Ben Hur
    Adacus from To Kill A Mockingbird
    The Boys from Brazil
    The fact the Jews inHollywood made a lot us of think and become adults from the 50′s thru th60′s

  • Jarz

    Adam Goldberg isn’t Jewish? WTF?!?
    Anyway, here’s my pretentious choice–Marcel Dalio’s character in “The Rules of the Game.”

  • eastcoastlady

    Meryl Streep’s character in Sophie’s Choice was NOT Jewish. That was in fact what made her have to make her terrible choice. She told the guard, “I am not one of them.” Then the guard said to her, “Did not Christ say ‘suffer the little children’?”

  • Your Name

    What? No Max Bialystock? Also:
    Dustin Hoffman’s “Thomas Levy” in Marathon Man.
    Zero Mostel again as “Abe Greenberg” in The Hot Rock.
    And don’t forget Robby Benson’s “Danny Saunders” in The Chosen!

  • Ralph

    No one mentions “Fiddler on the Roof”?

  • rwaimea

    Meet the Fockers; Dustin, Ben, and Barbara should be #1,2,&3!

  • Your Name

    I just saw a screening of “Defiance”. If Daniel Craig isn’t Jewish (and I don’t believe he is), he was incredibly believable as the lead character, Tuvia along with Liev Schreiber as his brother. This man is not just James Bond. He is a very good runner up to Paul Newman. And his blue eyes are just as expressive and beautiful as Mr. Newman’s were. Plus, the movie is totally true and beautifully done. The Jews are not portrayed as weak nor overbearing. Just people who were determined to live despite their losses, and with great faith, were able to.

  • GCM

    What about Jesus in “The Passion of the Christ?”
    Do some people pretend that Jesus wasn’t Jewish?

  • Your Name

    Krusty the clown!

  • Your Name

    One of my altime favs was Neil Diamond & Luci Arnez in the Jazz Singer. I also thought that the movie A Stranger Among Us in of itself was an incredible portrayal.

  • Judi Nacinovich

    My favorite Jewish character it Tevia in Fiddler on the Roof.

  • Pam Spead

    Barbra Streisand and Mandy Pantikin in Yentl has to be my favorite!

  • Becca

    Although it wasn’t in a movie, one of my favorite jewish characters was Dr. Sidney Freidman, from M*A*S*H7t6p

  • Donna Lee Copman

    I agree totally with the Frisco Kid and Carol Kane and Husband in The Princess Bride – priceless!! All of Mel Brooks and WOody Allen are great.
    others: Goldie Hawn as Private Benjamin, Millie Perkins as Anne Frank, Shirley MacLaine brilliant as Gittel Mosca with Robert Mitchum in an old movie, Two for the Seesaw
    Gregory Peck masquerading as a Jew in Gentlemen’s Agreement
    Jamie Gertz and Doris Richards in The Steins Bar mitzva
    The cast of Guys and Dolls who appeared to be Jewish, particularly Nathan Detroit’s dad, Lee J. Cobb, and Nathan was played by Sinatra.
    The movie, The Mermaids, with Cher and Wynona Ryder as her daughter playing a Jewish family – great.

  • http://www.reyes-chow.com/2009/02/top-10-presbyterian-tv-and-movie-characters.html Bruce

    Okay . . . the Presbyterians have stepped up with our own TOp 10 ;-) Okay metho-luther-episco-baptists, bring it on ;-)
    http://www.reyes-chow.com/2009/02/top-10-presbyterian-tv-and-movie-characters.html

  • Linda Jacobs Atamian

    Natalie Wood as “Marjorie Morningstar.” She was so beautiful, so convincing as a “nice, Jewish girl.”

  • Edie Pavlov

    Kirk Douglas as a rabbi with a organ on a wagon in “The Villan” with Arnold Schwartzeneggar in an early role as a perfect hero (though clueless)…
    Hysterical!!

  • Mike Eisenberg

    Richard Dreyfus in The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz was a character simultaneously both Jewish and universal.

  • Denise Thorbjornsen

    I like Ushpizin and Broken Wing ,both are exceellent movies about true life problems. But love and faith work everything out! God Bless, also Billy Crystal in Analyze That. Thank you, Denise

  • steve urkel

    Adam Goldberg is most certainly Jewish.

  • Shelley G.

    Gregory Peck’s portrayal of a jewish columnist/writer in Gentlemen’s Agreement”.

  • Matt

    I don’t think I saw this anywhere…hello, Charlton Heston? Moses? The Ten Commandments? How could he not be on the list or anywhere in the comments?
    His Moses is the Moses I think of when I read Exodus, or talk about Moses, Passover, etc. to my children. I’m sure I’m not alone that he shaped the view of Moses for multiple generations.

  • G.M. Jones

    No one can top Gene Wilder as Tevye. He displayed every facial expression, mannerism and angst of a “traditional” papa back in the days of the Czar and the schtetls. He was a very believable Tevye and his Yiddish accent and those piercing blue eyes didn’t hurt the image either.

  • G.M. Jones

    I also have to include Wilder as Avram in “Frisco Kid”. One of my favorite TV movies. I have made copies of this and “Fiddler” for my own archives.

  • oy vey

    jewwatch.com
    iamthewitness.com
    wakeupfromyourslumber.com
    theinfounderground.com
    judicial-inc.org

  • Larry Woronoff

    DOES ANYBODY REMEMBER THE WONDERFUL TV SHOW “BROOKLYN BRIDGE?:

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Paul Henry

    Who rules USA ? Guess who…

  • Pingback: Top 10 Presbyterian TV and Movie Characters | Bruce Reyes-Chow

  • Pingback: Top 10 Presbyterian TV and Movie Characters | Bruce Reyes-Chow

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Linda Jacobs Atamian

    My favorite Jewish movie character is Marjorie Morningstar from the film of the same name. Naturally, she is portrayed by a gentile–the beautiful and talented Natalie Wood.

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