Filmhounds Magazine

All things film – In print and online

3 Films To Watch If You Are Jewish and Queer

5 min read
Rachel Sennott in Shiva Baby

This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labour of the writers and actors currently on strike, the movies being covered here wouldn't exist.

TW: This piece includes mention of antisemitism and the Holocaust.

In 's upcoming film Maestro, the complicated romantic life of Leonard Bernstein will finally be brought to the big screen. You probably know him as the composer of the original 1957 musical West Side Story. Instead of focusing on his musical prowess, the film will look at his marriage with actress Felicia Montealegre which was famously troubled partly due to Bernstein's various affairs with men. Even before the film's release, however, Cooper has come under fire for his portrayal of the well-known Jewish musician.

He dons a prosthetic nose to play the character. The choice has already been criticised by many as “Jewface,” not helped by the fact that Cooper is not Jewish himself. While the Anti-Defamation League deemed the prosthetic to be not anti-semitic, the backlash does raise the question of how to portray LGBTQ+ Jewish people.

The intersectionality of being queer and Jewish would surely provide endless opportunities to tell intriguing and important stories, so why are there not more films about it?

It is hard to define a film as Jewish because the experience of each individual in the community is varied and unique. Jewish people, however, have been a part of cinema for as long as the medium has existed. Unfortunately, they have often not been portrayed positively. One of the earliest surviving depictions of a  British Jewish character is The Robber and the Jew from 1908 which, as you can imagine, only enforced the anti-semitic stereotypes of the time. David Lean's adaptation of Oliver Twist in 1948 added money-loving criminal Fagin to the cinematic canon. Once again, not great representation for the Jewish population. 

Despite the open and rampant antisemitism throughout the film industry, Jewish people have always been trying to tell their own stories. After all, according to Rolling Stone's Jay Michaelson, Jewish immigrants founded many American studios like Warner Brothers, Paramount, and Universal.

When the persecution of Jewish people reached one of its highest points during World War II, propaganda against the community was rife in movie releases. Jewish people were forced to hide their identities, otherwise they faced imprisonment or worse. 

In the years after the Holocaust and World War II, Jewish representation in films has varied massively. Films such as Fiddler on the Roof (1971) and 1983's Yentl provided more nuanced depictions of the community. That being said, Jewish representation has a long way to go, especially within Western cinema. One of the most recent examples comes from the critically-panned Netflix comedy You People (2023) which clunkily explores race relations between Muslim and Jewish communities in America. While the creators certainly had better intentions than the propaganda producers almost 80 years ago, poor representation of Jewish people still harms the community. 

Another criticism of the portrayal of Jewish characters is that many of their stories are rooted in the community's troubled roots instead of giving them a more hopeful ending. The horrors of the Holocaust must not be forgotten, but it can feel depressing for the Jewish community to see such persecution replayed so frequently. Films like The Book Thief (2013) and The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (2008) are emotionally devastating, yet do contribute to this issue. While it is important to tell these stories, there are even more Jewish narratives that have not been explored yet. 

However, there is a selection of films that spoke to this experience. Our list is by no means exhaustive, but it does highlight some movies that are moving away from the extremely poor treatment of Jewish people in cinema.

1. Disobedience

A movie featuring a sapphic romance and the two best Rachel's: What's not to like? Based on the novel of the same name by Naomi Alderman, Disobedience (2017) follows Ronit () who must return to the Orthodox Jewish community where she grew up following her father's death. On her return, she reconnects with her childhood best friend and romantic partner Esti () who is now married to a mutual friend Dovid (Bernardo Santos). 

Director Sebastian Lelio, also known for his work on A Fantastic Woman (2017) and The Wonder (2022), allows the film to feel like we are almost intruding on intimate conversations between Esti and Ronit. They quietly discuss each other's sexualities and share secrets like schoolgirls, transporting themselves away from the much stricter Orthodox Jewish setting. Lelio raises nuanced questions about whether Esti can reconcile her sexuality and her religion, focusing on the loneliness that often comes with leaving the community. 

The love scenes between the two women feel arrestingly intimate, and it is so refreshing to see a sapphic relationship portrayed in a Jewish story. 

2. Trembling Before G-d

Trembling Before G-d (2001) also focuses on the relationship between the Orthodox Jewish community and queer people, but takes a very different approach. The documentary looks at how LGBTQ+ people are treated within the Jewish faith, particularly looking at gay men and lesbians. 

The stories of various queer Jewish people are explored in the film, from gay men who were ostracised from the community as teenagers to lesbians who chose to stay with their husbands and ignore their attraction to women.  

When it was released, the doc was eye-opening for many inside and outside of the community. The film is far from perfect, however, and has been accused of presenting a one-sided argument of how Orthodox Jewish people respond to members of the LGBTQ+ community. Watching it today is like a snapshot of the community when the topic was starting to be interrogated more, rather than a definitive guide on how queer Jewish people are treated now.

 

3. Shiva Baby

Emma Seligman drew on her own experiences of growing up Jewish and queer to produce this hilarious and fresh take on the topic. We follow Rachel Senott who plays Danielle, a college student who is dragged to a shiva (the week-long period of mourning after a funeral). She is dismayed to find both her sugar daddy and her ex-girlfriend Maya (Molly Gordon), and chaos ensues. 

The memorable score featuring plucking strings adds a tense undertone to the seemingly relaxed family reunion. Danielle must smile through ignorant conversations with aunts and hide her shock as she discovers her sugar daddy has a family of his own. 

Shiva Baby (2020) is never predictable, jumping from comedy skit to tense thriller in the same scene. Turning a shiva into the setting for such a story is a genius move from Seligman. After all, what can be more hilarious and terrifying than your own family?