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Diddler on the Roof, or, the Sexiest Jewish Movies

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“Best of” movie lists are common, covering genres, actors and decades. A well-circulated list of the top 50 Jewish movies ranges from heartwarming to harrowing, Fiddler on the Roof, Schindler’s List, Blazing Saddles and more. Yet nobody has ever analyzed Jewish cinema through the filter I prefer: the Sexiest Jewish Movies. That’s a big cultural absence, since sensual zest has been part of Jewish life since at least the days when King Solomon set his concubines aside long enough to write “The Song of Songs.”

I volunteer to fill this gap in cinematic analysis.

What are Jewish movies? I define a Jewish movie as one where the characters identify as Jewish and take that identity seriously. Such movies may or may not deal with “religion” as such, but the identity colors characters’ lives and history. That eliminates movies where characters reek with self-loathing and treat their identity as a burden, or where Jewishness functions merely as a short-hand way to declare, “I’m hip! I’m edgy! I’m neurotic!” My Hall of Shame category here deals with such dreck, as the Yiddish word goes. What makes them erotic? Eye candy counts, getting to see hot Jewish bodies, but I also like the way characters act, their personalities, their seductiveness and ability to draw me into a situation. The sexiest body part, as we all know, is between your ears, so if a movie hits me there, it qualifies. Explicitness doesn’t always work; Lena Olin in a bowler hat in The Unbearable Lightness of Being dazzles me; Kate Winslet as a clothes-shedding Nazi death-camp veteran in The Reader repels me.

Obviously, this list is supremely personal, reflecting the views of a 50-something straight male. I mostly list films plucked from distant memory, although I’ve seen several recently and rewatched two of them to check whether my first impressions were accurate (they were). Besides favorite films, I’ve also included several Lifetime Achievement Awards to honor those performers with an outstanding body of work that I’ve enjoyed for decades. So, the envelopes please . . .

Jeremy is a Robbie Benson coming-of-age film I saw as a teen when it debuted in 1974, when I was the same age as the characters. He’s a nerd from New York, and dancer/love interest Susan (Glynnis O'Connor) is a creative soul who’s new in town from Detroit. He’s, Jewish, she’s not, and how he got the last name of Jones is part of their conversations. Jeremy’s religious background is part of the movie’s tapestry, just as coming to terms with my Jewish background was becoming a major issue for me at the time. As a result, the movie spoke directly to me. The teen love story, culminating in the Jeremy and Susan “going all the way” on a rainy afternoon, electrified me with Susan yanking off her sweater and heavy-breathing dialogue that I could only dream of happening in my teen romantic life. In my parallel real world, holding hands represented a major social breakthrough. After the act with Jeremy, Susan explains her feelings: “I could still feel your lips on mine, I could feel you all over my body, and I thought to myself, ‘I’m a woman, and he loves me.’” In today’s teen sex comedies, I can’t imagine anybody taking such a serious view. Jeremy’s aching sincerity and fantasy fulfillment gave the movie a power that remained strong when I rewatched it 35 years after the first viewing.

Girlfriends: Before thirtysomething, Melanie Mayron starred in this 1978 film about a struggling Jewish photographer named Susan Weinblatt aiming for love and career in New York. At the time I was a struggling Jewish writer aiming for love and career in New York with about as much success. Mayron pursues relationships, she cries, she talks to Rabbi Gold, played by Eli Wallach (no relation, except in the general Member of the Tribe sense) and in one too-brief scene exposes her ripe young Yiddish rump for the camera. I adored her and her stunning mop of dark curly hair. Even the act of watching the movie intersected with my personal life, as I saw it with one of the first women I ever dated steadily in New York, Adina, a writer for a Jewish publication. The movie is not available on DVD and as far as I can tell had only a brief appearance on VHS. Who’s keeping the rights locked up? This would be a hit.

Lifetime Achievement Award I: My fixation on curvaceous Lainie Kazan (a/k/a Lanie Levine from Brooklyn) started when I saw her in Playboy in 1970. Known for her cleavage as well as her singing, she appealed to me back then when my mind was young and malleable. By the time I noticed her in movies like My Favorite Career, Beaches, My Big Fat Greek Wedding and more recently You Don’t Mess with the Zohan, her ripeness had evolved into double-plus-zaftig dimensions, but her confident, charge-ahead attitude always appealed to me. Even in her late 60s, she was getting it on with Adam Sandler in Zohan. Dare I call her a GMILF?

The Secrets: This Israeli movie is set on a women-only Orthodox yeshiva in Sfad, the home of mystics and Kabbalah. The mix of clashing personalities, feminism in a regimented environment and unvoiced, smoldering passions makes this movie a spiritually elevated, shomer-Shabbos version of a 1970s Pam Grier babes-behind-bars prison epic. In this hothouse environment, romance blossoms for two of the women, Naomi and Michelle, who circle around an ailing, mysterious outsider named Anouk, who scandalizes students with a stash of erotic paintings from her late lover in France. Naomi and Michelle gaze at each other, they kiss, they get to know each other in the Biblical sense, and then the hearts start breaking. The movie has a eye-popping scene where the modest clothes fly off so the young and the frum can dip themselves into the ritual mikvah bath as part of an exorcism. The Secrets blends in some humor about the mating rituals of the Orthodox and the requisite funeral and wedding found in all self-respecting Jewish movies.

Europa Europa: This movie stands alone in its use of circumcision as a plot device and dramatic tool. It details the true story of a Jewish boy, Solomon Perel, who passes as an Aryan and even winds up in a Hitler Youth training program. Europa Europa haunted me with its plot line about a decent gay (closeted) German soldier learning the true identity of his Jewish Wehrmacht comrade. Nothing happens between the two, as I recall, but the yearning and the doubled sense of fatal concealment (one’s gay, the other’s Jewish) have a terrible poignancy. Other parts of the movie detail Solomon’s desperate attempts to avoid revealing the sign of the covenant, and that includes avoiding sex with Leni, the Nazi-admiring girl he loves. Sexual desire never seems as ominous as it does in Europa Europa.

Lifetime Achievement Award II: What can I say about Amy Irving? Technically, she’s not Jewish. Her father had a Jewish background and she was raised a Christian Scientist, so the name and look mask a non-Jewish reality. Still, from her role as Isabella Grossman in Crossing Delancy to Hadass in Yentl, to later works Bossa Nova to Traffic, she embodied my fantasies of what I wanted in a woman. I eventually found a woman who reminded me of Amy Irving, but things didn’t work out. Steven Spielberg got the real Amy Irving, but he couldn’t hang on to her, either.

Enemies, A Love Story; The Unbearable Lightness of Being; The Reader: I always linked these movies, especially the first two. Enemies and Lightness burrowed deep into my consciousness. The Reader, while visually explicit, left me cold and repulsed by the characters. Enemies concerns Holocaust survivors in New York after World War II, with one man, Herman Broder (Ron Silver) involved with three beautiful women, his current wife, a married woman, and the wife in Europe who he thought had died in the war. The second is set in Czechoslovakia in the 1960s, while The Reader is about the doomed affair of a teen and a mysterious women in his apartment building in 1950s Germany. Enemies and The Reader have Jewish aspects (and I read both the books), Lightness does not, as far as I can tell. Beyond their European settings or characters, the three movies all share one radiant connection: Swedish actress Lena Olin. She’s gorgeous in Lightness (1988) and Enemies (1989), and then compelling in a dual role in Reader (2008). She plays Rose Mather and her daughter Ilana, at different times in the narrative. Knowing Olin’s earlier work gave her small but critical presence in The Reader another layer of meaning for me. Olin may not be Jewish, but I’ll give her honorary status for her signal work in these movies. She can be my kugel queen anytime.

Dreck Hall of Shame: Amy’s Orgasm, otherwise known as Amy’s O for prudish Americans who quiver at the very thought of the orgasmic pleasure of a young Jewish woman. Actually, they should quiver at the message of this movie, which I viscerally disliked. I place it in my “Dreck Hall of Shame” of Jewish erotica. It starts with the standard tropes of an ethnic romantic comedy – attractive young person laments inability to find a member of his or her group for marriage, endlessly hounded by family on this subject. In writer Amy’s case, she yaps about Jewish men. Then, she gets into a relationship with a man who’s not Jewish and their faiths never arise as an issue. The movie takes the easy way out – Jewishness is a shorthand for a set of personality traits and shrill family members, but it never assumes a deeper meaning in the lives of characters. When the shaygetz walks in the door, the convictions fly out the window.

Lifetime Achievement Award III: The works of director/writer/actor Henry Jaglom are, I’ll admit, an acquired taste, like eating snails. Henry Jaglom’s movies, made by Henry Jaglom and reflecting the obsessions of Henry Jaglom and the mostly female friends of Henry Jaglom, attract me in a weirdly magnetic way. A direct descendant of philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, Jaglom is a strong supporter of Israel and his films typically have at least one main Jewish character. The movies are maddening, but they are nakedly revealing of women’s emotions and issues. Throw in actresses’ curly hair, olive complexions and cute figures, and the emotional tumult is just plain catnip for me. Titles like Eating, Baby Fever, Going Shopping and New Year’s Day suggest the intense subject material. Sensuality and overloads of psychological drama ooze from every frame. A quote from an article about Jaglom says everything you need to know to watch, or run screaming away from, his movies: “Men have a hard time listening. In my films, you must listen. Men usually deny the internal landscape, preferring to externalize their experience. Women become involved. They explore what they are feeling.”

If you can handle that view, you can handle a Jaglom movie. Twenty years ago, I was so entranced by his movies that I engineered, on rather flimsy grounds, a telephone interview with him when I was writing the “Video Stories” column for Video Store magazine. We discussed advertising on videos or some related issue. Although baffled by the interview request, Jaglom was a good sport and answered my questions the best he could, unable to see the stars in my eyes.

Now, we’ve reached the climax of the column, the names of the three sexiest Jewish movies ever made (according to me). None of them are Hollywood films; indeed, none of them are even in English. All are set in the past and have a raw, matter-of-fact sensuality that I rarely find in American films.

Black Book, by Dutch director Paul Verhoeven, observes sexuality in the context of the Holocaust, of Jewish resistance fighters in Holland. Verhoeven is one of my favorite directors, having also done RoboCop, Basic Instinct, Starship Troopers and the grossly underrated Las Vegas movie Showgirls. Black Book follows the struggle to survive and take revenge of character Rachel Stein, played by spunky Carice van Houten. Exploiting sexual power is her key to survival, and Rachel dyes her dark Jewish tresses (everywhere!) to help her pass as an Aryan and penetrate Amsterdam’s Nazi power structure for the Resistance. Black Book vibrates with tension over how sexuality will influence the odds of survival. Statuesque supporting actress Halina Reijn also brightens up the screen with her own blazing presence. The movie’s appeal is simple: Rachel is Jewish and she is sexual and she never forgets that she is both.

Nowhere in Africa is the German-made film that won the 2002 Oscar for best foreign movie. It has a different take on Holocaust, telling the story of a Germany family that escapes to Kenya in the late 1930s. The adults, Walter and Jettel, have a troubled marriage but their daughter Regina thrives. The movie’s sexual power comes from just a few scenes, but they make every second count. In one, the husband and wife walk on a rural road and he says, “You’re going to show your breasts like a native woman.” With a saucy smile she takes off her shirt and sashays down the road, seen only from behind with a basket on her head. The interplay of demand and exposure, going beyond Western standards of behavior, was powerful. In another, Regina, who is friendly with a Kenyan boy, declines his request that she drop her blouse once she enters puberty. They banter back and forth until she decides to climb a tree and doesn’t want to get her white blouse dirty, so off it comes and up she goes. The casual, accepting attitude toward teen sexuality and acknowledgment of those teen urges would never appear in a mainstream American movie. Nothing happens between the boy and the girl, by the way, at least not shown on screen. The final scene is near the movie’s end when the husband and wife reconcile as they decide what to do after the war’s end. Reconciliation, of course, brings lots of hot Hebrew humping that the movie shows in tasteful detail – Jettel becomes happily pregnant, too, so the next generation of Jews is on its way.

And the winner is Turn Left at the End of the World, an Israeli movie set in 1968 in an isolated desert town for new immigrants, mostly from India and Yemen. Clashes of different Jewish communities take place amidst sexual hijinks of every variety. I can honestly call it the Citizen Kane of Jewish erotica. Directed by Avi Nesher, the movie starts with nudity and cavorts through inter-ethnic shtupping, a student seducing her teacher, proto-lesbian Israeli folk dancing, a discussion of the Kama Sutra, a femme fatale who daubs perfume between her breasts and on her upper thigh (gulp!), a bodily fluid-enhanced folk curse against the femme fatale by an angry wife, and a teen musing to her engaged sister about “the first time.” She dreamily wonders, “The first time I sleep with a man I want to see everything. There mere thought of it gets me excited. I’ll take off my clothes nice and slow. He’ll take off his nice and slow. We’ll stand next naked face to face.” And there’s much more.

The overall impact: if this is Israeli reality, when can I make aliyah? Turn Left stands as a great example of the unabashed earthiness found in many Israeli movies, where you see Jewish bodies in various states with no false modesty or coyness. The message is, this is who we are, this is what we look like, this is what we do. Like the Hebrew phrase goes, “L’chaim,” “to life,” and the most erotic Israeli movies show the sensual side of lives lived in the shadow of danger, openly. And Turn Left rivals Citizen Kane's "Rosebud" for the greatest deathbed line ever: “I want to die with my makeup on.”

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