As a member of the millennial generation, limited participation of women in Torah study, life in the Old Country or even growing up in a predominately Jewish neighborhood—are a few of many aspects to the Jewish experience that are foreign to me. There’s a reason why my connection to my Jewish identity is strengthened through films like Yentl, An American Tail, and Biloxi Blues. Okay, it may be difficult to relate to a mouse, but the film still creates that yearning to connect with the past.
Younger generations are increasingly becoming removed from these experiences that have helped shape Jewish identity. For some, their only connection to Jewish culture is through films depicting Jewish life. The experience of yearning for the past and the sense of familiarity while watching films is referred to as nostalgia. Many Jewish films employ this technique, especially before the turn of the century.
But, what about the 21st century? Sure, there have been many films, especially in the comedy genre, that sprinkle Yiddish here and there, but that’s not enough to evoke nostalgia. One film that was not an instant hit, but became a cult classic was Wet Hot American Summer (2001). It was not explicit in its Jewish nature and addresses an audience whose identity is more fluid. This movie is more than a film about summer sleep-away camps—it’s about an intrinsic part of the Jewish experience. I never went to a Jewish summer camp, and yet I was still able to feel connected to the characters and feel a sense of familiarity. There are other Jewish experiences that are similar to summer camp, such as religious school or birthright, that still successfully creates nostalgia. Jewishness is not a focus in the film, but it’s definitely in the background enriching the viewing experience. The new series on Netflix, released at the end of July, chronicles the first day of camp and includes even more Jewish connections, from shofars to shlichim (a camp resident from Israel). This film, and series, brings a different form of nostalgia, one that reflects the current state of Jewish identity and its fluidity.
Another film of this century that evokes nostalgia in a different way is Everything is Illuminated (2005) adapted from a book by Jonathan Safran Foer about a Jewish man who travels to Ukraine to find the woman who saved his grandfather from Nazis. Similar to other films of this century, look to A Serious Man for another example, this film addresses the preoccupation with putting together the fragments of the past to understand the present. There is also an anxiety hovering like a dark cloud: a fear that Jewish culture will continue to abate, coming closer and closer to obsolescence. Jewish nostalgia within films is then essential for the transmission of culture from the older to the younger generation.
Dvorah Lewis is a contributing writer.