Eight Unforgettable Jewish Oscar-Winning Movies

February 15, 2024Wes Hopper

With the nominees announced for the 96th Academy Awards, we now know who will take their place amongst the pantheon of Jewish-themed Oscar nominees. This year, "Oppenheimer," "Zone of Interest," and "Maestro" bring Jewish figures and history into the celebration. To whet your appetite, try watching some (or all) of these eight Oscar winners from past years with strong Jewish roots.

1. "Funny Girl"

This 1968 musical directed by William Wyler saw a young Barbara Streisand go from an unknown name in film to an Oscar-winning actress. The film was adapted from the successful Broadway musical based on the true story of comedian Fanny Brice and her relationship with husband Nicky Arnstein.

Streisand had never appeared on film when she reprised her Broadway performance in the screen version. "Funny Girl" went on to become the highest-grossing film of 1968.

2. "Hester Street"

"Hester Street" depicts the struggles of a European Jewish immigrant family in New York's Lower East Side at the turn of the 20th century. Carol Kane was nominated for Best Actress in 1976 for her portrayal of Gitl, a woman trying to preserve her otherness in the face of American assimilation. Kane went on to have a venerable career as an actor on film, stage, and TV; "Hester Street" went on to become a classic Jewish film.

3. "Fiddler on the Roof"

"Fiddler on the Roof" could be considered the Jewish version of "Oklahoma!". This musical is so universal, it is one of the most well-known depictions of Jewish culture in the world. At the same time, it could be argued that "Fiddler on the Roof" is a one-dimensional depiction of Jewish life in Tsarist Russia.

The film version received eight nominations in 1972, including Best Picture, Best Director (Norman Jewison), and Best Actor (Chaim Topol as Tevye). The film's representation at the Oscars was a watershed moment in Jewish cultural representation in the media.

4. "Waltz with Bashir"

"Waltz with Bashir,"an Oscar-nominated animated war documentary from 2008, was written and directed by Ari Folman. An unorthodox combination of animation and documentary-style direction, "Waltz with Bashir"details Ari's quest to recover his memory after being a solider in Israel's 1982 war with Lebanon.

Having won both the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Film and the National Society of Film Critics' award for Best Film, "Bashir" was favored to win the Oscar for Best Picture in 2009. However, the Japanese film "Departures" won the Oscar instead.

5. "A Serious Man"

The Coen brothers boast 15 Oscar nominations in total. After the success of their adaptation of "No Country for Old Men," they poured the same themes of free will, fate, and unpredictability into a very Jewish retelling of the Book of Job.

A film devoid of big stars, "A Serious Man" went on to be nominated for Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay at the 2010 Academy Awards. This film arguably serves as a culmination of the Coen brothers' philosophy.

6. "Schindler's List"

Steven Spielberg's dramatic masterpiece, "Schindler's List," was nominated for 12 awards and won seven at the 1994 Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director. This film details how German businessman Oskar Schindler (played by Liam Neeson) saved over 1,000 Polish Jews during the Holocaust by employing them in his factories.

Spielberg decided to make the film in response to the rise of Neo-Nazism in Germany. In his acceptance speech, Spielberg implored all educators: "please do not allow the Holocaust to remain a footnote in history."

7. "Ida"

"Ida" is a powerful film and filmmaker Pawel Pawlikowski's masterpiece. It tells the story of Ida, a young woman about to become a Catholic nun until her aunt reveals that Ida's parents were Jewish. The duo embarks on a road trip to discover what happened to Ida's parents in a haunting examination of 1960s Poland, a country still feeling the impact of World War II.

Pawlikowski auditioned over 400 actresses for the title role before casting Agata Trzebuchowska, a newcomer discovered sitting in a cafe. In 2015, "Ida " won Poland's first Oscar for Best Foreign Film.

8. "Cabaret"

Bob Fosse's sole Oscar win for Best Director, "Cabaret" received the most Academy Awards for a film that didn't win Best Picture. "Cabaret" depicts the last days of the Weimar Republic and the rise of antisemitism in Germany through the lens of the Kit Kat Klub, its star performer Sally Bowles (Liza Minelli), and two German Jews who fall in love (one of whom is attempting to pass as a Protestant at the start of the movie). 

Liza Minnelli cemented her status as a musical icon with her portrayal of Bowles, basing her Oscar-winning performance on actress Louise Brooks. "Cabaret" continues to serve as a landmark film and cautionary tale of how easily an open society can succumb to fascism.

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