16 Jewish Documentaries that aren’t Sad

hava nagila photo
Hava Nagila: The Movie. Jenny Jimenez/Courtesy of Katahdin Productions.

Scrolling through the documentary offerings on Netflix, I began to feel that there were a lot of them on one subject: The Holocaust. Turns out, I'm not alone in seeing this trend.

My first reaction was that this was good -- there is a frightening lack of knowledge, and even disbelief, about the realities of the Holocaust. And millions worldwide watch Netflix, so let them watch and learn, right?

But then I had a second reaction. Holocaust documentaries are good. Showing only such things, though … I began to worry. Is this how people see us? Is this how we want them to see us? How we want to see ourselves? Only as victims?

So I set out to find documentaries about other Jewish topics. They had to be uplifting, and celebrate Jewish contributions to society and culture. Also, they couldn't be biographies of just one famous Jew, like Hank Greenberg, Jerry Seinfeld, Barbra Streisand, or Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Here are just some of the upbeat -- and offbeat -- Jewish "docs" I found:

Hava Nagila: The Movie

The only other feature-length documentaries I know of about just one song are about "Amazing Grace" and this one beat that hip-hop artists like to sample. In this doc, however, the filmmakers explore the disputed origins of this Jewish standard and interview some of the mainstream singers who have performed it. (Here is my blog post about how the song has travelled around the world.)

Deli Man

In 2009, David Sax came out with the book Save the Deli: In Search of Perfect Pastrami, Crusty Rye, and the Heart of Jewish Delicatessen. From the same noble impulse comes this 2014 documentary. Pass the mustard.

The Tribe

It's short -- only 18 minutes -- but so is its subject: Barbie. The doll is used as a window into the American Jewish experience. (A lot more about Barbie is on Netflix as one of the episodes of The Toys That Made Us.)

Comic Book Superheroes Unmasked

It's not about the Jewish origins of comic books and superheroes per se. But you can't list the creators of Superman, Batman, Captain America, Spider-Man, and Thor without thinking, "I bet they know how to pronounce 'Chanukah' correctly."

When Jews Were Funny

Or: Didja ever notice that lots of great stand-up comics were Jewish? But seriously, folks -- Comedy Central listed the 100 greatest stand-up comics of the 20th Century and 37 (by my count) are Jewish. That's … 37%!

Hollywoodism

The story of the Jewish immigrants who took then-recent inventions -- movie film, cameras, and projectors -- and used them to build an industry of the imagination.

Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg

The story of what is easily one of the most Jewish shows in television history, and its creator. There probably hasn't been a show this Jewish until, well, The Goldbergs. I wonder if they are related?

GI Jews

The next person who tells you that Jews are "weak" or "unpatriotic," send them this link. It's about how tens of thousands of American Jews enlisted in the fight to save European Jews from the Nazis -- while also combatting homegrown hatred stateside.

Awake Zion

There is a reason Bob Marley titled one of his albums Exodus. This doc explores the influence of Jewish texts and history on Rastafarianism, and how some Jewish artists have been influenced by them in return (yes, Matisyahu is in it).

Punk Jews

Literally, Jews who play punk music, but also others on the, um, fringes of Jewish expression, from rap to street theater to yoga.

Then there are a few docs about Jewish boxers: Impact: Jewish Boxers in America; Dmitry Salita: Orthodox Stance; and Yuri Forman: the Next Jewish Boxer.

Speaking of sports, there is On the Map, about how Tal Brody led the Israeli Maccabee team to a basketball victory over the Soviet Red Army team in 1977. And Supergirl, about a bat mitzvah who becomes a weightlifter. And Jews and Baseball, An American Love Story.

On Netflix, as with the seder table, there is always room for one more. So let's hope they continue to do their part for Holocaust education, while letting their viewers see there is much more to being Jewish than that.

What's your favorite upbeat Jewish documentary? Let us know in the comments.


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