An Oy for an Oy

Kathryn Bernheimer knows movies. The Boulder film critic's name has been seen regularly in print for nearly twenty years in such places as the Boulder Daily Camera, and that's been more than enough time to develop her expertise. But Bernheimer also knows a thing or two about what it means to be Jewish, and between the two cultural concerns, she's managed to find a niche: writing and speaking on the portrayal of Jews in film. Her new book, a carefully researched text titled The 50 Greatest Jewish Movies: A Critic's Ranking of the Very Best, is due on bookstore shelves this week.

"One thing struck me whenever I would speak on or present Jewish films," Bernheimer says. "I compiled a list of my recommended titles, and wherever I went, people not only wanted the list, but I'd get calls for weeks after, saying, 'Will you please Xerox it for me? Will you send me one?' The lightbulb went off. I thought maybe they would like to have movies reviewed--to have a guide, so to speak."

Bernheimer, already at a crossroads in her life, decided to take the plunge. Initially she had planned for a more comprehensive Jewish video guide with reviews of every movie featuring a Jewish theme, subject or character. "I came up with 250 titles, and things started getting unwieldy," she says. No publisher was ready to take a chance on a reference tome that large and specialized, but positive feedback encouraged her to rework the concept.

Of course, picking fifty films was no easy task. "I had to resist the impulse to pick personal favorites," Bernheimer says, adding that she also had to overlook some films in order to arrive at a fair and varied sampling. And the ranking process itself bordered on painful: "How can you compare Annie Hall to Shoah? It just seems so apples-and-oranges to me. But people really like it," she acknowledges. "What I found is that they always want to know: What's your number one? There's a game that goes along with it." Bernheimer also admits to cheating a little bit. "If I talked about one Mel Brooks film, I tried to talk about some of the others. I mentioned a lot more than fifty movies in the book."

The result is not only a well-rounded film reference, but also a statement on culture and faith and on how those themes intertwine in the world of film. "There's a big return to both religious and ethnic identity--people are looking for cultural connections, for roots," Bernheimer says. "They're becoming more interested in their Jewishness. And because that's coming back, Jewish film festivals are coming back. Not everyone is religious--going to the synagogue is only one solution. Wherever you are in your Jewishness, movies are an easy way to make a connection."

So what's tops on Bernheimer's list? "The Chosen," she says, referring to the 1981 film rendering of Chaim Potok's novel about families, fathers and sons, and culture shock. "I love the movie, and I still cry every time I see it. It covers every theme of twentieth-century Jewish life. It's got the latest hot-button theme in the Jewish world--tension between the branches of Judaism. That theme's even more pressing now than when Chaim Potok wrote the book." And pulling up the rear? It's Marjorie Morningstar, with Natalie Wood as Herman Wouk's prototypical Fifties-style Jewish-American Princess.


Kathryn Bernheimer signs The 50 Greatest Jewish Movies: A Critic's Ranking of the Very Best. 7:30 p.m. June 3, Boulder Book Store, 1107 Pearl Street, Boulder, 447-2074; 7:30 p.m. July 1, Tattered Cover LoDo, 1628 16th Street, 436-1070.