The Fast and the Curious: Why Hollywood Turned Its Back on the Day of Atonement

Of all the major Jewish holidays, Yom Kippur has been the most neglected on the big screen. A look at some notable exceptions.

Nathan Abrams
Nathan Abrams
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A scene from 'The Jazz Singer,' with Al Jolson (1927).
A scene from 'The Jazz Singer,' with Al Jolson (1927).
Nathan Abrams
Nathan Abrams

Although there has been a explosion of films recently featuring Jewish holidays, unlike Hanukkah or Passover - Yom Kippur has never enjoyed top billing. Despite its importance it even tarries behind Purim and Rosh Hashanah. This is most likely because it has no comparable Christian festivals with which it explain it to a non-Jewish audience.

Further, what’s so exciting about a day in which nothing happens other than fasting? Woody Allen explains it succinctly in his 1987 family comedy “Radio Days”: “For 24 hours you're supposed to do nothing. You can't even turn on a light switch. Just sit and fast and pray and atone for your sins.” As a result, Yom Kippur seemingly provides little meat (pun intended) for dramatic interpretation.

Woody Allen's 'Radio Days' (1987).

Yet Yom Kippur made its most dramatic debut as far back as 1927 in “The Jazz Singer” (best known for being the first “talkie”). Directed by Alan Crosland, it was based on an original play by Samson Raphaelson called “The Day of Atonement.”

Al Jolson starred as Jakie Rabinowitz, the son of an Orthodox Jewish cantor. Jakie seeks to assimilate into the wider American culture by rejecting the ways of his father and adopting the profession of singing jazz in blackface, under the more gentile name of Jack Robin.

The opening service of Yom Kippur, Kol Nidre, is used to dramatize the clash of values between the Old World father and the assimilating son. Ultimately, this generational rift is resolved when Jack/Jakie returns to his father’s synagogue to lead the Kol Nidre service when his father falls gravely ill.

The pattern was repeated in the various remakes: A 1952 version directed by Michael (“Casablanca”) Curtiz, and the 1980 remake helmed by Richard Fleischer and starring Neil Diamond. In between there was also a 1959 TV version.

If “The Jazz Singer” provides the most dramatic use of Yom Kippur, the classic comedic treatment of Yom Kippur remains Allen’s “Radio Days,” from which the dialogue quoted above is drawn.

It is the Day of Atonement, and the Jewish family (broadly based on Allen’s own) is fasting. Their nerves are becoming increasingly frayed because their communist Jewish neighbor (played by Larry David) is playing the radio loudly and pointedly ignoring the fast. The patriarch, Abe (Josh Mostel), goes next door to complain, but does not return for an hour. When Abe does, at last, come back, he has rejected Judaism and is spouting the communist line. “I mean, look, I should fast to atone for my sins? What are my sins? Who did I bother? The only sin is the exploitation ... of the worker by the bosses.” What’s more, Abe has broken the fast by eating, of all things, pork chops, clams, French fries and chocolate pudding. When his wife tells him that God will punish him, Abe begins to have chest pains, but it turns out to be indigestion.

More recently, Yom Kippur has played only bit parts in the movies. Amos Gitai’s “Kippur” (2000) may reference the holy day, but this is mere coincidence, as it is actually a film about the Yom Kippur War of 1973.

In contrast, “Kissing Jessica Stein” (directed by Charles Herman-Wurmfeld, 2001) opens in synagogue, where the eponymous protagonist (Jennifer Westfeldt), a neurotic Jewish American Princess, is seated between her kvetching mother and grandmother during the Yom Kippur service. As the women’s voices rise in pitch, Jessica exasperatedly shouts, “Would you shut up!? I’m atoning.”

An even more fleeting appearance comes in “When Do We Eat?” (director: Salvador Litvak, 2005), itself a film actually about Passover. Ethan (Max Greenfield), a ba’al teshuva in the midst of a secular but traditional family, lusts after his cousin - with whom he previously had an affair. Unable to resist her - and in a dramatic gesture of defiance toward his now-found frum lifestyle - he shoves all the items off the table and makes love to her during the Seder. He justifies it with the profanity, “F*** it, I’ll atone on Yom Kippur.”

However, in all of these films, Yom Kippur is never the focus of the story. It provides merely a backdrop for several dramatic or comedic scenes. Even the central theme of the day – atonement – is often barely commented upon or explored in any depth. This is seemingly left up to gentile filmmakers, such as in Joe Wright’s “Atonement” (2007). Nor is the Book of Jonah, which is read in synagogue during the service, utilized to any great extent.

Overall, this is strange, given the weight of Yom Kippur in the Jewish calendar - a day when Jews worldwide, even the most secular and atheist, observe or recognize it in some form, even if only by not going to work. But, perhaps it is its very boringness that negates its value as a filmic device.

So, we still await the day when a filmmaker makes more than passing use of the Day of Atonement.

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