Emma Seligman is the writer and director of Shiva Baby, in select theaters and VOD April 2.
Being Jewish, I chose all of these movies because they help me feel seen. Growing up, I don’t think I realized that all I had was Keeping the Faith and Kissing Jessica Stein. Then A Serious Man came out in 2009 and I was like, “Wow, this is so Jewish. So weird. So funny seeing yourself on screen.” I personally connected to these movies. But also, looking back, I don’t know how my Jewish film journey, how Shiva Baby, would have come about without those movies, or what it would have been like without them laying the groundwork.
I think it’s the best directorial debut ever. It’s pretty shocking, when you watch it, to think this was Barbra Streisand’s first film. It’s beautiful and so well shot and cut and directed. I joke that I feel like she established, or maybe just nailed, what I like to call the “Jew glow,” which is this warm amber ray in which I think Jewish characters are frequently lit, even up to Transparent or A Serious Man or Fiddler on the Roof.
Also, Mandy Patinkin’s in it and he’s young and hot and half-naked. I don’t really get to see gorgeous, incredible, Oscar-winning movies from a long time ago that are so clearly from the female gaze in a million different ways: in the way that she wants to pursue her career, in the way that she’s looking at her male love interest, in the way she’s talking about jealousy and looking at Amy Irving’s character. And the movie, made well before 2021, was such a beautiful film that explores gender and gender performance.
This is one of my favorite movies. Ben Stiller plays a rabbi and Edward Norton is a priest and they are basically fighting over a girl they grew up with who moves back to New York. It was the only film that Edward Norton had directed until he did Motherless Brooklyn, and it’s just such an incredibly crafted romantic comedy. It’s obviously a little cheesy, but it’s got an amazing cast—Eli Wallach and Anne Bancroft are in it—and even though it’s about a rabbi, it’s so not much about Judaism. It’s just a really well-made rom-com, which I think is hard to do. It was also the first time I saw modern Reform Jews I could relate to on the screen. I didn’t see that again until Transparent.
Not much needs to be said there. It’s just an incredible movie for so many reasons.
For its representation of queerness and Jewish motherhood being loving and not just crazy. Jennifer Westfeldt is incredible and it’s really funny and quite modern. Just a great movie.
Crossing Delancey is a really well-written romantic comedy by a female screenwriter who ended up being my professor, Susan Sandler. I love it partially because it portrays this time period in New York on the Lower East Side in the late ’80s, where, even though it was a community of so many different immigrants, it still, at least for this woman in her world, acted like a shtetl where there was a matchmaker and a pickle man. It was such a funny modern setup for what LES still was in it being a little more old world. The setup is that this pickle guy visits a matchmaker in the neighborhood to go on a date with Amy Irving’s character who’s sort of a modern woman living on the Upper West Side that goes to see Bubbe in her apartment on the Lower East Side. It displays a version of New York that I wish I could have been around for that doesn’t really exist anymore. And I just love seeing Jewish female leads in romantic comedies. That’s part of why I love Kissing Jessica Stein and why I love Crossing Delancey. It’s really nice seeing Jewish female characters lead a romantic comedy and be seen as attractive in a movie. It’s just a nice feeling of being seen.
I’d never seen a movie with Jewish characters in that tone before. I mean, the Coen brothers are incredible and I think whenever anyone who I admire as a filmmaker does something a little more personal or a little more from their background, I’m always appreciative—especially when they’re Jewish. Jewish morbid humor is a thing, and I feel like there’s the Curb Your Enthusiasm version of it and then there’s A Serious Man, which is incredibly dark. It feels like Curb humor but through their artistic perspective. I just think it’s hilarious.
My dad was 13 in 1966 when the movie takes place. He really related to that time period and I think that made me appreciate it a little bit more. I love the Coen brothers in general. They’re my favorite filmmakers so that being their most Jewish film makes it one of my favorite Jewish films, for sure.