There are lists of Jewish movies, and lists of Jewish music. But I haven’t seen any lists of Jewish movie music— music in the soundtracks of Jewish-themed movies— so I made my own. Rather than limit myself to a “Top 10,” I decided to go with another Jewish number: 18.
I soon became aware that there are really two kinds of soundtracks. One of original music or songs, and one of compiled songs. So I’ll get to the second kind in another post.
For now, these are the best original soundtracks for movies with Jewish themes, listed chronologically (please feel free to disagree vehemently— what did I miss, what should I have skipped?):
1. The Jazz Singer (1927)
This was the first “talkie,” and it was about the Jewish struggle with assimilation. It starred one of the greatest performers of all time, Al Jolson. He famously adlibbed, “You ain’t heard nothin’ yet!” and then proceeded to sing the Kaddish and Kol Nidre alongside classics like “Blue Skies” and “Give My Regards to Broadway.”
2. The Ten Commandments (1956)
Today, “epic” movies are all sci-fi and fantasy. But once, they were literally Biblical in scope. The legendary Elmer Bernstein turns in a sea-splittingly rousing score.
3. Ben-Hur (1959)
Speaking of epic, and of Charlton Heston… Yes, this is subtitled “A Tale of the Christ,” but every character here who isn’t Roman is Judean. Miklos Rozsa won his third Oscar for this score. As Ben-Hur involved Jewish, Middle Eastern, and Roman themes, who better than the man who scored Jack Benny’s Hitler parody To Be or Not to Be, The Thief of Bagdad, and QuoVadis?
4. Exodus (1960)
Composer Ernest Gold won the Oscar for the theme for this one in 1960. It’s one of the themes that pop up in every list of “greatest movie themes of all time,” so why should this list be an exception? This is not about the original Exodus (see entry #2) but about a boat with that name trying to get into the nascent state of Israel with the help of Paul Newman.
5. Funny Girl (1968)
It’s Barbra Streisand singing about being another Jewish acting/singing star, Fanny Brice. It’s another assimilation story. It’s about people… people who need people. Babs won the Tony for the stage version and the Oscar for the film. Glee has already used two of its songs.
6. Oliver! (1968)
Dickens’ classic does not paint the most… affectionate portrait of our man Fagin. But one of the film’s six Oscars was for the music. And the soundtrack includes that anthem of Jewish holidays, “Food, Glorious Food.”
7. Fiddler on the Roof (1971)
While many roles are identified with just one actor, Tevye was meaty enough to have Topol (who did the movie version), Theodore Bikel, Herschel Bernardi, and Zero Mostel all gain fame in the part. More recent assayers have included everyone from Harvey Fierstein to Alfred Molina. (But not Mandy Patinkin. Something is wrong about that.) Oh, and it’s the only klezmer musical, certainly the only one to get the Oscar for Best Original Score.
8. Blazing Saddles (1974)
Not too many songs, but memorable ones at that. There’s the theme— “He rode a blazing saddle…” There’s “I’m Tired,” which helped Madeline Kahn get an Oscar nomination for channeling Marlene Dietrich. And there’s the closing number “The French Mistake,” probably the only movie song with the Yiddish-ish word “tush” in it. Mel Brooks’ musical of his Producers would later win more Tonys than any other musical ever, and this is how he practiced. (Wait… is this a Jewish movie? Well, both these people and this person say so.)
9. Cabaret (1972)
Songs by the Jewish team of Kander and Ebb, who also gave us Chicago. The two main singers— Liza Minnelli and Joel Grey (previously Katz)— won Oscars, as did the sophisticated music.
10. The Jazz Singer (1980)
Well, no, Neil Diamond can’t act… and Laurence Olivier, who can, famously lamented his involvement. But the songs were big hits, with three— “Love on the Rocks,” “Hello Again,” and the immigration anthem “America”— cracking the Top 10. As a bonus, there are versions of Adon Olam and Kol Nidre rendered in Diamond’s lush baritone. The soundtrack itself was nominated for a Grammy. It sold more than five million copies. Your parents have the LP in their basement.
11. Chariots of Fire (1981)
One of the most famous instrumental themes, period. Not just because its composer, Vangelis, was mostly a new-agey one, and not just because it innovatively used contemporary electronic instruments in a period piece. But because… well, now every time you see fast-action rendered in slow-mo, your brain goes: Da da-da-da daa-daa (chchchch), Da da-da-da daaaaa (chchchch). This artsy sports flick won the Oscar for Best Original Score.
12. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
John Williams + Steven Spielberg= one of the longest-running, best-loved partnerships in movie history. And the rousing fanfare style of the Raiders theme is not at all repetitive of Williams’ own Superman score of three years prior, so why bring it up?
13. Yentl (1983)
Barbra again. Best Original Score. Yes, Papa can hear you.
14. Once Upon a Time in America (1984)
Ennio Morricone + Sergio Leone = great matchup of composer and director long before the Spielberg/Williams movies. Mostly, they did Westerns, but gangster movies are somewhat city-based cowboy flicks, no? Considered one of maestro Morricone’s best scores, this was eliminated from Oscar competition on a technical point. If you liked Bugsy, or even if you didn’t, you’ll like this film, the closest Jewish movies get to The Godfather.
15. Schindler’s List (1993)
John Williams + Steven Spielberg again, only this time Williams is going somewhat klezmer (Best Original Score). Itzhak Perlman, who helped (re)popularize klezmer, performs the haunting theme, and it’s become a required piece for him to perform— mandatory at Jewish fundraisers. In the recent Vancouver Olympics, the Israeli figure skaters did a routine to it. It’s almost liturgy at this point. There’s also a Yiddish children’s song here, and the clarinet parts we done by old-school klez virtuoso Giora Feidman. Did you know that Billie Holiday’s on the soundtrack, too?
16. The Prince of Egypt (1998)
Late Israeli singer Ofra Haza performs the song “Deliver Us.” Also, Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey duet on the soundtrack… as do Steve Martin and Martin Short, together again for the first time. But it’s the Whitney/Mariah “When You Believe” that won the Oscar for Best Original Song— go figure. Stephen Schwartz (Disney’s Pocahontas, Hunchback, and Enchanted, but also Godspell, Pippin, and Wicked) wrote the lyrics.
17. Eight Crazy Nights (2002)
Yes, Adam Sandler has more songs in him than “The Chanukah Song.” And they are all about… Chanukah. Well, this movie is all about Chanukah, and the songs are all in the movie. The songs themselves are about stuff in the movie. If you have all three versions of “The Chanukah Song” on your iPhone, this is the next thing you need to get.
18. Defiance (2008)
This film the one about brothers who were not “basterds” but were in fact pretty freakin’ “glourious.” James Newton Howard took a break from scoring M. Night Shayamalan movies to compose this moody, almost Goth, soundtrack. The violin solos are by Joshua Bell. It was nominated for Best Original Score (beaten for the Oscar by Slumdog Millionaire, the movie best known for making me lose my Oscar pool that year because I thought Benjamin Button was going to sweep).
See you soon with the 18 best compilation soundtracks to Jewish movies.