Yos Tarshish

Documentaries & Films that will change how you look at Jewishness

Cinematic storytelling offers an intimate lens to view the world, and in my journey to comprehend the complexity and diversity of Jewish culture, I have found this lens to be particularly illuminating. Through the following eight documentaries and short films, I have been invited into a rich tapestry of Jewish lives, communities, and histories. Each film has shifted my perspective, making me reconsider what it means to be Jewish today and throughout history.

1. ‘Punk Jews’ (2012)

“Punk Jews” offers a fascinating exploration into an unconventional amalgamation of Jewish identity and punk culture. This documentary journeys into the lives of Jewish individuals who express their Jewish identity through punk music, performance art, and social activism. From an Orthodox Jewish punk rock band to a burlesque performer, each profile challenges societal norms, offering an alternative perspective on Jewish identity in modern-day New York City.

Each unique story within “Punk Jews” breaks down stereotypes and expands our understanding of Jewish identity. The individuals featured in this documentary remind us that Jewish identity is multidimensional and can intersect with unexpected aspects of culture and society. They invite us to celebrate diversity within Judaism and the many ways Jewish identity can be expressed and experienced. To watch the full film on YouTube, click here.

2. ‘Remember Baghdad’ (2017)

“Remember Baghdad” uncovers a forgotten chapter of Jewish history—the last Jews of Baghdad. It navigates through the personal narratives of five Jewish families whose stories are woven into the rich cultural and historical fabric of the Arab world. Once a vibrant community within the heart of Baghdad, their lives were disrupted by revolutions, public hangings, and mass exodus.

This documentary goes beyond the personal experiences of these families to provide a broader understanding of Iraq’s geopolitical, religious, and cultural history. It explores a community that once thrived but now only exists in the memories of its last members and the shared cultural heritage they carry with them. To watch the trailer on YouTube, click here. To get access to the full film reach out via the film website.

3. ‘The Bene Israel: A Family Portrait’ (1994)

“The Bene Israel: A Family Portrait” immerses viewers into the unique world of the Bene Israel community of India, a community that holds a distinct place in Jewish history. Over centuries, this community has evolved a vibrant Jewish culture and religious practice that intertwines with the diverse cultural tapestry of India.

Through intimate portraits of daily life, rituals, and family bonds, the film offers a rich exploration of a community’s unwavering commitment to their Jewish faith and their unique cultural identity. It highlights the convergence of Jewish and Indian traditions, offering a unique perspective on what it means to be Jewish in the world’s most populous democracy. To watch the full film on YouTube, click here.

4. ‘Periphery’ (2021)

“Periphery” is a deeply engaging short film that presents a broad and nuanced portrait of the Jewish community in Toronto, Canada. Highlighting the experiences of individuals from multiracial and multiethnic backgrounds, this film delves into complex topics such as intersectionality, ethnicity, race, and sexuality within the context of Jewish identity.

This groundbreaking project underscores the richness and diversity within the Jewish community. “Periphery” serves as a challenge to conventional perceptions and urges us to think more inclusively about Jewish identity. It invites viewers to participate in a dialogue about the multi-faceted nature of Jewish identity, and what it truly means to belong. To watch the full film on Vimeo, click here.

5. ‘Unorthodox’ (2013)

“Unorthodox” is a powerful documentary that explores the personal and communal conflicts that can arise within Orthodox Judaism. The film traces the journey of Anna, a young woman who leaves her Orthodox Jewish community to explore her sense of self through sex, drugs, and a life beyond the religious norms she grew up with.

As Anna navigates the world outside her community, she is later drawn back to her roots. She finds herself helping three rebellious teenagers during their rites of passage while confronting the roots of her own struggle. The film provides a raw, unfiltered exploration of the tensions between personal freedom, identity, and religious tradition. To watch the full film on YouTube, click here.

6. ‘Yearning to Belong’ (2008)

“Yearning to Belong” is an enlightening documentary that chronicles the story of the Abayudaya, a Jewish community in Uganda. Despite the challenges of poverty and religious persecution, this community’s faith and commitment to Judaism remains unshaken. The film portrays their journey to gain recognition and acceptance from the global Jewish community.

The narrative of “Yearning to Belong” is a testament to the power of faith and the human spirit’s resilience. It sheds light on a relatively unknown chapter of Jewish history and presents an inspiring story of a community’s relentless quest for religious acceptance and identity amidst adversity. To watch the full film on YouTube, click here.

7. ‘A Tree of Life: The Pittsburgh Synagogue Shooting’ (2022)

“A Tree of Life: The Pittsburgh Synagogue Shooting” is a deeply moving documentary that recounts the aftermath of the deadliest antisemitic attack in US history. Through the lens of survivors, families, and the community that bore the brunt of this tragic event, the film paints a stark yet inspiring picture of resilience and unity in the face of hate.

While the film grapples with the profound pain and loss that stems from the attack, it also sheds light on the resilience of the human spirit and the strength of community solidarity. It brings to the forefront the urgent need for dialogue and action against antisemitism, encouraging viewers to reflect upon the effects of hatred and the importance of unity and tolerance. To watch the full film on HBO, click here.

8. ‘D I S T A N C E’ (2022)

“D I S T A N C E” is a thought-provoking documentary that chronicles a unique artistic collaboration. This film brings together twelve artists from diverse backgrounds on Heritage Day, allowing them to create and showcase their work in a public park during the pandemic. In the face of various differences, these artists come together to confront the challenges of distance and difference through creative expression.

“D I S T A N C E” poses potent questions about difference, separation, and connection during a time of widespread isolation. The participating artists, each distinct in their artistic practices and identities, provide a rich diversity of perspectives on these themes. Through this exploration, the film invites viewers to reflect upon the potential for connection and understanding in the face of difference and distance. To watch the full film on YouTube, click here.

This compilation of documentaries and short films serves as a powerful tool for understanding the multifaceted nature of Jews, Judaism, and Jewishness. Each film provides a unique perspective that challenges conventional narratives and expands our understanding of what it means to be Jewish. As these films demonstrate, Jewish identity is a vast, rich tapestry that encompasses diverse experiences, histories, cultures, and interpretations of faith.

By engaging with these narratives, we can deepen our knowledge and foster a broader, more nuanced perspective on Jewish identity. After all, understanding is the first step towards respect, acceptance, and coexistence.

About the Author
Yos Tarshish is the Director of Queen's Hillel in Kingston, Ontario, bringing a decade of experience in global Jewish student communities. A UK native, Yos previously served as President of both the Union of Jewish Students and the World Union of Jewish Students. Passionate about social activism and building inclusive Jewish communities, he holds a BA in Youth & Community Studies, sits on the steering committee of IPF Atid Toronto and on the board of Kingston's Beth Israel Congregation.
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