Kosher Movies: Annie Hall

I recently went to a physical therapist in Israel. Knowing of my interest in movies, he asked me what I thought of Woody Allen. I told him that I did not agree with his negative take on religion but I admired his comic genius and his ability through film to get people to think about life and relationships. A case in point is Annie Hall, winner of an Academy Award for Best Picture.

Annie Hall is the story of Alvy Singer, a New York comedian, and his relationship with Annie Hall, an attractive but insecure and eccentric girl living in New York City. They meet playing tennis doubles with friends and the romance initially blossoms. Over time, however, each person’s idiosyncrasies emerge and they fall in and out of love.

Alvy is a neurotic type, prone to obsessing over large metaphysical questions about the meaning of life and death; Annie’s conversation is more down to earth. For her, a crisis manifests itself when there is a spider in the bedroom, a crisis important enough to wake Alvy at 3 AM to come over to her apartment to get rid of the pest. As they get to know one another, they share ideas, books, and their respective family baggage. It is love, or so they surmise, but it is messy and punctuated with fits of anger and jealousy.

Their opposite views of life are revealed in a split screen scene in which both are at sessions with their psychiatrist. Ironically, Alvy, in therapy for fifteen years, has introduced Annie to the therapeutic benefits of analysis and even pays for Annie’s sessions. It becomes clear that the relationship which started out with such promise is doomed to end.

The nature of love, what is it that truly brings man and woman together in a lasting relationship, is a common theme in the films of Woody Allen. Annie Hall suggests that in the final analysis love cannot be understood rationally. Nonetheless we feel driven to strive for love and seek connection wherever we can find it.

What is the Jewish view of love? It is a cliché that love is blind. Emotion, not reason, rules. In truth, it is hard to distinguish between infatuation and real love. An illusion exists that love brings with it perpetual passion and ecstasy. Such an assumption creates totally unrealistic expectations, for it is impossible to maintain that level of connection on a daily basis.

True love in the Jewish view develops over time, over a lifetime of shared challenges and experiences. There are no Romeo and Juliet stories in Jewish tradition. Instead there are many stories in the Talmud of women of great character such as Rachel, the wife of Rabbi Akiva, who sacrificed their own comfort so their husbands could study God’s Torah, God’s instructions for living , and so bring holiness into their lives and the life of the community.

When the Bible tells us to “love your neighbor,” many of the commentators say this refers to one’s wife. Your spouse is your closest friend and that relationship is nurtured through daily acts of love, not occasional fits of passion. Intimacy in Hebrew is referred to as “knowing” the other person. Knowledge means understanding one’s mate in a profound way, not only through the body but through the mind as well.

Annie Hall is a funny movie, but in its iconic way is also very scary. It implicitly suggests that marriage, which requires compromise, patience, and kindness, is a last resort and not preferable to the life of a single in New York. There is a shallowness in the relationship of Alvy and Annie which ultimately undermines everlasting love.

About the Author
Originally from Mt. Vernon, New York, Herbert J. Cohen served in the pulpit rabbinate in Atlanta at the beginning of his career. After six years, he moved into the educational rabbinate and served for 23 years as Principal of Yeshiva High School of Atlanta. In 2010, he and his wife came on aliyah to Israel. His latest book, published by Urim Publishers, is "Kosher Movies: A Film Critic Discovers Life Lessons at the Cinema." He may be reached at
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