When’s a Jewish film not a Jewish film? When Harry Met Sally…

It was written by a Jew, directed by a Jew, and its leading man is a Jew - but everyone wants what's she's having in Nora Ephron's 1987 classic

January 12, 2023 10:17

Because I’m a wild and crazy and extremely popular kind of person, I spent New Year’s Eve in bed on my own, watching When Harry Met Sally. “Why When Harry Met Sally?” asked no one, because, in case you missed this bit, I was on my own.

Well, No One, it’s because it’s the greatest-ever New Year’s movie, as it ends on New Year’s Eve.

Although it’s a close-run race against The Godfather Part II, which also has a very central New Year’s Eve scene and, most importantly, a very quotable line in it: “I know it was you, Fredo. You broke my heart. You broke my heart!”

This line is extremely fun to say out loud, especially in Al Pacino’s voice, and so I only watch it when I’m in bed with someone else.

Nothing like sounding as if you’re threatening a romantic partner with an imminent mafia-style execution to make a night in go with a swing, I find. But given that I was — inexplicably! — on my own that night, When Harry Met Sally it was.

I’ve seen When Harry Met Sally (WHMS) so many times I can quote the whole film, but this time I noticed something I hadn’t given much thought to before.

I’ve always taken it for granted that WHMS is a Jewish movie, because Nora Ephron, who wrote it, is Jewish; Rob Reiner who directed it, is Jewish; Billy Crystal, who stars in it, is Jewish, and it’s set in New York City.

What more do you need? But no one ever says anything specifically Jewish at all. No references to someone’s bar mitzvah, not even any casually dropped Yiddishisms. The closest we get to a Jewish stereotype is when Harry can’t sleep and therefore assumes he has a tumour.

And yet, it is undeniably coated in a Jewish sensibility, with its cynical one-liners and final scene soppiness. It’s not a Jewish film, it’s a Jew-ish film.

Ephron’s Jew-ish style may well be her most influential legacy. Seinfeld, for example, is very Jew-ish. Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show was Jew-ish. Judd Apatow’s comedies are Jew-ish. Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm is a bit more Jewy with its references to rabbis and circumcisions, but ultimately Jew-ish.

All are recognisably made by Jewish creators, but there is nothing in them that will make a goyishe audience feel left out of the joke.

This is a huge shift from American Jewish comedies made by people just that little bit older than Ephron, such as Woody Allen and Mel Brooks, who very explicitly played on uniquely Jewish experiences to create comedy and the Jewishness is shoved up your nose.

Only two years before WHMS, Allen released arguably his most glorious film, Radio Days, about his childhood, in which God punishes his uncle for eating shellfish on Shabbat.

That same year, Brooks released his Star Wars spoof, Spaceballs, in which he plays a parody of Yoda who talks in a very distinctive Yiddish-American accent, excitedly talking about how he’ll get rich from the film from merchandising, or, as he puts it, “Moi-chan-dising!”

These are the kinds of jokes Jews tell each other. They are not jokes non-Jews always find funny, or feel comfortable finding funny.

I like both kinds of humour, the Jewish and Jew-ish. We can mourn the disappearance from the mainstream of the more Catskills-esque humour of Allen and Brooks, but also celebrate how Ephron’s more assimilated style ensured the undying dominance of Jewish comedy.

After all, everyone still wants to have what she’s having.

January 12, 2023 10:17

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