A melting pot of many different peoples, Israeli culture can be hard to grasp fully through anything but movies.
From classics films that paint a picture of what life was like for Jewish immigrants in the 1950s and ’60s, to portraits of communities often left out of the mainstream, movies let you immerse yourself in Israeli life, if only for a short while.
This list has it all: film series immortalized in Israeli pop culture; cult comedies; wartime movies; films about religious Jews, Soviet immigrants, and Bedouin tribes; and Israeli films that have received international acclaim.
Watch and enjoy as you learn a little bit more about the complicated society that is Israel. We’ve included websites where you can find the movie with English subtitles.
Following a young Polish boy around the time of his bar mitzvah celebration, “Alex Holeh Ahava” is about puppy love and hilariously eccentric families.
Set during the hard economic times and uncertainty of the 1950s, this classic Israeli comedy sheds a quirky light on a newly established state, filled with new immigrants of all backgrounds just trying to find their way and make ends meet in a foreign land.
The Eskimo Limon (Lemon Popsicle) Series (1978-2001)
A series of raunchy slapstick comedies co-written and directed by Boaz Davidson, the Eskimo Limon series is made up of some of the most recognizable and beloved films in Israel pop-culture history.
Following three friends in the 1950s and ’60s as they get into all kinds of wild predicaments, the films, including “Sapiches” (Private Popsicle) (1983), which follows the friends’ enlistment into the Israeli army, and the original movie, “Eskimo Limon” (1978), which kicks things off with a hilarious if somewhat inappropriate coming-of-age story, are two movies you’ve just got to watch if you want to be in the know.
“Burekas films” are movies from the 1960s and ’70s that dealt with fundamental changes in Israeli society at the time, such as relations between Ashkenazi and Mizrahi Jewish immigrants. Here are two good examples of this genre.
Kazablan (1974) is a classic film known as the Israeli West Side Story. Taking place in the city of Jaffa, it stars the beloved singer and actor Yehoram Gaon as the head of a local gang, who falls for a girl of Ashkenazi background. Complete with dancing and musical numbers, and tales of rival gangs, it is a must-see for anyone who wants to take a deeper look into early Israeli culture.
Hagiga B’Snooker (1975) contains an immortalized scene printed on Israeli posters and sometimes hung in Israeli burekas shops of one of the main characters, Azriel (Yehuda Barkan) as he goofily tries to trick a rabbi into believing he is a religious Jew, while his mouth is filled with burekas pastry. The story involves twin brothers — one pious and one a hoodlum –who run a bar where people go to play snooker, otherwise known as “pool.”
Ahava Columbianit (Columbian Love) (2004)
Forever remembered for the hilarious and bloody scene where the groom smashes the glass at his wedding and it goes directly through his foot, this comedy features many of Israel’s principal comedic actors in a story that shows the struggle of marrying someone from another culture whose family doesn’t approve of the union.
Mivtza Savta (Operation Grandma) (1999)
A cult hit short comedy, “Mivtza Savta” spawned the phrase “I can’t talk about it, the enemy is listening,” as well as others that Israelis still work into conversations to this day.
It is the story of three brothers from a small kibbutz in the Negev– one a jokester army officer named after a popular Israeli snack, one a nature guide, and one a cable company owner — and their joint misadventure to bring their dead grandmother to their home kibbutz to be buried.
A LOOK AT ISRAEL’S VARIED CULTURES
Sand Storm (2016)
A Romeo and Juliet-style love story set in a Bedouin desert village, this all-Arabic movie is a rare look inside Israel’s Bedouin culture.
The beautiful scenery, and heartbreaking love story of a girl who falls in love with a boy from a rival tribe, are just two reasons why the film was shown in film festivals across Europe.
Fill the Void (2012)
A look into the life of a Hasidic woman set to marry, until a great tragedy turns her life upside down, “Fill the Void” depicts the world of Hasidic Jews in Israel and the choices they face every day.
Filmed and produced by Rama Burshtein, the first Orthodox Jewish woman to make a full-length feature film for international distribution, this piece of cinema helped pave the way for Orthodox Jewish voices in Israeli film, and for audiences to see life through a female lens.
Hakala HaSurit (The Syrian Bride) (2004)
A story of sacrifice, “The Syrian Bride” takes place in a Druze village in the Golan Heights where a young woman is promised to a successful Syrian suitor living on the other side of the border. Prepared to leave her family behind for all time, she finds her goodbyes and subsequent wedding delayed as she must deal with the bureaucracy of two very different countries.
Another film that lovingly displays an Israeli population and culture rarely committed to film, it is a testament to how international conflicts affect the lives of everyday citizens and how ordinary people can learn to rise above.
Sof HaOlam Smolah (Turn Left at The End of the World) (2004)
A tale of one bored French immigrant teenage girl who takes interest in an Indian family that moves to her newly developed Negev desert town, “Sof HaOlam Smolah” is a movie that touches on the heartache of new immigrants who have been placed in a magical, yet nearly impossible location in the middle of the harsh desert.
A coming-of-age story of Israel in the 1960s, it is a reminder of what Israel’s pioneering immigrant populations went through in order to survive and thrive against all odds here, but also of what it feels like to be a teenage girl going through the motions of life.
Late Marriage (2001)
Starring Israeli movie stars Lior Ashkenazi and Moni Moshonov, “Late Marriage” explores the traditional lifestyle of a Georgian family desperate to marry off their reluctant son, who is secretly in love with a woman of a different background.
Containing the longest sex scene in Israel’s film history, “Late Marriage” is also a window into the old-world values held by this former Soviet population.
Live and Become (2005)
The story of an adopted Christian Ethiopian boy posing as a Jew in Israel following Operation Moses in 1984, this award-winning French-produced film shows the touching and raw reality of an immigrant as he passes major life events, from his bar mitzvah and service as an army medic to his marriage to a woman who does not know the complete truth about his past.
ARMY/WAR TIME MOVIES
Givat Halfon (Halfon Hill) (1976)
A satirical comedy centered around a group of ragtag reserve soldiers watching the Israel-Egypt border from Sinai, this classic Israeli comedy lightheartedly pokes fun at the IDF while also getting in plenty of personal shenanigans and jokes about soldiers who are just winging it as they go along.
Zero Motivation (2014)
Want to know what it feels like to serve in the IDF in a not so glamorous role? “Zero Motivation” shines a spotlight on jobnikim– soldiers with sometimes tragically boring desk jobs, and as is the case with the female soldiers in the film, little to zero motivation.
The film itself, the work of writer/director Talya Lavie, shows the journey of one soldier hoping to be promoted to a more respectable position in the military headquarters in Tel Aviv, but mostly shows the nitty-gritty of the daily grind of army life in a tragicomic way.
Late Summer Blues (1987)
A film that young Israelis still relate to, “Late Summer Blues” poignantly captures the hopes, fears and realities of a group of Israeli teenagers in Tel Aviv about to enlist in the IDF during the early 1970s. With a war of attrition being fought along Israel’s southern border with Egypt, the group mourns the unexpected death of a friend while protesting the war through their daily actions and in one final musical performance.
The Song of the Siren (1994)
Called the Israeli version of “Bridget Jones’s Diary,” if not set under slightly less lighthearted circumstances, “The Song of the Siren” raked in more than all other Israeli films combined at the box office in 1994.
Set against the backdrop of the 1991 Gulf War, the film focuses on love and friendships made during a time when the city of Tel Aviv was forced to shut down due to the threat of SCUD missiles fired by Iraq into Israel.
INTERNATIONAL AWARD WINNERS
The Band’s Visit (2007)
A movie turned Tony award-winning musical, this movie, based on the book by Itamar Moses, tells the story of the Egyptian Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra who come to Israel to play at the Arab cultural center in the central city of Petah Tikva, but whose mispronunciation of the town’s name leads them instead on one big misadventure in the fictional southern desert town of Beit HaTikva. The visitors soon learn that they are not so different from the Israelis who take them in and care for them while they wait to board the next available bus, which only reaches the remote town the following day.
Waltz with Bashir (2008)
A trip into the world of one Israeli soldier’s PTSD stemming from his fighting in the first Lebanon War in 1982, “Waltz with Bashir” is a unique and serious animated film that explores the mind and experiences of the film’s main actor, writer, and director, Ari Folman, as he sorts his way through the events of his past. Nominated for an Oscar in the international film category, it is a dark and provocative, yet thought-provoking journey, narrated in English and Hebrew.
Medurat Hashevet (Campfire) (2004)
The story of a widow and her two daughters trying to make the most of life, “Medurat HaShevet” is a beautiful award-winning film by Joseph Cedar that takes place in the 1980s.
At a time when many Israeli settlements were first being formed in the West Bank, the mother is desperate to be excepted into a newly forming community, while the eldest daughter aims to escape her boring pious life and the youngest daughter suffers an unfortunate event while at a youth group event meant to celebrate the Lag B’Omer holiday with a large bonfire in the forest.
The Cakemaker (2017)
Israel’s official selection for the 2019 Oscars, “The Cakemaker” is the tale of a young German baker who travels to Israel following his Israeli lover’s death, to secretly entrench himself into the lover’s family.
A sweet tale strung together with the grief of the wife and of the baker, and a tender soundtrack composed by Dominique Charpentier, it is a beautiful portrait of life, love, and moving on after hardship.