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Sunday, December 26, 2021

Is "When Harry Met Sally . . ." a Christmas movie? Is it a Jewish movie? Is it both?

We watched When Harry Met Sally . . . with our 15-year-old last night. They enjoyed it and now understand the source of many cultural references (low maintenance, singing in front of Ira, not fucking with Mr. Zero, "because of God," etc.) that have bounced through our house for years. Next up, I guess, is Casablanca. Until then, two questions:

First, is this a "Jewish" movie? I saw an academic talk years ago that argued this is another version of the "Jewish man's opposites-attract relationship with the strange non-Jewish woman" story. I have never bought it. The movie is "Jewish" in that the writer (Nora Ephron), director (Rob Reiner), and male lead (Billy Crystal) are Jewish--but that is true of many movies (running Hollywood has its benefits). The story is loosely based on Reiner's experiences reentering the dating scene following his divorce. Sally is not Jewish (we twice see her buying a Christmas tree--more on that below). But is Harry meant to be Jewish? The story never makes that explicit. He is based on Reiner and played by a Jewish actor presenting "typically Jewish" mannerisms and personality. Harry Burns is a Jewish name, I guess, but it is no Isaac Herschkopf. Perhaps it does tell the Jewish-man-chases-shiksa story, sanitized for a mainstream audience. On the other hand, if you kept everything the same as the original movie and put Tom Hanks in the male lead (i.e., if you made Sleepless in Seattle or You've Got Mail*), would we think of this as a "Jewish" movie?**

[*]  In You've Got Mail, the Hanks character is Joe Fox and the mammoth chain bookseller is Fox Books. The irony for people watching that movie in Philadelphia was that Fox Books is a multi-generational independent bookshop around the corner from a Barnes & Noble, and its founder was Joseph Fox, who was Jewish.

[**] On a third hand: Ephron claimed that she based Sally on on herself and her friends. So you could tell a different Jewish story by remaking the movie with Jesse Eisenberg and Lizzy Caplan.

Second and more controversially: Is it a Christmas movie? The current-day (non-flashback) story appears to cover roughly 16 months--they reunite in late summer/early fall and the story ends on New Year's one year later. They pass through two Christmas seasons--captured in two winter-and-Christmas-in-New-York musical montages set to Christmas standards and buying Christmas trees (for Sally, not for Harry, of course). The different tenor of the Christmas montages evokes the different stages and states of their relationship, although with limited dialogue. The "action" of the seasonal scenes occurs not on Christmas but at two New Year's Eve parties--is New Year's part of Christmas for Christmas MovieTM purposes and should it be?

Posted by Howard Wasserman on December 26, 2021 at 03:02 PM in Culture, Howard Wasserman | Permalink


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Wow! I did not know that.

Posted by: For the Record | Dec 29, 2021 9:20:36 PM

Her father was also portrayed by Ron Leibman.

Posted by: Joe | Dec 28, 2021 11:44:09 PM

Yes, sorry. Monica Geller. Her brother is Ross.

Saying the wrong name there is so embarrassing.

As to Rachel, there is actually some debate there, including her usage of a Jewish term for her grandmother. She also has various stereotypical Jewish qualities, including originally planning to marry a doctor. "Rachel" also is a Jewish name. She has various "JAP" vibes.

At any rather, the co-creator of the show states she is Jewish.

Posted by: Joe | Dec 28, 2021 11:36:23 PM

Joe, I think you mean Monica is Jewish, not Rachel. Rachel is definitely a gentile.

Posted by: For the Record | Dec 28, 2021 4:44:44 PM

The movie opens with an elderly couple sitting on a couch, and the man, who has a very thick European accent, begins, "I was sitting with my friend Arthur Kornblum, in a restaurant." The story then is about two University of Chicago grads driving to New York City, and the events then occur in NYC, including at Katz's deli.

Putting the casting aside, seems to have a Jewish vibe to me.

P.S. Asher, you really need to see the movie. It's marvelous.

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Dec 27, 2021 3:38:16 AM

The buying of a Christmas tree alone wouldn't mean a character isn't Jewish.

Rachel on Friends, for instance, buys a Christmas tree. It is well accepted she is Jewish.

Her religion rarely comes up though her brother being Jewish is part of a story line of an amusing episode where he teaches his son about Hanukkah.

A Jewish neighbor of mine also celebrated Christmas to the degree of putting up decorations and so forth. It is treated as a non-religious holiday by some Jews.

Now, I don't think Meg Ryan's character is Jewish. At least, when I saw the film it seemed like a Jewish guy and non-Jewish woman situation.

I think a case can be made the film is "Jewish inspired" to some extent given the aspects cited. I think it isn't really a "Christmas movie" either. I was thinking of that sort of thing today by coincidence with regard to the film "The Apartment," which I think of a "holiday" film.

I think it has more of an argument than "When Harry Met Sally," but think "The Apartment" boils down to a "holiday film," with key plot points related to both Christmas and New Year's.

OTOH, "Remember the Night," a classic film is more clearly a "Christmas holiday" film, which in the film is a multi-day affair.

Posted by: Joe Paulson (@JoePaulson2) | Dec 26, 2021 7:58:27 PM

I've never seen the movie because I'm an incorrigible auteurist snob, but re: whether it would be a Jewish movie if Hanks starred instead of Crystal, the fact that it wouldn't, if true, doesn't mean it isn't a Jewish movie; just about any "Black" romantic comedy would no longer be one if the stars were white, and Woody Allen movies with some believably awkward gentile actor in his roles wouldn't necessarily scan as coded stories about Jewish people. I tend to think that merely casting Crystal, a distinctively Jewish persona, opposite Meg Ryan is enough.

Posted by: Asher Steinberg | Dec 26, 2021 6:42:13 PM

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