Jewish-Christian Relations on Film: ‘When Harry Met Sally’ (1989)


  1. Historical context of the source
  2. Source
  3. Discussion of the source
  4. Questions for discussion
  5. Selected bibliography
  6. Useful web resources

1. Historical context of the source

Film is a valuable resource for studying both the past and the present. Since it relies on visual stereotypes to communicate information quickly and easily, it allows us to map and track wider changes in the society from which those texts originate. A stereotype is a regularly repeated, simplistic, easily understood, and inaccurate categorisation of a social group (Abrams et al. 2010a: 365). Much has been written about the function of stereotypes in general, and Jewish ones in particular, especially about how they perform cultural work in demonizing minority groups from the outside, and perpetuating group solidarity and continuity from the inside. Stereotypes, however, do not stay static. They ‘change because the cultural patterns on which they are based are becoming anachronistic’ (Antler 1998: 256). Likewise, cinematic stereotypes of Jews, existing almost as long as the medium itself, have evolved, and a diachronic study of film allows us to map the metamorphosis of the Jew and what this tells us about society at any given point in time.

In cinema, there are many ‘Jewish moments’ (Stratton 2000: 300), those in which the viewer is given the possibility of ‘reading Jewish’, albeit not with certainty, by ’employing a largely unconscious complex of codes that cross-check each other’ (Bial 2005: 70), of which the Jewish identities of actors/actresses is a key, but by no means the only, part. The ‘real-life’ status of the actor/actress behind the depiction can provide the viewer with an additional clue to reading Jewish in the conflation of cinematic role/persona with real life. As Rosenberg points out, ‘In theory, the ethnicity, of an actor or actress should be irrelevant to the role – acting, after all, is just that: acting – but broader ideological factors influence casting decisions, and these in turn become relevant to the film depiction of ethnic experience’ (1996: 26).

Furthermore, reading Jewish relies on locating identifiably Jewish characteristics, behaviours, beliefs, or other tics, either explicitly, or by a range of undeniable signifiers. Other important clues include looks, intellect, behaviour, profession, name, and physiognomy, all of which require a prerequisite knowledge. As Rosalin Krieger explains:

The Jewish-Yiddish symbols come in the form of historical and cultural references, names, foods, verbal and body language, phenotype, and religious rituals, all of which rely upon individual viewers to identity these clues that represent things Jews and elements that can be read as possibly Jewish (2003: 388).

To quote Bial at length here:

There is, I suggest, a Jewish audience that may glean Jewish specificity from performances that a general audience decodes as universal. The Jewish reader may decode Jewishness through aural, visual, or emotional/genre signs […] speech patterns and accents, an actor’s looks or hairstyle, a certain kind of anxiety or neurosis about the conflict between tradition and modernity – all of these things maybe, and have been, read as Jewish by critics and audiences inclined to do so […] Only Jews (or those who know the codes) will interpret these elements of performance as Jewish. While general audiences may recognize these performance practices as unusual, urban, or ethnic, they will not necessarily recognize them as indicators of Jewish cultural difference (2005: 152).

Given the volume of Jews who have appeared on film, since the very birth of the medium itself, the absence of explicit depictions of Judaism, as a religion, is conspicuous and notable. This is because, as mentioned above, cinema has tended to define Jewishness in secular ethnic rather than religious terms. Jews often exhibit absolutely no religious behaviour, values, or practice whatsoever. Instead, we have to turn to a series of other signifiers – actor, name, looks, physiognomy, location, profession, and so on – which may give us the possibility of reading the character as Jewish, but no certainty that they are Jewish. Furthermore, since secular Jews are a non-visible minority, and skin colour or outward appearance provide no reliable guide to Jewishness, cinema has tended to rely on stereotypes in order to convey Jewish identity.

The earliest Jewish stereotypes in cinema portrayed the Jew (and here I mean exclusively the male Jew) as an urban businessman. The earliest such representations included A Gesture Fight in Hester Street (dir. Anon, 1900) and Cohen’s Advertising Scheme (dir. Anon, 1904), which marked the debut of the screen Jew, a scheming Jewish merchant with gross features and vulgar habits. Subsequent films varied little in their characterisations on both sides of the Atlantic: Cohen’s Fire Sale (dir. Edwin S. Porter, 1907), Levitsky’s Insurance Policy, Or When Thief Meets Thief (Anon., 1908), The Robbers and the Jew (dir. Jack Smith, 1908), A Bad Day for Levinsky (dir. TJ Gobbett, 1909), and The Antique Vase (dir. HO Martinek, 1913). The first sympathetic Jewish character – a benevolent moneylender who saves a Gentile woman and her child – appeared in D.W. Griffiths’ Old Isaacs, The Pawnbroker (1907). So, within its first two decades, the tradition of Jewish cinematic stereotypes had been established: urban (ghetto) businessmen, perpetuating the link between the Jew and particular trades, predominantly depicting him as a tailor, peddler, or pawnbroker.

Since superior intelligence is a stereotypical Jewish trait, it has been deployed as a fairly standard cinematic device. As Jews assimilated and became more bourgeois, moving into the professions, they remained urban and defined by their ‘Yiddishe kopf’ or ‘Jewish brains’ (Gertel 2003: 132). By the turn of the twenty-first century, cinematic Jews were doctors, lawyers, advertisers, writers, working in the entertainment industry, and, above all, psychoanalysts. David Desser explains,

a variety of forces have contributed to an ongoing media stereotyping of Jewish men as, on the one hand, physically small, weak, urban dwellers ill at ease on the farm and in the country; or, on the other, clever cunning, fast-talking city slickers. These images of frail urbanites, more verbal than physical, more devious than brave, in short, more brainy than brawny, have adhered to Jewish men ever since the encounter of the Ostjuden [lit. ‘Eastern Jews’] with modernity, the shtetl or city-dwelling Eastern European Jews butting up against the forces of the Enlightenment and their Western European brethren (2001: 269).

The other thing that defines the Jew is his sexual preference for shiksas –Yiddish for a non-Jewish woman bearing derogatory connotations that objectify and sexualize her – preferably blonde. Although endogamy is a cornerstone of Jewish tradition, Jews are rarely found coupling with each other cinematically, especially prior to 1990, as the Jew typically gravitated toward the archetypal blonde shiksa, rejecting Jewish women in the process.

2. Source

“When Harry Met Sally…” on IMDb

3. Discussion of the source

When Harry Met Sally (1989)

The film was the product of collaboration between Rob Reiner, Nora Ephron, Andy Scheinman, and Billy Crystal, each adding his/her own element to the mix. The origins of the film came from Reiner’s return to single life after a divorce. Ephron interviewed Reiner and the interview provided the basis for Harry. Sally was based on Ephron and some of her friends. Crystal came on board and made his own contributions to the screenplay, making Harry funnier. Ephron supplied the structure of the film, with much of the dialogue based on the real-life friendship between Reiner and Crystal. Meg Ryan later added the idea for the orgasm sequence. The film is ranked at number six on the American Film Institute’s list of Top Ten Romantic Comedies.

The plot is very basic. Harry Burns (Billy Crystal) meets Sally Albright (Meg Ryan), who is a friend of his then girlfriend, when she agrees to drive him from the University of Chicago – where they are both studying – to New York. Five years later, they meet again at an airport and it turns out that they are both on the same flight. Five years on, they meet yet again, in a bookstore after which they become friends, eventually falling in love and getting married. If you think I’ve spoiled the film for you, the clue is in the title – it wasn’t called When Harry Didn’t Meet Sally. All of this is intercut by a series of faux interviews with elderly couples who describe how they met and fell in love.

Essentially, the film is about two people who could be characters in a Woody Allen-lite film, who take 12 years to fall in love. Like an Allen film, it is studded with New York City locations that suggest intellectualism, brains, civilisation, and culture: Shakespeare & Co., independent bookstore, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Katz’s Deli, to name just a few. Most of it was shot on the Upper West Side, all of which emphasises neurotic, verbal people, but not of the full-blown Allen type. As befitting her surname, Albright, Sally is an open-faced, bright-eyed blond. As befitting his, Burns, he’s a dry, mordant, cynical, pessimistic, wisecracking man with a lot of smart one-liners. When his friend tells him, ‘Marriages don’t break up on account of infidelity. It’s just a symptom that something else is wrong’, he replies, ‘Oh really? Well that symptom is fucking my wife.’ Where she is sunny and straightforward – what you see is what you get – he’s both insufferable and likeable at the same time, but beneath it all, there beats the heart of a mensch, a decent caring man.

Yet, despite the Allenesque resonances, what is interesting about this film is that nowhere is there any explicit mention of anybody’s ethnicity or religion. This is in part attributable to Ephron who said: ‘Harry was originally conceived, in my mind anyway, as a Christian and Sally as a Jew’. Not that this was ever explicit. When Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan got involved, that was obviously not going to work, so everyone’s last names were changed. And Billy made the character more like himself, more like a standup comic.’ This leads me to the following questions: what is Jewish about When Harry Met Sally? And is it intended to be a ‘Jewish’ film?

The answer to both questions is that by ‘reading Jewish’ we assume that Harry is Jewish and Sally is Gentile. We in part read Harry as Jewish because he’s played by Billy Crystal, a well-known Jewish comedian and actor, known for his Jewish shtick. As a writer/performer on Saturday Night Live in 1984-85, he created the washed-up Borscht Belt comic Buddy Young, Jr., a character inspired by his childhood heroes Sid Caesar, Jerry Lewis, and Jackie Mason, whom he also played in the film Mr. Saturday Night (1992).

His character Harry fits the predominant trend of representation. To paraphrase Lenny Bruce, ‘You’re Jewish if you’re called Harry even if you’re goyish and if you’re called Sally you’re goyish even if you’re Jewish.’ Harry is an upwardly mobile professional, a political consultant,who lives in New York City. Presumably he is successful, because he lives in one of those apartments that only people in the movies can afford, but their professional lives are entirely off-screen. We see them only at those intervals when they see each other. Harry is a talker, or ‘Jew is mouth as nervous brain’ (Rogin 1998: 49), characterized by his excessive loquacity, garrulousness, and his quick-wittedness, all cinematic defining features of the Jew. His dialogue is witty and epigrammatic, and Harry’s character is smart, funny, sophisticated, intelligent and quick with many quotable lines.

The film is replete with traditional Jewish humour. On Harry and Sally’s first trip from Chicago to New York, when they are chatting in the car, his dialogue is the typical Jewish shtick, not unlike Crystal’s standup routine about his uncle, who is always such asking questions as ‘Nu, when you going to get married? Gonna make a living?’ Similarly, when Harry spits grape seeds at the windowpane and it sticks to the glass, thereby annoying Sally – a Crystal innovation – the gag has a typically visual, ‘in your face’ Jewish flavour.

Other markers characterize Harry as Jewish. He uses Yiddish words like ‘shlong’ and ‘shmuck’. He focuses on the negative: death (Harry: Do you ever think about death? Sally: Yes. Harry: Sure you do, a fleeting thought that jumps in and out of the transient of your mind. I spend hours, I spend days…) and disease (‘Suppose you lived out your whole life and nothing happens you never meet anybody you never become anything and finally you die in one of those New York deaths which nobody notices for two weeks until the smell drifts into the hallway’). He is a hypochondriac: ‘I’m definitely coming down with something. Probably a twenty four hour tumour they’re going around.’ He has no manners and is sloppy – he spits grape seeds out of the window; in fact, at the window in a noisy and noticeable fashion. He talks very quickly at the same time. He is defined by his mouth in two senses: as a smart-ass, quick talking city slicker, and by his lack of cultivation and manners. Finally, Harry is chasing the clearly non-Jewish Sally, who a blonde, blue-eyed shiksa.


When Harry Met Sally is a significant text in two respects. First, it clearly codes what Nora Ephron refers to as ‘Christian’ and ‘Jewish’ traditions of romantic comedy. In the former there are genuine obstacles in the path of true love. In the Jewish tradition, as pioneered by Woody Allen, in contrast, there are no built-in external obstacles; rather it is the internal neuroses of the (male) protagonist that stand in the way, the sturm und drang of the relationship. Second, Crystal’s portrayal of Harry reinvented the Jewish protagonist as witty, sensitive, and sexy – a significant departure from the shlemiel Allen. Crystal appeared normal, an everyman, but one that began to act more Jewish (even if general audiences just read him as urban, New York, possibly ethnic). His blend of Jewish specificity with mainstream appeal paved the way for a generation of confident, self-assured, comfortable, and openly Jewish male leads such as Ben Stiller, Jerry Seinfeld, Adam Sandler, and especially Judd Apatow’s ‘Jew Tang Clan’ (Seth Rogen, Jason Segel, Jonah Hill, Michael Cera, Paul Rudd, and Jason Schwartzman). Such Jewish males no longer star in just ‘Jewish’ films (whatever that may mean) but now predominate as Hollywood’s leading men, but men who continue to perpetuate the Jew/shiksa romantic comedy that we continue to see today in a variety of other films.

4. Questions for discussion

  1. What can When Harry Met Sally tell us about Jews in the United States in the late 1980s?
  2. Why might some directors such as Woody Allen be open about their Jewishness on film while others like Nora Ephron are less so?
  3. How accurate is When Harry Met Sally’s portrayal of Jewish masculinity?
  4. How does When Harry Met Sally compare to films from (a) other periods and (b) other countries?
  5. Applying the above method of ‘reading Jewish’ to non-explicitly Jewish films, what can we learn?

5. Selected bibliography

  • Aaron, Michele. (2004) ‘Cinema’s Queer Jews: Masculinity and Yiddish Cinema’, in Phil Powrie, Ann Davies and Bruce Babington (eds) The Trouble With Men: Masculinities in European and Hollywood Cinema. London and New York: Wallflower, pp. 90-9.
  • Aaron, Michele. (2010) ‘The New Queer Jew: Jewishness, Masculinity, and Contemporary Film’ in Harry Brod and Shawn Israel Zevit (eds) Brother Keepers: New Perspectives on Jewish Masculinity. Harriman, TN: Men’s Studies Press, pp. 174-82.
  • Abrams, Nathan. (2004) ‘”I’ll have whatever she’s having”: Jewish Food on Film’, in Anne Bowers (ed.) Reel Food: Essays on Food and Film. New York and London: Routledge, pp. 87-100.
  • Abrams, Nathan. (2008) ‘From Jeremy to Jesus: the Jewish Male Body on Film, 1990 to the Present’, in Santiago Fouz-Hernández (ed.) Male Bodies in Global Cinema. London and New York: IB Tauris, pp. 13-26.
  • Abrams, Nathan. (2009) ‘The Jew on the Loo: the Toilet in Jewish Popular Culture, Memory, and Imagination’, in Olga Gershenson and Barbara Penner (eds) Ladies and Gents: Public Toilets and Gender. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, pp. 218-26.
  • Abrams, Nathan,  Ian Bell and Jan Udris. (2010) Studying Film. 2nd edn., London: Bloomsbury Academic.
  • Abrams, Nathan. (2011) ‘”My religion is American”: A Midrash on Judaism in American Films, 1990 to the Present’ in Cortiel, Jeanne, Kornelia Freitag, Christine Gerhardt and Michael Wala (eds) Religion in the United States Heidelberg: Winter Verlag, pp. 209-25.
  • Abrams, Nathan. (2011) The New Jew in Film: Exploring Jewishness and Judaism in Contemporary Cinema. London: IB Tauris.
  • Antler, Joyce. (1998) ‘Jewish Women on Television: Too Jewish or Not Enough?’, in Joyce Antler (ed.) Talking Back: Images of Jewish Women in American Popular Culture. Hanover and London: Brandeis University Press, pp. 242-52.
  • Bartov, Omer (2005) The ‘Jew’ in American Cinema: From the Golem to Don’t Touch My Holocaust. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.
  • Benshoff, Harry M. and Sean Griffin. (2009) America on Film: Representing Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality at the Movies. 2nd edn, Oxford: Wiley Blackwell.
  • Bial, Henry. (2005) Acting Jewish: Negotiating Ethnicity on the American Stage and Screen. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press.
  • Brook, Vincent. (2003) Something Ain’t Kosher Here: The Rise of the ‘Jewish’ Sitcom New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press.
  • Buchbinder, David. (2008) ‘Enter the Schlemiel: The Emergence of Inadequate or Incompetent Masculinities in Recent Film and Television’, Canadian Review of American Studies/Revue canadienne d’études américaines 38(2), pp. 227-45.
  • Byers, Michele. (2009) ‘The Pariah Princess: Agency, Representation, and Neoliberal Jewish Girlhood’, Girlhood Studies 2(2), pp. 33-54.
  • Cohen, Sarah Blacher (ed.) (1983) From Hester Street to Hollywood: The Jewish-American Stage and Screen. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.
  • Desser, David and Lester Friedman. (1993) American-Jewish Filmmakers. Chicago: University of Illinois Press.
  • Desser, David. (2001) ‘Jews in space: the “ordeal of masculinity” in contemporary American film and television’ in Murray Pomerance (ed.), Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls: gender in film at the end of the twentieth century. Albany: State University of New York Press, pp. 267-81.
  • Erdman, Harley. (1997) Staging the Jew: The Performance of an American Ethnicity, 1860-1920. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
  • Erens, Patricia. (1984) The Jew in American Cinema. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
  • Fishman, Sylvia Barack. (1998) I of the Beholder: Jews and Gender in Film and Popular Culture. The Hadassah Research Institute on Jewish Women Working Paper Series, No. 1.
  • Friedman, Lester D. (1982) Hollywood’s Image of the Jew. New York: Ungar.
  • Gabler, Neal. (1988) An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood. London: W. H. Allen.
  • Gertel, Elliot B. (2003) Over the Top Judaism: Precedents and Trends in the Depiction of Jewish Beliefs and Observances in Film and Television. Lanham, MD: University Press of America.
  • Gilman, Sander L. (1996) Smart Jews: The Construction of the Idea of Jewish Superior Intelligence at the Other End of the Bell Curve. Lincoln: The University of Nebraska Press.
  • Hoberman, J. and Shandler, J. (2003) Entertaining America: Jews, Movies, and Broadcasting. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press.
  • Itzkovitz, Daniel. (2006) ‘They Are All Jews’, in Vincent Brook (ed.) You Should See Yourself: Jewish Identity in Postmodern American Culture. New Brunswick, NJ and London: Rutgers University Press, pp. 230-51.
  • Krieger, Rosalin. (2003) ‘”Does He Actually Say the Word Jewish?” – Jewish Representations in Seinfeld’, Journal for Cultural Research 7(4), pp. 387-404.
  • Prell, Riv-Ellen. (1996) ‘Why Jewish Princesses Don’t Sweat: Desire and Consumptionin Postwar American Jewish Culture’, in N. L. Kleeblatt (ed.) Too Jewish? Challenging Traditional Identities. New York and New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, pp. 74-93.
  • Rogin, Michael. (1996) Blackface, White Noise: Jewish Immigrants in the Hollywood Melting Pot. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • Rogin, Michael. (1998) Independence Day. London: BFI.
  • Rosenberg, Joel. (1996) ‘Jewish Experience on Film – An American Overview’, American Jewish Year Book, 1996, pp. 3-50.
  • Stratton, Jon. (2000) Coming Out Jewish: Constructing Ambivalent Identities. London: Routledge.
  • Wright, Melanie J. (2009) ‘Judaism’, in John Lyden (ed.), The Routledge Companion to Religion and Film. London: Routledge, pp. 91-108.
  • Zurawik, David (2003) The Jews of Primetime. Hanover, NH: Brandeis University Press/University Press of New England.

6. Useful web resources


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