So many high quality films relevant to the field of Jewish Studies have been produced that it's hard to pick just one. However, I have also noticed that excellent films are not always the most effective teaching tools. Students often need more background in order to be able to appreciate a particularly ambitious and nuanced film dealing with a subject of relevance to Jewish Studies. This is probably why one of the films that I have had the most success with for the purposes of teaching undergraduates is by no means my favorite. But, when used carefully, I have found Giddi Dar's Ushpizin to be a helpful teaching tool for survey courses on Judaism.
Set in a religious Jerusalem neighborhood, this at-times humorous film follows a series of unlikely events that happen to a married couple, Moshe and Mali, over the holiday of Sukkot as they attempt to reconcile their newly adopted religious identity as Bratslav Hasidim with their struggle to conceive a child. The lighthearted but earnest plot line of the film provides countless points of reference for discussing traditional Jewish religious practice. The film also provides many, albeit filtered, allusions to the tensions between secular and religious Jews in Israel.
The obvious problem with using a film like this is that it depicts one particular kind of Judaism, set in a specific time and place, as the authentic model. The vast diversity of Jewish life across time and space is not visible in this film. But, these limitations are in fact the reason why the film can work so well as a teaching tool. It gives the students a place to start. Jonathan Z. Smith argues that effective college teaching often entails what he calls "the necessary lie," or "disciplinary lying," where students are given a stable starting point for study, which is subsequently destabilized. Ushpizin works well as an initial frame of reference, which can then be problematized from a variety of directions. The students are able to recognize how much they have learned by comparing their first impressions of the film with their more informed perspective at the end of the semester.