15 great movies and shows with Jewish storylines and characters.
Since the pandemic began, I’ve caught up on reading, and watching movies and shows, now more than ever. I love unique Jewish stories from around the world. Between having more time at home these days, and streaming platforms growing, now is a chance for more people to view niche films and shows that may not have had the opportunity to get as wide of reach in other times. Keep reading to find out about some of my favorite binge-worthy shows, in no particular order, and virtually travel with me around the world while viewing them.
Unorthodox is a fantastic book and an incredible miniseries. It is the first Netflix series that features the Yiddish language. I think this show had so much success because of its timing, being released early in the pandemic. Combine timing with an incredible story and cast and you have an instant hit. The story gives you a peek into Hasidic life in Brooklyn, New York.
2. Shalom Bollywood
This documentary is the first of its kind sharing how the Indian Jewish community shaped the largest film industry. When cinema began a hundred years ago, it was taboo for Hindu and Islamic women to perform, whereas Jewish women could take lead roles while using stage names. Often, Jewish actors were thought to be Christian as their names didn’t reveal their Jewish backgrounds. You can watch this documentary on Amazon Prime or Hoopla.
3. The Rabbi's Cat
This story is set in Algeria in the 1920s. You can read the book, or, watch the film, viewable by Amazon Prime, iTunes, and Hoopla. A rabbi's cat learns to speak after swallowing the family parrot, and he vocalizes a desire to convert to Judaism. The film and the comic book it is based on are in French.
Become part of the Pfefferman family, where multiple characters discover different parts of their identity, sexuality, connection with religion, relationships with each other, and themselves. Although the majority of the show takes place in California, one season the characters take a trip to Israel and have flashbacks to Europe during the Holocaust. Jewish storylines regarding dating a rabbi, planning a Jewish wedding, scenes in a synagogue, and the Holocaust, all take place in this show. The show was created by Jill Soloway, who is a queer Jew. Streamable on Amazon Prime.
5. Call Me By Your Name
This story delicately explores sexuality in northern Italy in the 1980s. The story follows the lives of a 17-year-old Jewish Italian boy, his family, and a 24-year-old graduate student working on academic papers. The author has an even more personal, fascinating story of his Jewish identity taking him from Egypt to Italy to the States. This film can be viewed on Amazon Prime, Hulu, YouTube, or you can read or listen to the audiobook on Libby.
6. Zero Motivation
This is an Israeli comedy, which can be streamed on Amazon Prime, about life in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). I saw this film as part of an Israeli film festival that took place during a time when I had many friends serving in the IDF. The characters in this film are noncombatant recruits that have desk jobs. The slang, derogatory term referring to this position is a 'Jobbik,' which means that they can comfortably serve their time doing a desk job in an air-conditioned office while their peers spend time outside in the desert dodging bullets.
This romantic British drama film is so captivating. A woman named Ronit returns to her North London Orthodox Jewish community for her Dad’s funeral. Her dad was a prominent rabbi in the community. Because of Ronit’s sexuality, which is revealed later in the storyline, she was shunned from her community and her relationship with her father was strained. While Ronit mourns the loss of her father, she stays at her childhood friend’s home, and their past catches up with them to the present day. Disobedience can be streamed on Amazon Prime, YouTube, or iTunes.
8. Schitt's Creek
I was so late to the party when it came to watching this show--to be fair, I didn’t have Netflix and there are so many great shows out there. You too will be wondering how you didn’t watch this show sooner and know about all this Canadian talent! The over-the-top Rose family once had a fortune from their video company, but then became broke. The show opens with the IRS visiting the family. Previously, the father had bought his son a town as a joke, so now they move there and run a motel. There are many funny Jewish references woven throughout the storyline. Follow this story on CW Seed, Netflix, IMDB TV.
The Rose family in Schitt's Creek
9. The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel
Go back in time to the 1950s to see what life was like for a wealthy, Jewish, New York City housewife and her family, who vacation and camp in upstate New York. The lead Miriam goes from fitting into society's box of what a woman should do in her time, to breaking the rules and building confidence as a comedian. This is an Amazon Prime original!
10. The Pianist
The Pianist depicts the historical events of the Nazi genocide of millions, and challenges the Holocaust genre; not all Germans were evil and not all Jews were good people. This pianist is nothing out of the ordinary. You see from his perspective how life gradually changes at the start of World War II, and learn about his motivation to survive in Poland. These historical events happened in real-time and The Pianist is unlike films such as Schindler’s List, which portrays heroes and a Hollywood happy ending. You can watch The Pianist on Netflix, Apple TV, Amazon Prime, iTunes, or YouTube. This adaption is based on the autobiography of Wladyslaw Szpilman’s “The Pianist: The Extraordinary True Story of One Man’s Survival in Warsaw, 1939-1945.”
11. Life is Beautiful
A young Jewish man goes to work for his uncle's restaurant in Tuscany, Italy, and falls in love with a gentile girl. The two later marry, have a son and run a bookstore. Northern Italy becomes occupied by Nazi Germany in 1944. The family is forced into a cattle car which brings them to a concentration camp. The family becomes separated between women and men. Dora, the wife and mother who is not Jewish, volunteers to go on the train so she can stay near her family, although they do not see each other during their time in the concentration camp. Her husband sends symbolic and sometimes literal messages to her to let her know that he and their child are safe.
The father hides the real reason they are at the camp and explains to his son that it’s a complicated game where they earn points for certain actions and behavior. The father keeps up this charade until the end of his life and the film concludes with the now grown-up son having a voice-over. The son reflects on the sacrifices his father made for him, so that he could keep his childhood innocence and stay naïve about what was going on during the Holocaust. This film is one of the highest-grossing foreign films in the United States and can be streamed on Hulu, HBO Max, Amazon Prime, or YouTube.
12. The Boy in the Striped Pajamas
This tragic film is based on a book with the same title. I originally read the book as part of a book club in middle school. Set in Berlin during World War II, the story is told through two eight-year-old boys’ perspectives, one a Jewish inmate and the other the son of the camp’s Nazi officer. This book and film do conceal some historical facts and want viewers to feel sympathy towards the Nazi family in the story, more so than the Jewish victims. The movie can be streamed on HBO, Hulu, or Amazon Prime.
A scene from The Boy in the Striped Pajamas
13. Crazy Ex-GF
Rachel Bloom is EVERYTHING. Her raps and references to Jewish camp, synagogue and history woes are relatable, funny and you can see the wide talent across this show's cast. In this show, they discuss the high expectations parents can put upon their children. Rebecca, played by Rachel Bloom, fully leans into her Jewishness throughout her time at camp, law school, and moving from New York City to California. Viewable on the CW, Netflix, and Amazon Prime.
14. The Baker and the Beauty
The Baker and the Beauty, or Lehiyot Ita in Hebrew, is a love story. In the Israeli version, the leads are an Ashkenazi model and a Yemenite baker in Tel Aviv, who explores tensions that Yemeni Jews feel in Israel. This may be controversial but this could be the most binge-able Israeli show out there! The show reveals the reality of how diverse the Jewish community is. There are spin-offs in Russia, Holland, and the United States.
In the American show, the leads are an Australian model and a Cuban-American baker in Miami, who explores tensions between Cuban-Americans. The series was created by Assi Azar; I was lucky enough to meet him when he was touring in the States. He is an LGBTQ+ advocate and has also hosted the Israeli version of Big Brother. You can watch both of the shows on Amazon Prime Video and Hulu.
Myself (pictured left), with Israeli television host Assi Azar
Similar to Unorthodox, this show demonstrates what a Haredi family and neighborhood are like, but this time set in Israel. It is one of Netflix’s most-watched shows and after a long hiatus, the show has come back with a third season! If you have watched Unorthodox, you will recognize the brilliant and beautiful actress, Shira Haas.
Have you seen any of the shows or movies on this list? Are there other shows or movies that you’ve been enjoying lately? Let us know in the comments!
Author Bio: Sarah Lauren Krieger was born and raised in Upstate New York, and enjoys finding new places to explore, especially in nature. She is a participant in the Global Jewish Pen Pal Program, where she also serves as the Event Coordinator. Sarah is a proud alum and Cum Laude graduate of Ithaca College with a B.S. in Communication Management and Design, a concentration in Corporate Communication, and a minor in Jewish Studies. She enjoys combining her passions of Jewish history through travel storytelling. She works with kids, giving back to communities, and is employed in marketing as a content creator. To connect with Sarah, readers can reach out to her on her website, or through Instagram or LinkedIn.