(New York Jewish Week) — Jewish people have made New York City home for centuries now, often finding opportunity and acceptance where it elsewhere had been denied. So when Jews began to tell their stories of their lives on film, it only makes sense that they would feature New York City front and center.
From the tenements of the Lower East Side to the present-day Diamond District, New York City has shaped the lives of millions of Jews, and in turn we’ve reflected the city back to itself — the good, the bad and the sometimes ugly.
Below are nine classic films created by Jews, starring Jews and featuring the unique foibles of being a Jewish person in New York City that are all available to stream now. As we head into winter (and, for many, a Christmas break where film-watching is de rigueur), it’s the perfect time to get cozy and stream an iconic Jewish New York movie or two … or all nine.
Streaming free on Tubi and available to rent on Amazon, Apple and more.
Not only is this the first movie on our list, it’s the first movie that had sound, period. The conflict at the center of this 1927 musical is one that continues to echo in films today: A cantor’s son, Jacob (Al Jolson), seeks to use his talent to serve his own ambitions and desires rather than following in his father’s footsteps. Filmed on the Lower East Side, the movie is a peek how Jews lived when the neighborhood remained a religious enclave, yet were tempted by what the secular city had to offer.
Content warning: A character appears in blackface in this film.
Streaming free on Tubi and on Mubi and Kanopy (in certain locations). Available to rent on YouTube, GooglePlay and more.
Though there’s been a Jewish community in New York since 1654, the Jewish population in the city began to boom in the late 1800s as thousands fled deadly pogroms in Eastern Europe. Joan Micklin Silver’s “Hester Street,” released in 1975, transports viewers to the Lower East Side in this complicated era, which was both painful and liberating for Jews. Gitl (Carol Kane) and her son Yossele are at last summoned to join the family patriarch, Yankel aka Jake (Steven Keats) in the new country — but, once arrived, Gitl struggles to assimilate. Shot in black and white, with dialogue in both Yiddish and English, “Hester Street” is faithful to its source material, the 1896 novella “Yekl: A Tale of the New York Ghetto” by Abraham Cahan. “Hester Street” is an essential look at Jewish culture at one of its most watershed moments.
Streaming free on Pluto and available to rent from Amazon, AppleTV, YouTube and more.
As the saying goes: Only in New York. And when it comes to “The Producers,” we’ll say it’s certainly one of those only in New York — and only written by a Jewish New Yorker — stories. Written and directed by Mel Brooks, this film finds disgraced Broadway producer Max Bialystock (Zero Mostel) realize he could make more money off a flop than a hit. So he and his partner, Leo Bloom (Gene Wilder) decide to stage “Springtime for Hitler.” Hilarity ensues as the pair run around 1960s New York City to pull their scheme off, but despite its comedic trappings, the movie has some serious undertones: Brooks wrote it with the understanding that sometimes the best way to take down an antisemite is not with a grandiose speech, but with laughter.
Available for rent from Amazon Prime, YouTube and Google Play.
Before there was Lena Dunham’s “Girls,” there was Claudia Weill’s 1978 film “Girlfriends.” When bar mitzvah and wedding photographer Susan Weinblatt (Melanie Mayron) discovers her best friend and roommate is moving out to marry her boyfriend Martin (Bob Balaban), her world is turned upside down. What ensues is a charming tale of the search for self-discovery in New York City, complete with an inappropriate relationship with a religious figure and a haircut that would be a devastating blow to any Jewish girl with a curl pattern. If you’ve ever tried (and flailed) to do something creative in the Big Apple, you’ll feel seen by all of the small, one-step-forward, two-steps-back moments this movie contains.
Streaming free on YouTube; available to rent from Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play and more.
Another feature from barrier-breaking director Joan Micklin Silver, 1988’s “Crossing Delancey” once again confronts that eternal conflict of wanting to break from tradition in pursuit of modernity. Izzy (Amy Irving) meets pickle man Sam (Peter Riegert) at the behest of her bubbe and the local matchmaker, but is unable to reconcile her past (the Lower East Side) with her more erudite future (the Upper West Side). Come for the charming romantic comedy, stay for the wonderful shots of a Lower East Side that once represented a bustling Jewish and multicultural haven, instead of a trendy neighborhood that’s home for expensive cocktail bars and countless vape shops.
Streaming free with Hulu Live and Fubo subscriptions; available to rent on Amazon and for purchase from Vudu and YouTube.
Nora Ephron once said that the difference between Christian and Jewish rom coms is that “external forces separate lovers in the former, while characters’ neuroses obstruct happiness in the latter.” If this is true, writer Ephron and director Rob Reiner’s 1989 hit “When Harry Met Sally” certainly fits the bill as a Jewish rom-com. Former college classmates Harry Burns (Billy Crystal) and Sally Albright (Meg Ryan) reunite in New York 15 years after they drove from Chicago to New York together; they maturely decide to be friends, only to realize there might be deeper feelings between them. While religion isn’t overtly discussed, the film’s sensibilities are undeniably Jewish — and it’s credited with putting Jewish institution Katz’s Deli forever on the map.
Available to rent on YouTube, Amazon, GooglePlay and more.
How many movies open on Yom Kippur services? In a Cinderella story that would make any Jewish mother proud, “Kissing Jessica Stein” began as an off-off-Broadway play titled “Lipshtick,” co-written by its stars Jennifer Westfeldt and Heather Juergensen, and became an indie film in 2001. Westfeldt stars as the titular Stein, of the Scarsdale Steins, with a mother (Tovah Feldshuh) who’s eager for her to find a Nice Jewish Boy to settle down with. Instead, Jessica finds herself drawn to a non-Jewish woman, Helen (Juergensen), and frets over how her traditional Jewish family might receive their relationship. What entails is a beautiful meditation on the search for acceptance, both from family and of yourself.
Streaming free on Kanopy (in certain locations) and Cinemax with subscription; available to rent on Amazon, Google Play, YouTube and more.
Written and directed by Jewish native New Yorker Gillian Robespierre (you can check out her film “Landline” for a peek into her childhood), this 2014 film centers on a young Jewish woman, Donna (Jenny Slate), who ventures where many, many Jewish people have before her: The world of standup comedy. “Obvious Child” delivers a more modern look at Jewish life in New York City, as Donna contemplates getting an abortion after her one-night stand with nice guy Max (Jake Lacey) has more lingering consequences than intended. If you’ve ever felt more like a menorah that accidentally burns down the Christmas tree than the angel on top, then this movie is for you.
Streaming free on Netflix with subscription; available to rent from YouTube, GooglePlay, Amazon and more.
If “Die Hard” is considered a Christmas movie, then the Safdie brothers’ 2019 “Uncut Gems” is a Passover movie, featuring Adam Sandler in a departure from his usual comedy fare as Howard Ratner, a Jewish anti-hero with unbridled hubris for the ages. Deemed by many to be an extraordinarily stressful watch, the film will still send chills of recognition up your spine — particularly during that seder scene, which shows no matter how bad the fighting may be between you and your family, you still make time to sing “Dayenu” — and brings life to some of the city’s more offbeat characters, who are often pushed to the margins, both in real life and on film.