What a year this has been. We were so ready to throw 2020 into a dumpster fire, not realizing we were about to walk straight into one, with a still raging pandemic and climate disasters and much much need to Netflix and chill (and by chill I mean tune out the rest of the world for a few hours and pretend that everything isn’t falling apart, right? Right?! Hahaha).
Ahem. So yes, luckily, Netflix totally delivered this year, bringing us a bunch of incredibly binge-able new shows and wonderful films — with a lot of Jewish content to feel proud (or if not, spend hours arguing) about. Many of these programs were produced in the midst of a pandemic, which was quite a feat — go TV industry!
So just in case you’ve missed it, here is the best Jewish (and Jew-ish) content on Netflix from 2021:
Best new Jewish show: “The Club”
I was absolutely not expecting “The Club” to entrance me the way it did. This Turkish period drama came out of left field, and I am absolutely obsessed with it. “The Club” tells the story of Matilda, a Jewish mother released from prison in 1955 Istanbul. Matilda tries to rebuild her life and hopes to move to Israel, but instead, she finds herself working in a club in the Turkish capital with a diverse set of characters and reuniting with her long-lost daughter, Rasel.
The Jewish representation in this show is absolutely beautiful, from songs in Ladino to prayers in Hebrew to profound revelations connected to Jewish holidays. It’s an absolute treat, and more of it is coming — four new episodes of the show are premiering on January 6!
Best Jewish film: “Tick, Tick… Boom!”
This movie adaptation of the Jonathan Larson musical is absolutely magical. “Tick, Tick.. Boom!” tells the story of the Jewish “Rent” creator as he struggles to make his dreams of creating the perfect music while working at a diner and trying to survive in New York City. It features lots of Jewish details and a guest appearance from the late, great Stephen Sondheim.
Casting nice Jewish boy Andrew Garfield as Larson was an absolutely inspired move, and watching him tear up the screen in this brilliant film is an absolute delight.
Best new season: “Shtisel” season three
Season three of “Shtisel” ripped my heart out of my chest and I’m kind of OK with it? We have been waiting for the continuation of the story about our favorite Hasidic family for so very long and the wait was absolutely worth it, giving us inspired performances by Shira Haas, Michael Aloni and the rest of the fabulous cast, as well as a lot of drama and a particularly evocative plot line about surrogacy and high-risk pregnancy.
Now, please, please, let us have a “Shtisel” season four!
Best Jewish reality show: “My Unorthodox Life”
We can not talk about this year on Jewish Netflix without talking about “My Unorthodox Life.” This show is a cultural phenomenon, whether you loved it, or loved to hate it for what it meant for Jewish representation, or maybe a little bit of both. “My Unorthodox Life” follows the life of Julia Haart, a former Orthodox schoolteacher turned fashion mogul, and her three children as they navigate their mostly very secular life.
The show has already been renewed for a second season, and it will have a lot of drama to address! Since the show first aired, Haart’s oldest daughter, Batsheva, a TikTok star and social media influencer, has divorced her husband, and rumor has it that Haart is also separating from her husband Silvio. So yes, whatever you think of “My Unorthodox Life,” one thing is for sure — season two will not be boring.
Best Jürgen: “The Great British Baking Show” season nine
Did we expect to be willing to lay down our lives for a German British baker from the Black Forest who makes charoset pavlovas when we started this year? No, no, we didn’t, but “The Great British Baking Show” star Jürgen has our hearts, forever and always.
The adorable dad of one is famous for his “Jewish challah bread” according to the Great British Baking Show website (at least it doesn’t say plaited bread!) and honors his Jewish wife and family with delightful Jewish recipes. Also, he’s the cutest and he should’ve won.
Best show about Nazi hunters: “Camp Confidential: America’s Secret Nazis”
Why is this a category? Oh, I don’t know, maybe because people can’t stop making shows about Nazi hunters. After 2020’s “Hunters” there was this year’s “Jaguar,” a not very Jewish but still quite compelling show about Nazi hunters in post-WWII Spain.
Yet it’s this beautifully crafted short documentary that absolutely had me gasping in shock because truth is stranger and so much more painful to watch than fiction. In a little over half an hour, “Camp Confidential” tells the harrowing story of Jewish soldiers assigned to taking care of Nazi prisoners of war on U.S. soil, using testimonials from the soldiers and haunting CGI animation to illustrate their recollections.
“Almost all of us were refugees from Nazis, we would’ve preferred to treat them as the war criminals that they were, but when you’re in the army you follow orders,” says one of the men, as they talk about how well the prisoners were treated, and even recount an instance in which they took the Germans shopping for holiday presents for their relatives.
Best Jew-ish academic drama: “The Chair”
The main characters of “The Chair,” the academic dramedy starring Sandra Oh as a newly assigned chair of an English department, and Jay Duplass, who plays a cool English professor (and who often plays Jews, but who isn’t Jewish), are not Jewish. But the drama at the center of this show revolves around a glibly performed Nazi salute by Duplass’ character and may be inspired by a real-life incident that took place at Jewish co-creator Amanda Peet’s alma mater.
“The Chair” is also a fascinating commentary on academia, a world that rarely gets explored on TV, and one that is rife with pettiness and drama and all that good stuff. Speaking of petty, Jewish actor Bob Balaban plays a tenured professor in the show, Elliot Rentz, who struggles with his waning popularity and tries to undermine an up-and-coming professor. It’s a very, very real character for anyone who is familiar with academia, and Balaban plays the role to a T.
The trippiest Jewish show: “Family Business” season three
Season three of “Family Business” is so friggin’ ridiculous! This French Netflix show is about the Jewish Hazan family, their Sephardic father (played by Jewish Algerian-French actor Gérard Darmon) and Ashkenazi bubbe (played by legendary Liliane Rovère, a former lover of Chet Baker’s, yes, seriously), and their adventures turning their kosher butcher shop into a weed dispensary. It is truly out there with the gruesome and gross humor — and it is explosively funny.
It’s an over-the-top distraction with sprinklings of Jewish details, from Yiddish words to Sephardic recipes and Jewish funeral scenes. Actor Jonathan Cohen, the real-life grandson of a rabbi, plays the main character, Joseph Hazan, and effortlessly carries the show with a lot of humor. The show also features Algerian French musical legend Enrico Macias, who plays himself, and honestly, it’s worth watching the show just for him.
Best Jewish you’ve tried but no cigar: “Hit & Run”
“Hit & Run” is Netflix’s first original Israeli series and it’s… OK. It stars Lior Raz, the star of “Fauda,” who also co-created the show with his “Fauda” partner Avi Issacharoff. The show is about a man trying to uncover what led his fiancee to be killed in a mysterious hit-and-run accident.
Listen, I really wanted to love this show because it had a lot of potential: a great international cast and a mysterious premise. But it was a little too macho and the characters and slightly stale plot just weren’t compelling enough for me to finish binging. But there was good acting in it, and some viewers may find it interesting enough to stick through.
“Hit & Run” was canceled after one season, but hopefully Netflix will try again with another Israeli original series sometime soon.
Best Jewish New Yorker you love to hate and who loves to hate you right back: Fran Leibowitz in “Pretend It’s a City”
The world is split into two kinds of people: the people who are absolutely obsessed and in love with the chutzpah of Fran Leibowitz and “Pretend It’s a City” and the people who absolutely can’t stand it and would rather stare into the blank abyss that is their lives than spend another minute listening to it. I fall into the latter category, but I have to give Leibowitz props for being the premier specimen of cranky, irreverent New York Jew that she is. If you are looking for kvetching excellence, this show is it.
Do I understand why Martin Scorcese felt compelled to craft a seven-part series all anchored on Leibowitz complaining about the Big Apple? Not really, but looking at Scorcese’s face, I know he is enthralled by her, and I bet there are plenty of Jewish viewers who are, too.
Best hot Jewish person in a thrilling Jew-ish fantasy show based on a book by a Jewish person: Ben Barnes in “Shadow and Bone”
Aside from Sexiest Man Alive Paul Rudd, it seems that Ben Barnes is the Jewish hottie of the year. Barnes is dark, mysterious and compelling in “Shadow and Bone” as Grisha general, the Darkling. And this sprawling fantasy series about a world inspired by 19th century Russia and centering the Grisha, a prosecuted people, was written by Leigh Bardugo, who is Israeli American (and who also wrote the excellent and very Jewish adult fantasy book “Ninth House”).
“When I created the Grisha, it was important that they be powerful but that they kind of represent the Jewish brain trust that developed before World War II and after World War II in the US,” Bardugo told the Atlantic in 2012.
As A.R. Vishny wrote in Alma, the show “does not revert to the tired tropes of what Jewish history can represent in a fantasy world, nor does it abandon that history because it is painful and inconvenient. In finding that perfect balance, ‘Shadow and Bone’ makes for smart, compelling television.”
Luckily, there will be another season of “Shadow and Bone” in our future, with filming set to begin in Budapest in January of 2022.
Best Jewish biblical representation: Inbar Lavi as Eve in “Lucifer”
“Lucifer,” the TV show based on the Neil Gaiman “Sandman” character and starring the very handsome Tom Ellis, is a delightfully camp anti-hero romp, complete with the prerequisite musical numbers. And it’s quite a great pandemic binge.
Israeli actress Inbar Lavi plays Eve — as in the first biblical woman — in the show. She is also Lucifer’s former lover and ends up having a queer love affair with Mazeeken, a (Jew-ish?) demon. Yes, this show doesn’t make sense! Yes, it’s part of its charm! Just lean in!
Eve is a really lovable character and viewers really do get to root for her. Despite how camp and fan-service-y this show is, its cast is excellent and the acting is truly very good. Eve gets her own happy ending in the series finale, which aired this year.
Lavi just recently starred in a surprisingly good Hanukkah Hallmark movie, and will soon star in season four of “Fauda”. You can also watch her in another show available on Netflix, “Imposters.” We see great things in Lavi’s future!
Best Jewish (or Jew-ish?) serial killer: “You” season three
“You” is a bit of a guilty pleasure binge, and season three of the show, which premiered this year, has been a welcome distraction. The show is about Joe Goldberg, a bookstore owner with obsessive tendencies that turn deadly. It takes the often romanticized trope of the pining self-proclaimed “nice guy” and shows how toxic and violent they can be. While the books it’s based on acknowledge Goldberg’s Jewish heritage, the series does not; still, Joe Goldberg is probably the most Jewish name you could give a serial killer.
This season takes Goldberg to the suburbs, and also sees him as a new dad, with all the nerve-wracking challenges that entails. Penn Badgely is so excellent as Goldberg, and Victoria Peretti, who plays Love, his wife, is truly wonderful too.
The series of books the show is based on is also by a Jewish author, Caroline Kepnes, who wrote a very dark book after the death of her Jewish father.
“You” has already been renewed for season four, so more Joe Goldberg will be coming to your screen sometime soon.
Most enjoyably distracting show based on a book by a Jewish author: “Bridgerton”
There is absolutely nothing Jewish about the content of “Bridgerton,” which is technically a show from 2020. To be fair, it premiered on December 25 of that year, which means the majority of us, myself included, binged it in 2021. And if you’re like me, you may have binged-watched this colorful and comforting show more than once.
“Bridgerton” is based on the best-selling Regency romance novel series by Julia Quinn, but unlike the original books, the show features a diverse cast and also a lot of chamber music based on modern pop hits (we love it!).
Quinn is Jewish, and she’s extolled the show’s color-blind casting for that reason: “I’m Jewish and when I would read a book and one of the characters would be Jewish, I’d be like, ‘Oh, that’s me.’ And it was very powerful,” she explains. “And so now I feel like I’m able to start to extrapolate that and be like, ‘You know what, everybody needs that,'” she told People in 2020.
In the meantime, mark your calendars, because “Bridgerton” is coming back with season two on March 22!
Best Jason Isaacs as a villain: “Sex Education” season three
Season three of “Sex Education,” a show about two teens who start their own sex advice business in their British high school, is one of my favorite steamy and hilarious binges of the year. While it is not for the prudish viewer, it’s a great sex-positive teen show that embraces sexuality in all its forms and expressions.
This season, aside from Jewish mom Samantha Spiro who plays Maureen Groff, the show has two new Jewish cast members. Jemima Kirke plays a school administrator struggling with infertility and with unruly, sex-crazed students, and Jewish dad Jason Isaacs plays the brother of Groff, the school’s disgraced former principal who is, well, there is no other way to put it — a total a-hole.
Isaacs plays really excellent anti-heroes, as he demonstrated in Netflix’s excellent “The O.A.,” though you may know him as the OG villainous dad, Lucius Malfoy, in the Harry Potter movie franchise.
The series also features excellent original music from Jewish mom Ezra Furman.
The best b’nai mitzvah on screen: “Worn Stories”
“Worn Stories,” a fascinating and quirky docuseries about clothes and what they mean to us, has a wonderful little episode that features nonbinary teen Spirit trying to choose an outfit for their b’nai mitzvah, a Jewish non-gendered coming of age ceremony. Spirit is so very lovely and the outfit they choose really does reflect who they are.
This series is based on the bestselling book by Jewish author Emily Spivak, who you can also see in the third episode perusing baby outfits as she gets ready to give birth to her daughter, and later dressing her in her own hand-me-downs.
It’s a surprisingly moving and evocative show that is very much worth the watch.
Best Jewish jokes: “Big Mouth” season five
“Big Mouth,” the raunchy animated show created by Nick Kroll and Andrew Goldberg about a group of teens going through puberty, is always a wonderful purveyor of Jewish jokes, and the newest season does not disappoint.
From jokes about Beanie Feldstein to lots of Yiddish-isms to flashbacks to the old country and some Jewish Christmas envy, season five of “Big Mouth” truly has it all.
Need more Jewish Netflix content? Check out the best Jewish shows and movies of 2019