The history of the Jewish people is a long one, I’ll say it. The history of Jewish comedy, though not as long, is perhaps just as significant to the modern world. Jewish humor has carved itself a particular comedic niche in media over the last century of TV, film, and music, with its sarcasm, general cynicism, neurotic nature, and recurring tropes relatable to the Jews who see it. Whether you were raised religiously Jewish, culturally Jewish, both, or neither, these characters provide a common language for us to connect with our roots and heritage, a lexicon to reflect our identity back to us on the big and small screens. For me, I’ve witnessed generations of Jewish actors, screenwriters, directors, and producers evolve in Hollywood, setting the stage for new voices to take shape and molding what it means to be Jewish in a modern landscape.
This High Holiday season, sharing the traditions I hold dear by witnessing the traits of my people in TV shows and films serves as a way for me to pay tribute to my ancestors and the characteristics, like honor, integrity, compassion, and arguing, that are said to earn us a place in the great Book of Life. Even if you don’t get the chance to hear the shofar sound this new year, watching something on this list still counts as a mitzvah, right?
1. Curb Your Enthusiasm
A founding father of Jewish comedy, Larry David holds a special place in the hearts of many an American Jew. Airing for a total of 11 seasons to searing critical acclaim as a staple of Jewish culture, both for its subject matter as well as its wry writing, off-the-cuff humor, and cringe-worthy relatability, Curb, as it is fondly known, shares similar themes with its absurdist predecessor Seinfeld, which David, too, co-created and executive produced. Known for his major grievances with minor inconveniences, David aptly captures the discomfort found in minute social complications, setting the tone for the next generation of kvetching comedic Jews.
2. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend
Rachel Bloom tore straight through the pejorative by providing viewers with a side-splitting portrayal of one woman who chooses to take her delusion one step, or one cross-country move, too far, following her heart and her misplaced sense of self to West Covina, California. With the quintessential overbearing-Jewish-mother character played by none other than Tovah Feldshuh and catchy, full-scale musical productions like “Remember That We Suffered,” a song featuring Patti Lupone, it is hard to ignore the central role Judaism plays in Bloom’s depiction of a woman obsessed with making her life more challenging.
3. Jojo Rabbit
Speaking of obstacles, a true satire in a sense of the word often forgotten in cinema today, Jojo Rabbit is a celebratory tale of the resilience of the Jewish people and childlike innocence that transcends divides. Set in 1940s Germany, Jojo, a young boy, and his imaginary friend, his own personal Adolph Hitler (played by director and writer Taika Waititi), help audiences remember that the Jews, “descended from those who wrestle angels and kill giants,” were chosen by G-D, while the Nazis “by a fat man with greasy hair and half a mustache.”
4. Shiva Baby
An instant classic of both Jewish comedy and Gen Z representation by breakout filmmaker Emma Seligman, Shiva Baby follows a recent grad (Rachel Sennott) sweating under the eyes and scrutiny of friends and family at a shiva. As inquiring yentas abound at the post-funeral gathering, the main character is forced to explain her career prospects (media…?) with the added pressure of past lovers and secret acquaintances present in this claustrophobic directorial debut.
5. Better Things
Filled with heart and family, humor and vulnerability, Pamela Adlon’s Sam Fox provides a look at the turbulent and rewarding life of a single, Jewish mom working as an actor in Los Angeles. What makes this series so special are the friends Sam surrounds herself and her children with, and how they kvell watching her children grow up. Covert Judaism remains active throughout all of the show in our main character’s candid nature, strong will, and spirituality, but the tribe’s traditions make an obvious appearance when Sam throws her middle child and her child’s friend a joint bat mitzvah and quinceañera…a Batceañera, in a quirky hodge-podge of ritual and meaning.
6. You Are So Not Invited To My Bat Mitzvah
Sandler sisters Sadie and Sunny star in the latest Happy Madison production based on the eponymous book series from the early 2000s. An endearing portrayal of bat mitzvah culture in affluent communities, where parties define not only a family’s status, but also, if you were to ask the kid, a young Jew’s entire life. Filled with lessons fitting well beyond middle-school- and bat-mitzvah-age, this movie shines a light on adolescent angst between best friends and the many ways in which we can make and mend mistakes as an early teen, with little less than humility, care, and heartfelt confession on the bimah.
7. Broad City
The day-to-day antics of living in New York take on a different, more heightened form with these two Jewesses (goddesses + Jewish) and best friends Abbi and Ilana, played by Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer, respectively, at the helm of the show. Originally airing on Comedy Central between 2014 and 2019, one of the most defining moments in this series’s five year run features a Birthright trip to Israel and a *ahem* resourceful way the two weed-smoking friends decide to elevate their stay in the Holy Land. Broad City is a mainstay rewatch for many a Millennial Jew who doesn’t yet have it all figured out, but who has a lot of fun along the way, especially with their best friend by their side.
8. The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel
Midge Maisel immediately came out onto the comedy scene as an incredible smash hit. From Gilmore Girls creator Amy Sherman-Palladino, the show features a similar fast-talking vixen and even some familiar faces in crossover cast members, like Alex Borstein, who plays our comedienne protagonist’s rough-and-tumble manager. Tits up, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel swept the nation with its precisely Upper West Side Jewish comedy (who can forget when they got the rabbi?), and the fictional career of a female comic in the mid-century pays homage to the legendary, real-life comics who paved the way for all funny women who follow.
9. Life of Brian
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. A guy is born in a barn on Christmas. No, not that guy. The other one. Meet Brian, the off-brand messiah from the brilliant, hysterical, and surrealist minds of Monty Python. Looking for love, Brian gets swept up as a freedom fighter for the Jewish people against the ancient Roman Empire and, facing crucifixion, ultimately finds a way to (as the song goes) look on the bright side of death. Life. Wait, what?
That our leader of this scrappy gang of toddlers is Jewish may require a close watch, but Tommy Pickles, born to interfaith parents and Yiddish-speaking maternal grandparents, grows into his Jewish identity alongside viewers. From the original series, which broadcasted the first ever Hanukkah special on a kid’s show (in which he plays the story’s hero, Judah Maccabee), to the second iteration of the animated program, All Grown Up, which addresses more complicated themes like levels of religious observance and representation during the holidays, we see Tommy—fearless and strong—embrace his heritage and add to the rich canon of Jewish comedy over the episodes and years. After all, a Macca-baby’s gotta do what a Macca-baby’s gotta do!
Felicia Reich is an intern at Paste.