Though the COVID-19 pandemic has devastated most businesses, streaming networks come out on top, with many platforms reporting massive spikes in traffic and even unprecedented bandwidth issues. While most self-isolating viewers may just be watching that weird tiger show, we wanted to take this opportunity to promote some hidden Jewish gems that felt especially appropriate to the current climate.
In addition to some solid content on Netflix and Amazon Prime Video, we’ve also added recommendations from Kanopy (an excellent streaming service that’s free with a library card), J-flix.com (the free streaming platform from the Toronto Jewish Film Festival) and JVOD.ca (an on-demand Jewish film aggregator based in Canada). For some extra help, we turned to the curators themselves for recommendations.
Foreign Letters (J-flix.com)
If the thought of another Zoom meeting threatens your sanity, enjoy a nostalgic escape to a bygone era that predates the Internet. Foreign Letters is an autobiographical coming-of-age film charting the friendship between an Israeli immigrant and a Vietnamese refugee who bond over their shared status as outsiders in a suburban American school in the 1980s. Delicately balancing comedy and drama, this delightful film authentically captures the dynamics of adolescent female friendships. – Susan Starkman, TJFF programmer and education outreach co-ordinator
In Search of Israeli Cuisine (Prime Video)
You can’t fly to Israel right now, so indulge in the next best thing: a delicious documentary about Israeli food. In Search of Israeli Cuisine follows acclaimed chef Michael Solomonov, who pivoted to his heritage after his brother, while volunteering in the Israeli army, was killed on Yom Kippur in 2003. Solomonov is today best known for Zahav, his award-winning restaurant in Philadelphia. In this feature-length documentary, he takes his passion to Israel’s streets, meeting the minds behind the nation’s well-worked farms, international influences, freshly baked pastries and traditional Jewish cooking.
When an undocumented Chinese housekeeper is apprehended on the street and deported, the authorities overlook her son, who’s still in the house where she worked. One of the employer’s family members works for El Al, and agrees to help smuggle the son back to his mother. When Noodle screened at the TJFF, we set up a table outside the theatre with platters of noodles, and Evan Solomon filled plates for theatre-goers. So while you’re stuck inside, boil some ramen noodles for yourself and dig in while watching this clever gem. – Helen Zuckerman, TJFF executive director
Black Mitzvah (Netflix)
Netflix’s film library has been likened to the bargain bin of an old Blockbuster. But there are at least two genres the streaming giant has nailed: true crime and stand-up comedy specials. (Incidentally, both appear on this list.) Here we have the latest special by the African-American and Jewish Tiffany Haddish, who celebrates her unique identity right there in the title, kickstarting her hour-long set by singing “Havah Nagilah” and being carried in on a giant chair. There is, admittedly, not too much Jewish content after that, but by then she’ll have won over any skeptical Jewish viewers. And for any non-Jewish viewers: look, Haddish is just really damn funny, and we all need a little comedy during quarantine.
Jerusalem ER (JVOD.ca)
If anyone needs a reminder of how stressful life is for health-care professionals during the COVID-19 outbreak, this short documentary offers a glimpse into a normal day in an Israeli hospital. It focuses on two doctors who feel like outsiders in their own environments: Dr. Stalnikowicz, a Chilean who moved to Israel in 1973, and Dr. Salameh, an Arab-Israeli doctor. Jerusalem ER is a poignant look at race relations and geopolitics through the lens of emergency health.
Zero Motivation (Kanopy)
If you think you’re bored at home, try being stuck in a bureaucratic office doing nothing all day. That’s the premise behind Zero Motivation, which we film critics at The CJN agreed was one of the best Jewish films of the last decade. This deadpan Israeli comedy follows a group of female soldiers effectively trapped on a base in the middle of the desert, balancing boredom, ambition and friendship with endless paper shredding and games of Minesweeper. It’s wickedly funny.
Every Face Has a Name (J-flix.com)
After the Second World War, the Red Cross ran a program called White Buses. About 10,000 survivors of concentration camps were brought over by boat to Malmo, Sweden. As they exited, newsreels documented their arrival to freedom. Decades later, filmmaker Magnus Gertten tracked down some of the surviving refugees and showed them the film. As they watched, many memories arose of friends and relationships and their stories, weaving a story as heart-wrenching as it is heart-warming. – Helen Zuckerman, TJFF executive director
The Devil Next Door (Netflix)
Okay, so this isn’t a movie. But this binge-worthy, five-part mini-series will definitely keep you engaged – and educated – while you’re stuck at home. It documents the life and international trials of the elderly John Demjanjuk, who was accused of being a hidden Nazi concentration camp guard known as “Ivan the Terrible”. After more than three decades and multiple conflicting verdicts and appeals, Demjanjuk died in prison, allowing these documentarians to wade through countless legal documents and interview numerous family members, key figures from the trial and experts who followed the case. As both a historical document and a true-crime tale, it’s a gripping story.