I’m not a fan of self-isolating, but I’m living it as best I can. Still, as an extrovert, I miss my friends, my coworkers and the constant human activity of “normal” life.
Video meetings have been a decent-enough solution, allowing my family to enjoy a truly meaningful seder-by-Zoom, for example. The technology is amazing, and I’ve had five recent video meetings, two for work, three personal.
On the work side, the highlight was a virtual meeting with the entire staff of the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island. I’ve always felt such naches at being part of this team, and seeing my coworkers and hearing about their ongoing work during the pandemic felt reassuring – and gave me hope for the “after.” On the personal side, the highlight was a virtual drinks get-together with some of my oldest, dearest friends. It was comforting, warming and a heck of a lot of fun.
I’m so grateful to have such wonderful people on both sides of my life. We may all be apart from each other, but that’s no excuse to be unconnected!
But, it’s my introvert tendencies that were the inspiration for this piece. Connection is wonderful, of course, but there are moments when I just want to sit on the couch and tune out just about everything; moments when I’m perfectly happy to look in on others’ lives without any personal involvement on my part.
To do this, like many of you, I have turned to TV. And, as it turns out, there’s a ton of Jewish-themed content on Netflix and Amazon Prime; there are nearly 1,500 matches for “Jewish” on Prime alone!
So, with all that content, what’s worth watching and what isn’t? Here’s what I found over the course of several streaming binges:
Unorthodox (Netflix): This series, based on Deborah Feldman’s memoir of the same name, follows Esther “Esty” Shapiro as she flees her ultra-Orthodox enclave in Williamsburg, in Brooklyn, New York, and lands in Berlin with little money and even less of a plan. As Esty takes her first steps in the outside world, she is pursued by her husband and his sleazy cousin. Presented in four, hour-long episodes, “Unorthodox” is artfully shot, with beautiful, tense scenes that had me holding my breath. Shira Haas gives a riveting performance as Esty, who is both bold and frightened, tough and vulnerable. Spoiler alert: Her performance in the final episode’s concert-hall scene brought me to tears – I’m still thinking about the closing shot.
Highly recommended. In English and Yiddish, with subtitles.
Maktub (Netflix): This Israeli movie tells the tale of low-level gangsters Steve and Chuma after they survive a café bombing with a briefcase full of money belonging to their boss. Following the bombing, the men happen to read a prayer note that was left in the Western Wall and decide to make the prayer come true. Riding a high from doing a good deed (done in a not-so-good way!), they decide to make even more prayers come true.
But, of course, no good deed goes unpunished – and to make things worse, the boss is on their tail. Steve and Chuma’s story is a unique blend of dark comedy and touching, interpersonal subplots, with a – spoiler alert – surprise resolution and a very sweet ending.
Don’t miss this one. In Hebrew, with subtitles.
The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel (Amazon Prime): Why did I wait so long to watch this award-winning show? Rachel Brosnahan’s smartly funny, energetic portrayal of Miriam “Midge” Maisel immediately captured my attention, and the excellent supporting cast and late 1950s-early 1960s’ sets and costuming are superb. Spoiler alert: Abandoned by her husband, Midge drunkenly performs a hilarious onstage rant at a Greenwich Village club, and is arrested on obscenity and indecent-exposure charges. But the rant leads to a friendship with Lenny Bruce (played by Luke Kirby) and a partnership with the tough, spunky Susie (Alex Borstein), who sees something special in Midge and wants to manage her nascent career.
The show is funny, sharp and engaging. Try it; you’ll like it.
Hunters (Amazon Prime): Ugh. I gave up after one episode of this series, which tells the story of a group of underground Nazi hunters in 1977 New York. The story opens with a cartoon villain committing acts of unnecessary violence in service of a laughable “build the Fourth Reich” subplot. Dayenu – that should have been enough, right? But then we’re given a bland everyman, Al Pacino attempting a Yiddish accent, a sexy MI6 nun with a blowtorch, and Carole Kane as an unintelligible “Chabad-ass.” It’s too much! That’s to say nothing of the unnecessary nudity, profanity and violence-for-its-own-sake. The episode descriptions, which are written in a tacky faux-scripture style, are offensive to me as both a writer and a Jew.
Doing Jewish: A Story from Ghana (Amazon Prime): Gabrielle Zilkha’s charming documentary tells the fascinating story of the Jewish community in the Ghanaian town of Sefwi Wiawso and how the residents, isolated for more than a century, made contact with the outside Jewish world and relearned much of what they had forgotten about Judaism. As we learn about the town’s Jewish history, we meet Alex, a young Ghanaian man who already leads the local congregation, conducts prayer services in Hebrew and teaches Hebrew to the local children – but aspires to be “a real rabbi.” The film is a warm depiction of a growing and changing Jewish community, and a reminder of Jewish oneness.
Worth a look.
What Jewish content have you been watching lately? Share your recommendations with me at firstname.lastname@example.org and we may publish them in a future issue!
MICHAEL SCHEMAILLE (email@example.com) writes for Jewish Rhode Island and the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island.