Here at Hey Alma, we’ve compiled lists of all the episodes, movies and pop culture moments which feature Jewish moments like Hanukkah, Passover, b-mitzvahs and hot rabbis. So, naturally, the time has come for us to explore Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in pop culture. If you’re thinking (like I naively did) that this would be a relatively short list, think again! From the first ever talkie to an episode of a web series and more, the Jewish New Year and Day of Atonement make for useful plot devices and thus come up again and again onscreen. (This list doesn’t include movies or shows about the Yom Kippur War. Sorry if that’s your thing!)
In no particular order, here are all the High Holiday themed movies and episodes of TV you can stream. Because why have a sweet New Year when you can have a sweet and bingeable New Year? Shana tova!
So I know I just said that this is a list of TV and movies, and Barbra Streisand’s rendition of “Avinu Malkeinu” is neither one of those things. BUT, I would be remiss if I didn’t at least mention this banger. Jewish pop culture would be seriously lacking without Babs, so we’ve got to pay our respects!
ICYMI: “Avinu Malkeinu” is a prayer said on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The name translates to “Our Father, Our King,” and it is recited after the Amidah (the main prayer) and before the Torah service. Streisand released this edition of the prayer in 1997, when it was featured on her album “Higher Ground.”
OK, now onto movie and TV…
“The Jazz Singer”
Trigger warning: Mentions of blackface
Fun fact: The first-ever feature-length motion picture with synchronized music and speech features the Yom Kippur service, Kol Nidre. Unfortunately, it also features multiple instances of blackface.
Based on the play by Samson Raphaelson (adapted from his short story titled “The Day of Atonement”), this talkie tells the story of cantor’s son Jakie Rabinowitz. Like his father, Jakie is passionate about singing. But unlike his father, Jakie likes to sing popular songs, not prayers. After being beaten by his father for singing jazz, Jakie runs away from his family on Kol Nidre. At services, his father laments, “My son was to stand at my side and sing tonight — but now I have no son.”
Years pass and Jakie has become a performer name Jack Robbins. He’s about to make his big Broadway debut (performing in blackface), when he learns that his father is gravely ill and the synagogue won’t have anyone to sing Kol Nidre at services. Jack must choose between his career on Broadway and singing at Kol Nidre (and reconciling with his father), and he ultimately chooses the latter. “Mama, we have our son again,” Cantor Rabinowitz says, before dying. Luckily for Jack, his missed Broadway performance isn’t a career-ender, and he’s able to take the stage at the Winter Garden Theater as a true jazz singer.
There’s also a 1980 remake of “The Jazz Singer” starring Jewish singer Neil Diamond, but it still includes blackface. Yikes.
In “Liberty Heights,” the movie isn’t so much about the Jewish High Holidays but rather, what happens between them.
“The movie features a large and beautifully cast ensemble (including Joe Mantegna as a charismatic and likable paterfamilias) but the central plot lines, which unfold between Rosh Hashanah 1954 and Rosh Hashanah 1955, concern the stormy voyages of cultural and sexual discovery undertaken by two brothers, Ben (Ben Foster), who is a high school senior, and Van (a young and dashing Adrian Brody) who is a college student,” Benjamin Resnick wrote for JTA in 2020.
Still, the final scene of the movie features a beautiful Rosh Hashanah service, interrupted only by Nate (Mantegna) slowly walking out of the sanctuary.
“Keeping the Faith”
2000’s “Keeping the Faith” is a classic tale of a hot rabbi (Ben Stiller) and his bestie, a hot priest (Edward Norton), both falling love with their hot friend (Jenna Elfman). Like I said, a classic tale.
“The conflict of the film begins as Jake is up for a promotion to Head Rabbi of the congregation. One big problem is that he’s single,” Zev Hurwich wrote for Hey Alma in 2021, discussing the pressure in Jewish communities for singles to couple up with other Jews. The other big problem is that Jake starts dating aforementioned hot friend Anna — who isn’t Jewish.
The couple date in secret for a while, both to spare the feelings of hot priest Brian and to spare Rabbi Jake the judgement from his religious community. Naturally, this plan backfires with Brian finding out and fighting with Jake, and Jake and Anna arguing about religion and breaking up. Eventually, Brian and Jake make up (aw, yay male friendship!) and Brian convinces Jake to follow his heart and be honest. Thus leading us to to Yom Kippur.
After the Kol Nidre recitation, with Brian and his mother looking on, Jake comes forward on the bimah to address the congregation. “Since Yom Kippur is kind of like the Super Bowl of the Jewish calendar most rabbis try to cram a whole year’s worth of sermons into one kind of big, best-of sermon. I’m not going to do that,” Jake says, revealing to the congregation that he was seeing a non-Jewish woman. But, instead of apologizing for seeing her, Jake relates that he’s only sorry for keeping it a secret from his congregants and having so little faith in them to be accepting. He finishes by asking for their forgiveness.
Thankfully, it all works out for Jake. He’s not cast out of his congregation and he reconciles with Anna, who reveals that she’s started the process of converting!
“Kissing Jessica Stein”
“Would you shut up? I’m atoning!” from “Kissing Jessica Stein” has to be one of the greatest lines ever uttered in cinema.
“The movie’s first scene opens on Yom Kippur services, where Jessica’s mother, played magnificently by Tovah Feldshuh, is scoping out potential suitors in an all-too-audible stage whisper. (Who among us has not had a moment of ashamnu, bagadnu, did you hear he got divorced?),” Amy Schiller wrote for Hey Alma in 2021.
Hence, the classic, “Would you shut up? I’m atoning!”
The rest of the movie really doesn’t have a ton to do with the High Holidays; however, it has everything to do with being a Jewish woman discovering her queer identity. So it’s absolutely worth watching past the opening Yom Kippur scene.
Before Ryan Gosling was Kenough, he played a Jewish neo-Nazi — yes, really.
In 2001’s “The Believer,” Gosling portrays Daniel Balint, a yeshiva boy turned white supremacist intent on bombing a synagogue. (Balint is a fictionalization of the real-life Daniel Burros, a Jewish man who joined the American Nazi Party and KKK. Burros later died by suicide after a reporter revealed his Jewish identity.) After he and his fascist friends botch the first attempt, Daniel leverages his connections in the Jewish community (they don’t know he’s a neo-Nazi) to lead a Yom Kippur Neilah service. However, when the day arrives and Daniel takes the bomb-strapped bimah, he finds that he cannot go through with it. He evacuates the synagogue, but doesn’t leave himself. The movie ends with a flash of light and Daniel ascending the stairs of the yeshiva he attended as a child, an imperfect act of teshuvah.
The mixture of Judaism and violent, virulent antisemitism makes for a difficult and emotionally confusing watch. In my opinion, however, Ryan Gosling’s performance ultimately makes it worth a watch. At one point, the non-Jewish actor recites the Shema with near perfect pronunciation (apparently, he researched Judaism for the role, including attending a bar mitzvah).
Life is all about balance. Jonah Hill and Kenya Barris’s “You People” won the 5783 Alma award for The Movie Which Most Made You Question, “Is This Good for the Jews?” At the same time, however, “You People” does give us another example of the High Holidays in pop culture which kinda makes up for the rest of the movie being a disaster. Right…?
OK, maybe (read: definitely) not.
Still, viewers first meet Ezra Cohen (Jonah Hill) and his whole clan at Yom Kippur services as the confessional prayer comes to a close. Dressed in a white button down with the sleeves rolled up to reveal his numerous tattoos, a floral tie, dress pants, blue Nike kicks and greased back half-bleached hair, and not saying the prayer, it’s clear that Ezra doesn’t want to be there — which leads to some hilarious and authentic conflict with his family. While the rabbi begins her sermon, Mom Shelley (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) criticizes Ezra for his lack of kippah or tallit, whispering, “It is Yom Kippur, goddamnit it.” Ne’er have more accurate Yom Kippur vibes been captured onscreen.
She also criticizes Ezra’s tattoos, which then gets Bubbe (Rhea Perlman) involved. “You won’t be able to be buried in a Jewish cemetery,” she argues. (Fun fact: this is a common misconception!) Ezra responds that he doesn’t care where he’s buried, leading Dad Arnold (David Duchovny) to randomly confess that he wants to be buried next to Rihanna; Shelley adds that she’ll scrape off Ezra’s tattoos so they can be buried in a double-wide coffin together, ending the conversation. But then, the sibling bickering starts. Ezra and sister Liza (Molly Gordon) joust with insults about one another’s appearances. While Liza says that Ezra looks like “a dad who lost his kid at Coachella” and “a young Hulk Hogan,” Ezra definitely gets the better insults in. He tells Liza that she looks like “the principal of a Hebrew school version of Hogwarts” and that she dresses like she shops at “the rabbinical witch outlet store.”
That gets us a whooping five minutes and 30 seconds into the movie and honestly, you won’t miss anything by just turning it off there. Just pretend “You People” is a star-studded short film about a family arguing at temple and protect your inner peace.
“Return of the King”
Season 3, Episode 17 of “Entourage”
Is “Entourage” a show that respects women and queer people? No. Does its Yom Kippur episode atone for that in any way? Also no.
In “Return of The King,” while Vince, Turtle, Johnny and Eric are at the horse track, Ari and his family head to synagogue for Yom Kippur services. “I hate this, I’m starving,” Ari’s daughter Sarah complains as they walk in to temple. “Now you know what Mommy goes through every day to make a hot body for Daddy,” Ari responds. Gross! From there, it doesn’t get any better. Instead of focusing on atoning, the minute Ari walks into synagogue he learns that Vince could still get a role in a big biopic and spends the time trying to close the deal. But ultimately it’s all for naught. The deal falls through as the Executive Producer on the biopic doesn’t appreciate being hounded on the holiest day of the year. And I, for one, cannot blame him.
“The Fasting and the Furious”
Season 5, Episode 5 of “Gossip Girl”
The fact that we get any Jewish episodes of “Gossip Girl” at all is thanks to Blair Waldorf’s iconic Jewish stepdad Cyrus Rose (Wallace Shawn). “Beyond his wholesome charm, his character gives ‘Gossip Girl’ the chance to include Jewish culture and customs in the show. How many CW dramas can you think of that include both a Passover and a Yom Kippur episode?” Amanda Silberling wrote for Hey Alma in 2021.
She goes on to describe the episode, saying, “When Blair and her fiancé, the Prince of Monaco, announce they’re pregnant, her mother warns Cyrus, ‘I don’t think I’m going to be able to make it to sundown without eating.’ At break fast, Blair argues with her future mother-in-law about whether or not her son will be an heir to the throne, which isn’t typical Yom Kippur fare, but that’s ‘Gossip Girl’ for you.”
“The Sticky Shofar”
Episode 8 of the 2011 “Shalom Sesame” series
Whether it’s from peanut butter, non-toxic glue or boogers, little kids nearly always have sticky hands. In the case of Muppet Avigail on “Shalom Sesame,” it’s honey — and it gets her into a bit of trouble.
After fellow Muppet Brosh shows Avigail his beloved shofar, her honey-covered hands get stuck to it. (Beforehand, she was enjoying some Rosh Hashanah apples and honey.) Brosh doesn’t notice right away, however, as human Shosha offers him something to drink so he can play the shofar better. So, Avigail enlists Grover’s help in getting her hands unstuck from the shofar. In a moment of pure slapstick, Grover’s hands also become stuck to the shofar and the pair eventually have to tell Brosh what’s happened. Avigail apologizes for touching Brosh’s shofar without asking and in the true spirit of the New Year, Brosh forgives him. And, as an afterthought, Shosha knows exactly how to unstick this very sticky shofar. Hooray!
Season 2, episode 1 of “Hack Into Broad City”
While “Broad City” doesn’t have a Yom Kippur episode, “Hack Into Broad City” (the web series that preceded the show) does!
It’s Yom Kippur and Abbi and Ilana are FaceTiming each other as they lay on their beds and try not to think about eating (even though their break fast bagels are right in front of both of them). In an attempt to get their minds off of it, they each start listing the hilarious and bad things they’ve done that they need to atone for that year.
Ilana: I’ve been taking my neighbor’s GQ magazines for four months. They’re really hot.
Abbi: I told these tourists the other day the wrong directions. I didn’t want them to know that I didn’t know, you know?
Ilana: Sometimes I pray that the subway breaks down or that there’s a big disaster in Midtown so I don’t have to go to work.
Abbi: Last week, at the bodega, the guy gave me change. And it was more money than I gave him in the first place. And I kept it. I am a terrorist.
Ilana then proceeds to distract Abbi so she can sneak bites of food. Abbi does eventually notice, however, and the pair decide to break fast early.
“The Book of Life”
Season 2, Episode 7 of “Transparent”
Like much of the second season of “Transparent,” “The Book of Life” follows the Pfefferman family individually as they observe Yom Kippur in their own way. Sarah Pfefferman visits her ex-lover Tammy and demands that Tammy absolve her of her sins. When Tammy refuses, Sarah gets high with her weed dispenser. Maura Pfefferman gets into an argument with her friend and mentor Davina. Josh and Shelly Pfefferman head to services, where Josh is overcome by the confessional prayer and his imploding relationship with Rabbi Raquel. And Ali (later Ari) and Syd have been preparing the break fast meal all day.
All of these stories converge when the Pfeffermans come together for a chaotic and sorrowful break fast.
Note: Perhaps my favorite motif of this episode (and maybe of any of the High Holiday episodes on this list) is the sheer amount of times people say “Happy Yom Kippur” and get corrected by the Pfeffermans.
“The Courage of the Soldier”
Season 1, Episode 4 of “Difficult People”
While “Difficult People” usually focuses on Julie and Billy’s relationship with each other or Julie’s relationship with her family, this episode introduces us to Billy’s much more religious brother Garry (Fred Armisen). Despite vowing to “never again” spend Yom Kippur with Garry’s family, Billy can’t turn down his brother’s invitation and agrees to go over to the break fast. From the second Billy walks in the door, it’s clear that he’s uncomfortable with Garry’s religiosity. “You got a lot of mezuzahs out there,” Billy tells him, to which Garry responds, “Yeah, three of them are doorbells!” After a brief, uncomfortable conversation wherein Garry reminds Billy that he hasn’t visited that much, it’s time for “the first hour of blessings.”
“Before I bless the bread and the wine and the salad forks and the napkin holders, I want to say something to Uncle Billy,” Garry begins. “And I’m sure I speak for everybody here when I say that we are absolutely fine with you being gay.” Billy then jokingly (but not really) expresses his lack of comfort in Garry’s home. “I just don’t understand when everything got so Jewish! It’s fine, it’s just not who we were as kids.” He goes on, “I don’t care about the blessings, I care about the SAG Awards. And no one cares about those.”
The painfully awkward meal ends and Billy leaves, but not before Garry expresses that he still wants them to spend more time together. Not too long after, Billy gives Garry that opportunity by asking him to pretend to be a veteran Julie can bring to a party.
“Fasting and Furious”
Season 2, Episode 2 of “Odd Mom Out”
Never heard of this show? Neither have I! And yet, it has a Yom Kippur episode. Here’s the synopsis via IMDb: “It’s Yom Kippur and Jill’s parents come to town — to atone, and to take care of a matter of life and death.”
Who’s Jill? What are her parents atoning for? And who died? The answers to these questions are surely lost to time. (Unless you watch this episode!!)
“Is That Kosher?”
Season 12, Episode 1 of “Arthur”
In the Yom Kippur episode of beloved animated kids show “Arthur,” Francine Frensky, a Jewish friend of Arthur’s, struggles with fasting for the first time.
“Francine tries unsuccessfully to fast for the holiday, having been thwarted in her efforts by a slice of pizza. (Who hasn’t been there, am I right?) She’s embarrassed about what happened and is worried that Bubbe, her grandmother, will think she’s a failure,” Arielle Hazi wrote of the episode. She goes on, “However, when Francine arrives home, she finds Bubbe in the kitchen, eating a sandwich. Bubbe then reminds her that Judaism ‘forbids us to fast if it hurts our health.’ This interaction has always stuck with me, because it is one of the rare examples of a show actually acknowledging one of the most significant aspects of Judaism: pikuach nefesh, the principle in Judaism that saving a life is more important than almost every other mitzvah.”
As a kid, I remember feeling confusion about whether I was supposed to fast or not, and then guilt when (most of the time) I decided not to. For me, “Is This Kosher?” absolutely rings true and, in my humble opinion, is required viewing for all Jewish kids. God, I love PBS.
Season 1, episode 1 of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”
Regardless of whether you think “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” is good Jewish representation or if it’s OK for non-Jewish actors like Rachel Brosnahan to play Jewish roles, you have to admit that the show’s pilot is perhaps the most iconic High Holiday TV episode of all time.
Setting up the events of the entire series, in the first episode, Jewish New Yorker and housewife Midge Maisel has a seemingly perfect life until her husband Joel decides to leave her… on Yom Kippur. (I say this with my whole chest: fuck Joel for ruining the fact that Midge and her mother Rose ~ finally ~ got the rabbi for break fast.) This leads to my personal favorite joke of the entire series:
Later, Joel goes to his father Moishe’s garment factory to confess that he’s left Midge. Once again, “Mrs. Maisel” has the perfect explanation of the Jewish High Holidays in the form of a conversation between Joel and Moishe.
Moishe: Your mother-in-law called and said the whole family is so ill that break fast is canceled. So ill, the holiest of holy days cannot happen.
Joel: If it’s so holy, why do you keep the factory open?
Moishe: You want a smack in the face?
Joel: I’m just saying—
Moishe: The people get paid by the piece. You want to take a day’s work away from them? God wants them to go hungry if I shut my doors?
Moishe [gestures to work floor]: Half those people out there are gentiles. You go explain Yom Kippur to gentiles. We’re happy, but we’re starving. It’s New Years, but we’re guilty.
“The classic framing of Jewish things through the perspective of a gentile is a winner,” Emily Burack wrote for Hey Alma in 2017. “And later in the scene is the line that encapsulates the Jewish grandmother: ‘Your mother’s very upset… Yom Kippur’s a very big deal for your mother. There’s kugel, she sees the kids. You think that happens every day? You think every day there’s kugel and kids?'”
And finally, Midge references the High Holidays again at the end of the episode when she drunkenly heads to the Gaslight Cafe to do her first-ever set of stand-up comedy. “He packed up my suitcase and left. Oh, I’m going to have to lie to the rabbi about why Joel’s not there. Lying to the rabbi on Yom Kippur! I couldn’t get a clean slate for one fucking day,” she laments.
Midge Maisel, you are such a real one.
“Look, She Made a Hat”
Season 2, episode 7 of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”
Just in case anyone forgets just how Jewish “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” is, the show has an unprecedented second High Holidays related episode.
“It was set during the viddui, the Yom Kippur confessional prayer,” Hey Alma noted of the episode’s synagogue scene. “There were jokes about being starving during fasting, Rose being super proud of their seats, Astrid being too over-the-top Jewish (poor Astrid), Moishe and Shirley sitting because they’re “elders” (even though Abe complains they’re all the same age), and the synagogue running out at the end to break the fast. And, at the dinner, Midge wants to tell the family about her stand-up career and Joel asks if that’s really the best thing to do in a room full of hungry Jews.”
Season 1, episode 8 of “Rough Diamonds”
If there was ever a show that was made for a Yom Kippur episode, it is surely this very Jewish crime drama.
“‘Rough Diamonds,’ a joint production from Israel’s Keshet International and Belgium’s De Mensen, follows the Wolfson family as it navigates internal tension and business struggles in the wake of a death in the family,” Gabe Friedman wrote for JTA. “The protagonist, who left the haredi world 15 years earlier, returns to Antwerp to look into his relative’s death and help steer the family company back to prominence.”
But how does Noah (said protagonist) help steer his family and their diamond business back into prominence? He sells out his mother-in-law Kerra who received some stolen diamonds from mobsters. In the final minutes of season one, beautiful scenes of Yom Kippur services are intercut with Kerra being arrested by an armed SWAT team.
“An UnBEElievable Rosh Hashanah”
Season 2, episode 27 of “Marvel’s Spidey and His Amazing Friends”
Releasing on September 15, just in time for 5784, “An UnBEElievable Rosh Hashanah” is the perfect Jewish New Year’s episode for preschoolers and/or MCU fans!
“In the episode, Gobby (as they call Green Goblin) steals all the bees and The Thing has to help Team Spidey get the bees back and save Rosh Hashanah,” Linda Buchwald wrote for Kveller. She adds, “In one scene, The Thing wears a yarmulke as he eats Rosh Hashanah dinner, including apples and honey, of course, at the friendly neighborhood community center where people from different backgrounds celebrate each other. Ari and his dad, Mr. Rosenberg, were invited by The Thing to spend Rosh Hashanah with him, and they tell him that he made the community proud.”
Watch “An UnBEElievable Rosh Hashanah” on Disney+, starting September 15th.