In her book I’ll Have What She’s Having: How Nora Ephron’s Three Iconic Films Saved the Romantic Comedy, author Erin Carlson writes that while promoting When Harry Met Sally, Nora Ephron would talk about how “‘Christian’ and ‘Jewish’ romantic comedies differ.” She said, “external forces separate lovers in the former, while characters’ neuroses obstruct happiness in the latter.” Yes, Jewish people are often neurotic about their love lives, if you can believe it.
If this is a true measure of the difference between “Jewish” and “Christian” romantic comedies (and if Nora Ephron said it, then it must be true) then that begs the question: What are the very best Jewish romantic comedies? What else — beyond neuroses — makes for a Jewish romantic comedy? As a lifelong romantic comedy lover and a lifelong Jewish person, I set out to rank the best Jewish romantic comedies.
But what makes a romantic comedy Jewish? It, of course, can’t just be that the characters depicted, or the actors, writer, or director, are Jewish — or that it takes place in New York City (that would make just about every romantic comedy a Jewish romantic comedy. Let’s just say there are certain situations and humor that lend themselves to the… Jewish persuasion.
Before I get to the ranking of the best Jewish rom coms, please keep in mind that best is an operative word here, which is why the movie Prime (wherein Meryl Streep plays Jewish mom to Bryan Greenberg and therapist to Uma Thurman) didn’t make the cut. It also has to be a classic romantic comedy (Clueless is not a rom com; it is a coming of age story, and you can @ me if you want). Last but not least, I’d like to acknowledge that Hollywood’s depiction of Jews tends to be extremely narrow — you won’t find movies on this list that get at the diversity of the Jewish community (you’ll barely find one that gets out of New York City). I sincerely hope one day I can make an updated list to amend that, but for now, I must work with what we’re given.
And now, in reverse order, the best Jewish rom coms judged by me, a Jew:
8. You’ve Got Mail
While there is no specific reason to believe that Kathleen Kelly and Joe Fox, the protagonists of Nora Ephron’s 1998 classic, are Jewish (in fact, Christmas plays a fairly big role in the movie), it is the Upper West Side of it all that lends You’ve Got Mail to being a Jewish rom com. H&H Bagel and Zabar’s are Jewish institutions. Jews are the “people of the book.” Plus, Jewish people do love a good cause, even if it’s a fruitless one like trying to stop a megastore like Fox Books. Not to mention, how often do you get rom coms that reference Ethel and Julius Rosenberg?
7. Sleeping with Other People
If Jewish rom coms are about neuroses obstructing your chance at happiness, then by that measure and that measure alone, 2015’s Sleeping with Other People would be the most Jewish romantic comedy of all time. There are no two people who get in their own way more than Lainey (Alison Brie, a Jew) and Jake (Jason Sudeikis, not a Jew). In kind of an update on When Harry Met Sally (yes, obviously I’ll get to that one soon), Lainey and Jake lose their virginities to each other, eventually become friends, and then have to figure out their way back to something more than that. The pitter-patter of their dialogue is very Ephron-esque and very New York-y, which is to say… it’s very Jewish.
6. Knocked Up
No one does schlubby guy better than Seth Rogen, and this is him at his schlubbiest. Unlike many of the films on this list that have a very New York Jewish sensibility, Knocked Up — written, produced, and directed by Hollywood’s Jewish dad, Judd Apatow — takes place in Los Angeles (a city that also has Jews, from what I understand), so erudite jokes about the New York Observer and quiche are swapped out for pop culture references to Legoland and E! celebrity coverage. Seth Rogen’s character, Ben, is that classic guy you knew from Hebrew school who’s nice enough and can always make you laugh, but still needs to get his act together. This film sees him doing just that, and it’s something Rogen continues to do to great effect in Long Shot.
5. Obvious Child
In a pre-Marvelous Mrs. Maisel world, there wasn’t a surplus of films or television shows that showed us the inner lives of female comedians — that sort of treatment was typically reserved for men (with the notable exception of This is My Life, another classic Ephron film). Obvious Child gives us that rare glimpse into the world of a female comic, delightfully portrayed by Jenny Slate, whose mastery of her curly hair I could watch a whole movie about. In addition to all the jokes about Donna’s Judaism (she refers to herself as the menorah on top of the Christmas tree that burns the Christmas tree down, which, same), over the course of the film, Donna grows beyond her neuroses, allowing herself to accept Max’s (Jake Lacy) kindness towards her. Plus, Richard Kind, the ultimate Jewish dad, is always a welcome sight.
4. When Harry Met Sally
It’s nearly impossible to make a list of romantic comedies without including When Harry Met Sally on it, so it can’t be too surprising to find it on this one. Like the aforementioned You’ve Got Mail, When Harry Met Sally doesn’t shy away from the use of Jewish institutions — New York City’s Katz’s Deli, in this instance, sets the stage for one of the most iconic scenes in film history (although, one could also argue that Katz’s Deli was made an institution by When Harry Met Sally and not the other way around). Harry (Billy Crystal) is kind of like your uncle who always had a few too many girlfriends when you were a kid; he’s nebbishy and a constant over thinker, while Sally (Meg Ryan) is famously “too structured.” And while the two of them don’t sleep together until at least three quarters of the way into the movie, they spend a lot of time thinking about their situation, and talking about their situation, and that may be the most Jewish thing of all.
3. Kissing Jessica Stein
Another neurotic female lead who can’t seem to find what she wants — or the right Jewish guy — Jessica Stein (Jennifer Westfeldt, who also co-wrote the film) begins dating a woman, and in the process, becomes a more confident, fully realized version of herself. With Tovah Feldshuh as Jessica’s mother, at the outset, you get that classically stereotypical Jewish mother (you know, the one who is desperate for you to settle down and will fix you up with anyone whose last name ends in -itz or -berg), but over time, Jessica’s mother reveals herself to be more accepting, allowing Jessica to figure out what it is she really wants — on her terms.
2. Dirty Dancing
Baby, or Frances, as she’s later revealed to be named, has big plans: plans to join the Peace Corps and plans to heal the world (known otherwise as tikkun olam). During her summer at Kellerman’s, a Catskills resort representative of where many Jews spent their summers vacationing in the ‘60s when the film is set, she comes to learn that things are not always as they appear — and definitely not exactly as her father told her. Soon, Baby (Jennifer Grey) breaks out of her mold as daddy’s little girl. While we see her family wrongly prioritize things like a Cornell education or med school, the film never judges them too harshly, but rather, helps them to see the error of their ways. Fun fact: Frances is named after Frances Perkins, the first woman to hold a U.S. cabinet position, who dedicated her life to the labor movement — and while she was not Jewish herself, she worked to save Jews fleeing Nazi Germany.
1. Crossing Delancey
While 1988’s Crossing Delancey doesn’t often come up in conversations about best romantic comedies (although it should), I have no hesitation in calling it the most Jewish rom com of all time. Yes, at face value, it is incredibly Jewish — Isabelle (Amy Irving) frequently visits with her bubbe, who wants to set her up with a Lower East Side Pickle Guy, and generally, Isabelle feels torn between between the Jewish world and the secular one. And yet, despite the plot, the characters never feel tropey or ham-fisted; they feel like real Jewish people with lived experiences and never slip into caricatures, as often can be the case when Jewish people are depicted in media. This, in my opinion, is what makes it the best Jewish rom com of all time. Plus, the scene where Isabelle’s bubbe and a formidable crew of old women learn to ward off would-be-muggers is one of the funniest I have seen in my life.
Honorable mention: If Billy Crystal had even a little bit more screen time in The Princess Bride, it would be a Jewish rom com.
Header image design by Emily Burack. Background via Dragan Todorovic/Getty Images.