Editor’s note: We’ve republished this guide, originally published in November 2019, to serve as a streaming guide through the coronavirus pandemic.
Somewhere between Adam Sandler making a movie about hummus and Gal Gadot voicing herself on “The Simpsons,” things changed. Americans have long been willing to entertain stories featuring Israeli characters — a former Mossad agent here, a Krav Maga expert there. But now, we’re living in a golden age of Israeli content for English-speaking audiences. The explanation for the sheer number of stories by and about Israelis currently delighting US audiences goes back to 2009’s “In Treatment” and 2011’s “Homeland” — critical and commercial darlings that were adapted from Israeli hits. The Tel Aviv invasion snowballed in 2015 with “Fauda,” which became popular with Americans in its Israeli iteration, not as an American show.
“The ‘foreign’ language is part of the appeal,” says Gannit Ankori, a professor of Art History and Theory at Brandeis University who specializes in contemporary Israeli and Palestinian art, film and visual culture. “It lends authenticity and just enough distance to allow the processing of traumatic, violent and unsettling content and imagery.” “Fauda” built a bridge to bring Western viewers closer to original Israeli content, but its popularity rests in part on what has always made Israel mesmerizing to Americans — relentless violence and self-determination. Less obvious is the popularity of “Shtisel,” a portrait of a Haredi family living in Jerusalem, and its 17,000 members of the Facebook group “Shtisel — Let’s Talk About It.” “What is the Kotel and what does leyning Torah mean?” one woman wondered. Shows like HBO’s “Our Boys” and “Shtisel” seem like opposites, Ankori says, but they have similar functions. “They explore rifts and fault lines that plague Israeli society in a self-critical manner. I think this is what the Israeli government hates (as the Prime Minister’s recent criticism of ‘Our Boys’ demonstrated) and what sophisticated audiences all over the world appreciate.”
Avi Nir, the CEO of Keshet Media Group, which is responsible for “Prisoners of War” and “Beauty and the Baker,” among others, says Israeli TV makers keep Americans in mind, but don’t create for them. “The main endeavor is to find that place when you understand that there is a show. It is something you need to feel in your gut,” he says. “Many of the stories coming out of Israel are either personal, meaningful or ambitious. Most of them have something they want to convey beyond to entertain. In some senses, [the show creator is] closer to the auteur in cinema than to the show runner in American TV.”
It’s this emotional complexity that Americans find cutting edge. “Previous representations of Israelis tended to echo stereotypical characters,” says Ankori, naming “Exodus,” the 1960 Paul Newman vehicle that told a fairy tale about Israel’s founding. “There were solutions and resolutions to the drama with good guys clearly articulated. Contemporary Israeli filmmakers and artists self-represent Israelis and Israeli society as fragmented and flawed,” she says. “Israelis are engaged in inflicting pain and suffering from pain within an unresolved and conflict-ridden reality. This troubled existence resonates with viewers.”
The number of Israeli TV shows, movies and adaptations being released in the US is staggering. Below you’ll find all the current and upcoming Holy Land offerings you can watch with just a cable login or an ex’s Netflix password. Nesiya tova — safe travels on your streaming journey.
New Israeli TV shows for American audiences
“Our Boys”(Docudrama)Watch it on: HBO
In the summer of 2014, four political murders led into a brutal 50-day conflict in the Gaza Strip. The first three victims were Jewish hitchhikers, abducted and shot by members of Hamas; the fourth was a Palestinian teenager, burned alive by Orthodox Jewish settlers. This gutting, and controversial, series by Joseph Cedar, Hagai Levi and Tawfik Abu Wael, follows the Shin Bet’s investigation into the murder of 16-year-old Muhammed Abu Khdeir and how his grieving father navigates his son’s new status as a martyr. In late August of this year, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and a number of right-wing groups railed against “Our Boys” for choosing to focus on Abu Khdeir, and not the murder of the hitchhikers. Israel was buzzing about this one — some defending it, and others calling it “propaganda.” Stream and decide for yourself.
“Fauda” (Spy Thriller)Watch it on: Netflix
An Israeli hybrid of “The Shield” and “The Wire,” “Fauda” arrived in the States like a Krav Maga-chop to the jugular in late 2016. The series follows the exploits of a commander of a fictional counterterrorism unit that dresses up like Arabs to infiltrate terror cells. The group’s methods often flout protocol, and their targets are, more often than not, painted with well-drawn pathos. The same can’t always be said for the commander, Doron, who, as far as TV antiheroes go, gives Walter White and Vic Mackey a run for their shekels. Fauda’s first two seasons are already streamable on Netflix and a third is due to out early in 2020.
“Shtisel” (TV drama)
Watch it on: Netflix .
It’s estimated (by us, the Forward’s culture correspondents) that ninety percent of rabbis will reference “Shtisel” in their shabbat sermons over the next year. The Israeli drama about Haredi Jews is the first American TV show to center on Orthodox Jews, and everyone — from people who call kippot “little hats” to Haredi Jews themselves — is addictive. If you’re fascinated by insular cultures, or you just like watching the intricacies of human behavior chafe against social systems, try “Shtisel.” The first two seasons are on Netflix with a third on the way — pending payment disputes — and the show is being adapted for American TV by Amazon Studios.
“When Heroes Fly” (TV drama)Watch it on: Netflix
Everything you expect from Israeli action shows, with extra spice. Four IDF veterans still reeling from the bloodshed of the 2006 Lebanon War reunite to travel to Colombia in search of one friend’s sister — and another’s ex-girlfriend — who they believed to be dead. This searing drama examines post traumatic stress disorder against an unusual backdrop — the Colombian jungle. The first season is streaming on Netflix, and a second season is in the works from Keshet. The highly-praised series is also being adapted for American TV.
“The Spy” (Limited series action thriller)Watch it on: Netflix
No joke. “Borat” star Sacha Baron Cohen played a decorated Israeli operative with a tragic story. This six-part miniseries by “Prisoners of War” (the basis for “Homeland”) creator Gideon Raff dramatizes the life of Egyptian born-Israeli Eli Cohen, a Mossad agent who lived undercover in Syria in the 1960s. Cohen (Eli, not Sacha Baron) was so good at his job he became the chief adviser to the country’s minister of defense, and gathered intel that would prove pivotal to Israel’s success in 1967’s Six Day War. Cohen was eventually captured and hanged publicly in 1965 — the Mossad has been searching for his remains ever since. “The Spy” is now streaming on Netflix, and reviews for Baron Cohen’s performance have been raves, noting how his knack for character transformation mesh nicely with the other Cohen’s habit of disguise. The Forward liked it, too.
New Israeli movies for American audiences
“The Operative” (Mystery/Spy Thriller)Watch it on: Amazon Prime, Vudu, YouTube and Google Play
Like a Mossad stealth unit, this came and went from theaters so quietly in August, no one — not even us! — took notice. Thankfully in this age of streaming, nothing’s gone forever. The film follows Mossad agent Rachel (Diane Kruger), who in the middle of a risky assignment to interfere with Iran’s nuclear ambitions, disappears without a trace. Well, she left one trace: a cryptic voicemail to her former handler, Thomas (Martin Freeman of “Sherlock” fame). What follows is an international scramble to find Rachel and uncover her past along the way. An international project, based on the novel “The English Teacher,” by former IDF brigadier general Yiftach Reicher Atir, the film is riding the crest of a growing wave of top European talent flocking to Israeli cinema. Reviews, however, were not so kind.
“The Spider in the Web” (Mystery/Spy Thriller)Watch it on: Amazon Prime, Vudu, YouTube and Google Play
Oh, Ben Kingsley. You have played Gandhi. You have played a Jew in “Schindler’s List.” You have even, recently, played Adolf Eichmann. It’s only natural that your late career should see also see you playing members of the Israeli intelligence community. You can’t be pigeonholed. In this thriller by “Lemon Tree” director Eran Riklis, Kingsley plays aging Mossad agent Aderath, who must connect the dots between a mysterious contact (Monica Bellucci) and a company producing chemical weapons for the Syrians. He is hindered — and later aided — in his quest by the son of his old colleague (Itay Teran), who the Mossad has tasked with looking over his shoulder. Set in Belgium and shot in English and Hebrew, this thriller takes the Israeli spy genre international. Though, we must confess, it’s seldom thrilling, and often just confusing.
“The Angel” (Docudrama/Thriller)Watch it on: Netflix
Flipping the script on a familiar formula, “The Angel” tells the true story of an unlikely Israeli asset. Ashraf Marwan (Marwan Kenzari), the son-in-law of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, became an informant for the Israeli government. It was Marwan who tipped the Israelis off to the stirrings of the Yom Kippur War, allowing the IDF to mobilize and thwart a complete takeover of the Golan Heights. Some believe that Marwan was in fact a double agent for the Egyptians, but this film, which received mixed reviews — with some in the Israeli press disappointed by how it failed to meet the excitement and drama of true events — chooses to claim Marwan as an Israeli hero. Heck, it even seems to give Marwan credit for the Camp David Accords. While not altogether effective as a spy film, “The Angel” does deliver as a quick primer on a fascinating character and his little known legacy.
“Red Sea Diving Resort” (Feature film drama)Watch it on: Netflix
In the early 1980s Israeli Mossad agents, posing as Swiss hoteliers, rented a Sudanese beach resort, turned it into a tourist destination, and used it as a front to shuttle Ethiopian Jews — who had been starved and brutalized after the 1974 Ethiopian coup — onto “tourism boats,” which smuggled them to waiting naval ships, then on to Israel. If you can un-stick your white knuckles, pass the popcorn — it’s a story that seems destined for the screen. Written and directed by Gideon Raff, the Chris Evans vehicle is a little squirmy. Strong, white, English-speaking “Israelis” accept hugs and thanks in broken English from Ethiopians — it’s a funny way to tell a story about a group of people so brave they escaped their home for a country they did not know.
“Tel Aviv On Fire” (Feature film satire)Watch it: Anywhere you can rent movies
A hit at the Venice International Film Festival, this comedy satire about a Palestinian who lives in East Jerusalem and works on the set of a soap opera has a major plot point that hinges on hummus, and a great score on Rotten Tomatoes to boot. Forget the title’s implication that this will be a bloody slog through intractable conflict — it’s cheerfully cutting.
New adaptations of Israeli stuff for Americans
“Emmis”(TV adaptation of “Shtisel”)Watch it (when it comes out) on: Amazon Prime Where to watch the original: Netflix
Don’t believe us that much of America has “Shtisel”-fever? None other than Marta Kauffman, the co-creator of “Friends,” has signed on to retell the story of an ultra-Orthodox family for American audiences. Kauffman will collaborate with her daughter on “Emmis” (the Yiddish word for “truth”), which will place the “Shtisel”-like story of an ultra-Orthodox family in Brooklyn. There’s no release date yet, but we do hope the show opens by panning over yeshiva boys’ faces while someone sings the words, “So no one told you life was gonna be this way…”
“Beauty and the Baker,” from Keshet, is one of Israel’s sunniest, shiniest, most CW-style exports. Titled “Being With Her” in Hebrew, the comedy follows a courtship between a Bar Rafaeli-type bombshell (played by outspoken Israeli lawyer Rotem Sela) and a joe-schmo Mizrahi baker. ABC’s renamed “Baker And The Beauty” will follow a Cuban baker who falls for a jet-setting fashionista against the backdrop of Miami’s beaches and nightclubs. It will debut as a mid-season replacement on ABC in 2020.
“Zero Motivation” (In development)Where to watch it when it comes out: TBD Watch the original: Wherever you can rent movies
Americans cling to the notion that all Israeli soldiers are either in direct combat or running top-secret intelligence units. The 2014 black comedy “Zero Motivation” by Talya Lavie follows teenage girls who perform unglamorous office jobs for their army service, try to lose their virginities, and play Minesweeper. The movie has been lauded by Israelis as the most accurate portrayal of life in the Israeli army. It’s one of Israel’s best and most successful movies this century, so it’s little wonder that the TV adaptation rights were snapped up by Amy Poehler and “Russian Doll” creator Natasha Lyonne. They’ll create it for BBC America, with producers from “Broad City.”
“Euphoria” (TV adaptation of Israeli show of the same name)Where to watch: HBO
Do teenagers live secret lives of glamorous despair? This question has fascinated American audiences for years, and apparently Israeli ones as well. Israel’s “Euphoria” is set in the ’90s and based on a true murder case. HBO dropped that premise but kept the band of disaffected teens with under-treated mental health issues and parents who have better things to do than take care of their kids. The American version is heralded for its representations of addiction and sexual and gender diversity.
Tired of spies and soldiers and rabbis? “Yellow Peppers” is a critically-acclaimed family drama about a young couple raising an autistic son in a tiny Israeli village. The show spawned both a Greek iteration (“The Word You Don’t Say”) and a British one, “The A Word,” which sets the village in England’s lush Lake District. The first season is streaming on Amazon, with two more on the way.
A piercing drama about a morally ambiguous man who has experienced immense personal tragedy? Yes, of course, Bryan Cranston will produce and star in “Your Honor,” an adaptation of Israel’s popular “Kvodo” (which actually translates to “His Honor.”) Cranston will play a judge who decides to break from his commitment to the law to protect his son in a limited series set in New Orleans. The show is currently in production, with no premiere date set.
Two TV shows that de-stigmatize autism spectrum disorders on TV at the same time? If you will it, it is no dream. “On The Spectrum” is an Israeli take on the classic 20-somethings-figuring-out-sex-laundry-and-taxes TV comedy, this time about three roommates who are all on the autism spectrum. From “Yes!” the same network that made “Your Honor,” “On The Spectrum” is being adapted by Jason Katims for Amazon. Katims, who also wrote for “Parenthood” and “Friday Night Lights” has also written about his son, who was diagnosed with Asperger’s.
“HaShoter HaTov,” literally, “The Good Cop,” was an Israeli project with American values — a goofy sitcom about police officers. The 10-episode-long first season of the Israeli show from 2015 is on Netflix (there’s also a second season out there, and a third on the way.) Netflix also adapted the show for Americans, starring Tony Danza and Josh Groban, but the cops were deemed not good, and canceled after one season.
Recent-ish Israeli hits you should stream
While you wait for “Emmis” and pray for a new season of “When Heroes Fly,” try streaming these recent Israeli classics.
“In Treatment” (TV drama)Watch it on: Amazon, Hulu, HBO
Pay respects to the elder statesman of this wave of Israeli-American entertainment — “In Treatment” is the American HBO adaptation of “BeTipul” (“In Therapy”) the runaway Israeli success about a therapist and his patients. “Betipul,” which is sadly hard to stream in the US, has been adapted in Argentina, Serbia, the Netherlands, Japan and Brazil as well as America, where it ran on HBO for three seasons, starting in 2009. The HBO version, which has an extra season, scrubs some of the Jewish and Israeli details (no survivor father, no IDF-bound son.) But in most other ways “In Treatment” is an explicit copy of “Betipul,” down to much of the language in the script, by “Betipul” head writer Ori Sivan.
“Homeland” (TV drama)Watch it on: Amazon, Hulu, Showtime
You know the drill by now — “Prisoners of War” (“The Abductees,” in Hebrew,) was Gideon Raff’s award-winning drama about Israeli soldiers who, held captive for almost twenty years, are finally returned home. In the American version, US military vet Claire Danes investigates a soldier who was held captive by Al-Qaeda, under the guidance of Mandy Patinkin.
“Srugim” (TV dramedy)Where to watch: Amazon Prime
If “Shtisel” sees far, that’s because it stands on the shoulders of “Srugim.” All three seasons of the beloved show about 20-something Orthodox Israelis dating in Jerusalem are streaming on Amazon Prime, and though it has been compared to “Friends,” it’s much better.
“A Touch Away” (TV drama)Watch it on: Amazon Prime
Romeo is a fresh off the boat Israeli immigrant from Russia. Juliet is an ultra-Orthodox Israeli. Verona is Bnai Brak. “A Touch Away” came out in 2007, two years before “In Treatment” opened American eyes to everything Israeli media had to offer, but it’s ready for you to binge on Amazon.
“Bethlehem” (Feature film drama)Watch it: Anywhere you can rent movies
This super-painful, super-thoughtful drama follows a Mossad officer’s twisted relationship with a teenage Palestinian informant. As the men grow to be like family members, and make searing choices, the conflict becomes more vivid — and more feverish — refracted through humans, not headlines. “Bethlehem” won just about every movie award in Israel when it came out in 2014.
“Maktub” (Feature film action-comedy)Watch it on: Netflix
What if Jewish Israeli gangsters decided to grant every wish left in private notes in Jerusalem’s Western Wall? Well, it would probably make for a very watchable movie, easily Israel’s most successful action-comedy in years.
“The Wedding Plan” (Feature film romantic comedy)Watch it: Anywhere you can rent movies.
Woman plans and God laughs in “The Wedding Plan,” which follows an Orthodox woman who, tired of waiting for her intended, sets a wedding date and hopes that the Lord will provide. It’s funny, it’s painful, it’s another sensitively brilliant look at how religious Israelis live and love.
Jenny Singer is the Forward’s deputy life and features editor. follow her @jeanvaljenny. PJ Grisar is the Forward’s culture fellow. He can be reached at Grisar@Forward.com.