Our Top 8 Movies About the Lower East Side
By Julie Hartman
We continue our round-up of great films and books about the Lower East Side. Check out both our Favorite Young Adult Books about the Lower East Side and Favorite Kids Books about the Lower East Side. Coming up are favorite books for grown-ups about this iconic NYC neighborhood.
Hester Street: Directed by Abraham Cahan (1975)
Hester Street tells the story of a family divided by the forces of immigration and assimilation in Jewish New York. The film is based on Abraham Cahan’s 1896 novel Yekl: A Tale of the New York Ghetto, and much of the dialogue is recited in Yiddish. The film’s historical and cultural authenticity contributed to its being added to the National Film Registry at the Library of Congress in 2011.
Crossing Delancey: Directed by Joan Micklin Silver (1988)
Another great Joan Micklin Silver film. Crossing Delancey actress Amy Irving was nominated for a Golden Globe for her portrayal of Isabelle—a 30-something New York City bluestocking looking for love in all the wrong places. Isabelle’s bubbie, played by Yiddish theatre star Reizl Boyzk in her only on-screen role, decides to taker her granddaughter’s love life into her own hands by commissioning a schadchan, or matchmaker, to arrange a date for Isabelle. Enter the Lower East Side pickle guy played by Peter Riegert. Crossing Delancey is the perfect romantic comedy for a rainy night in.
Once Upon A Time in America: Directed by Sergio Leone (1984)
Anybody with an affinity for mafia movies will appreciate this 1984 film directed by Sergio Leone. Robert De Niro, Elizabeth McGovern, Joe Pesci, and James Woods star in this gritty drama that chronicles the lives of a rag-tag group of Lower East Side gangsters from youth to adulthood. The film was reedited and screened at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival, where it garnered the critical acclaim it had missed out on after its initial release in 1984.
Radio Days: Directed by Woody Allen (1987)
Woody Allen draws from personal memories and true tales in this 1987 film about the glory days of American radio. 1930’s and 40’s New York City and its family-friendly suburbs are depicted through one young Jewish boy’s infatuation with cosmopolitan culture and the radio business. Radio Days is beloved by summer intern Julie Hartman and her mom, Jeanne.
Moonstruck: Directed by Norman Jewison (1987)
Hanna Griff-Sleven, our Director of Cultural Programs, loves Moonstruck so much, we just had to include it on this list! Norman Jewison directs this poignant romantic comedy about a traditional Italian family that splits its time between Little Italy and Brooklyn. Though Little Italy technically lies outside the “boundaries” of the Jewish Lower East Side, the film is thoroughly evocative of the 20th century European immigrant experience. A must-see!
When Harry Met Sally: Directed by Rob Reiner (1989)
Lower East Side staple Katz’ Deli makes a splendid appearance in one of the most famous scenes in one of the most famous movies of all time. Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan star as best friends experiencing doubt and confusion brought on by the consequences of mutual attraction.
Gangs of New York: Directed by Martin Scorsese (2001)
Those who are impervious to graphic cinema-staged violence—and lots of it—will enjoy Martin Scorsese’s epic film, Gangs of New York, starring Daniel Day Lewis, Leonardo Di Caprio, and Cameron Diaz. Gangs of New York captures the Five Points neighborhood of Lower Manhattan (located between the Lower East Side and Water Street) in the decades before and during the Civil War. The forces of Irish immigration, city corruption, urbanization, and national politics culminate in the dramatic events of the 1863 draft riots, all of which are brilliantly recreated in the movie.
The Jazz Singer: Directed by Alan Crossland (1927)
Legendary American entertainer Al Jolson stars in this 1927 film about religion, family duty, and personal fulfillment on New York’s Lower East Side. The plotline centers on Jakie Rabinowitz—later known as Jack Robin—who resists his father’s wish for him to become a Jewish cantor rather than pursuing his dreams of becoming a Broadway jazz singer. Though elements of the film are dated and thereby considered offensive by today’s standards (there is a minstrel scene featuring Jolson in blackface), it is considered a Hollywood classic.