A Jewish neighbourhood without Jews: Phoebe Maltz Bovy considers ‘Only Murders in the Building’

The Belnord at 209 W. 86th St. in New York—the building known as the Arconia in 'Only Murders in the Building'.

I’ve almost finished watching the 2021 first season of mystery-comedy Only Murders in the Building (which is also currently airing the old-fashioned way on CTV in Canada) and a bit embarrassed how long it took me to realize what it is about the otherwise delightful show that feels off. It’s set on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, in a fictional apartment building—the Arconia—based on a few real ones (including the Ansonia and Dakota, the latter notorious for being John Lennon’s home, and the building in front of which he was killed) and using the facade of an additional one the Belnord.

The show follows a band of has-beens and misfits, two aging men from the acting world (played by Steve Martin and Canada’s own Martin Short) and a pushing-30 woman, working-class-coded but with as yet no discernible source of income (Selena Gomez), whose shared obsession with a true crime podcast inspires them to start their own podcast to solve murders in their own building.

The Upper West Side setting is not incidental. It’s not like how Frasier is set in some version of Seattle that could be anywhere, or The Mary Tyler Moore Show in a Minneapolis that, again, could be wherever, apart from the occasional references to needing a winter coat. No, the vibe of Only Murders in the Building is New Yawk, with the specificity of this being the Upper West Side emphasized on a regular basis. This is New York’s well-heeled or scraping-by-and-keeping-up-the-pretense intelligensia. The font the title is in evokes The New Yorker, or a Woody Allen movie.

To me, a Jew who grew up across town from it, it is self-evident that the Upper West Side is Jewish, but some evidence. A 2013 New York Times article includes the factoid, “There are as many Jews on the Upper West Side—70,500—as there are in all of Cleveland.” It’s also nearly as many Jews as live in Toronto and this is one neighbourhood of approximately 200,000. It’s such a Jewish neighbourhood that it has Jewish sub-neighbourhoods, a more observant area around 96th Street and a more Woody Allen-Philip Roth-bagels one in the West 70s and 80s.

To get even more precise on this: A Wikipedia entry with the “notable residents” of the Belnord” is a who’s-who of Jewish artistic history: writer Isaac Bashevis Singer, actors Zero Mostel and Walter Matthau, opera singer Sophie Braslau, and—yes, she counts—actress and icon Marilyn Monroe. The Upper West Side is where Seinfeld was set as well as where the real-life Jerry Seinfeld lives. (I once saw him on 81st Street from the window of a crosstown bus. Most of the action takes place within a five minute walk of Zabar’s, Barney Greengrass, and however many other places I could get away with naming before I’d be told off for making this article too New York-centric for something appearing in what is, after all, The Canadian Jewish News. (I realize the ship has sailed, but bear with me.)

The core characters are eccentric, neurotic, Jewish-coded in some hard-to-articulate way, but not Jewish. Not the characters, not the actors playing them. Yes, Selena Gomez was in a Woody Allen movie, A Rainy Day in New York, playing an earthy New York brunette, but no, not Jewish. Yes, this very publication apparently once contacted Martin Short, only to learn that he is not one of us—which was discussed in this 1979 interview with David Steinberg, who was somehow rumoured to be his cousin:

That the three leads aren’t Jews is not the issue. As Jewish as the Upper West Side may be, it would not be difficult to find three gentiles, and apparently some of the actors really do live in the area. No, where it starts to get strange is when they sort of zoom back and show the building population generally. It’s this group of residents who are this hyperstylized idea of what New Yorkers might be like, with yes maybe more (or just different) racial diversity than you’d really get in a building like that, but where Jews are somehow not among those represented.

But that’s nothing compared with the introduction of a deli mogul, specializing in hummus, played by Nathan Lane. This character explains that his family included victims and survivors of “the Greek and Armenian Holocaust”—the Armenian genocide. There are some people with thoughts about this on Turkish Reddit (see below) but my own are different (I think; I can’t read Turkish and don’t know what many are saying). Basically, you have a man known for his deli empire who is on the Upper West Side who is from a Holocaust victim-and-survivor family who is bankrolling a podcast but let’s be sure this character is not Jewish because…?

They should have called it Only Gentiles in the Building, although technically this wouldn’t be accurate. There is a very background character, played by Jackie Hoffman, who is as best as I can tell the only person on-screen who rings true for the neighbourhood depicted. (You cannot push a shopping cart in the Fairway without bumping into at least a dozen Hoffman clones.) A National Review piece about the show mentions the neighbourhood’s “strong Jewish influence,” but not the absence in the series of, well, Jews.

There was a time when Jewish characters were sort of recast as white Christians in order to conform to the presumed desires of audiences. I will spare you the sitcom history but it was a thing. Which is why it’s so striking that in the early 2020s, in an era of awareness about identity, at a moment when it would not be done to portray New York City as all-white (recall the criticisms of the first season of Girls, not to mention decades’ worth of Friends think-pieces), on a show that, while rather white on the whole, overall embraces the city’s diversity, that has a side plot involving a Black lesbian couple, Jews don’t register.

What am I even doing here? Am I forcing an identity-politics reading onto a charming show that I should be able to (and, look, am about to) enjoy without thinking about these matters? Because this isn’t about any of the usual things. It’s not cultural appropriation. (Can you culturally appropriate a neighbourhood?)

It’s not about a failure to cast actors who share identity traits with their characters—something I think too much sleep is lost over. It’s about the utter strangeness of using artistic licence to create a deeply Jewy but near-Jewless Upper West Side.

I’m not outraged, but confused as to why someone would make that choice, particularly because I would find it extremely hard to believe that either this show’s creators or its presumed audiences have anything against Jews. (Though on the latter front, I may be too naive.) Is it just the usual television thing of needing to show a specific, rooted world, while also taking care not to alienate viewers more generally?

Because it’s not that the show isn’t demographically representative of the city it depicts. Indeed, it kind of is! (I have especially no complaints about the casting of handsomeness situation Aaron Dominguez.) It’s that it’s not demographically representative of the highly specific world within the city it’s ostensibly portraying. For there not to be Jews all over the place is surreal.

Why not just invent some other neighbourhood? Say that the whole thing is set in ‘SoNo’ or whatever and be done with it? Why am I now fixated on this with the intensity of a has-been actor trying to solve murders in his upscale apartment building?

At times, it feels as if the show is coasting on a vibe, but that something is missing. Some of it is in the uniform alterna-Upper West Side aesthetics, a theatrical flourish that flattens the piles-of-books, heaps-of-this-and-that environment one would actually find. (New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast’s Connecticut home is more the idea, despite being located in Connecticut.) Some of it is also about Jews.

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The CJN’s senior editor Phoebe Maltz Bovy can be reached at [email protected], not to mention @phoebebovy on Bluesky, and @bovymaltz on X. She is also on The CJN’s weekly podcast Bonjour Chai.