Simone finds plenty to laugh about in the New Zealand Jewish community

Mike Cohen
14 min readMar 1, 2024


Jewish Telegraph, March 1, 2024

Simone Nathan. Below, Simone as Lulu and Paul Williams as Ollie

SIMONE Nathan brings the New Zealand sunshine as she logs on to Zoom to chat to Mike Cohen about her Jewish sitcom Kid Sister

TAY Sachs isn’t usually a subject ripe for comedy, but Simone Nathan sees her use of it in sitcom Kid Sister as a public service. The 10-episode two seasons of Kid Sister — available on ITVX — are set in the small Jewish community of Auckland, New Zealand.

Simone plays Lulu Emanuel, who is dating non-Jew Ollie — played by her real-life husband Paul Williams.

She has lied to her overbearing South Africa-born mother Keren (Amanda Billing) and dad Siggy (Jeff Szusterman) that she met a Jewish boy in America. But she has to come clean about Ollie after discovering she is pregnant.

The Tay Sachs storyline is raised because Lulu’s brother Leo — played by Simone’s real brother Joseph — and his wife Bec (Kira Josephson) have not been tested for the disease.

Simone described using Tay Sachs as “dark”. She explained: “We could have easily left it out, but it is so specifically Jewish and interesting that I wanted to include it in the plot.

“That’s where the show leans more into the dramedy than the comedy, because it’s not a straight comedy. And even though there’s a basis of comedy around a lot of the premises, I’m not afraid of the more serious moments.

“I want people to think when they watch it. So for a Jewish audience, it is a public service thing of definitely get tested because this is a real thing. A lot of my real friends have dealt with the problems of Tay Sachs and other Ashkenazi diseases.

“At the same time, it is also another interesting part of the question of whether Judaism is a religion or an ethnicity because I know these diseases developed when we were forced to live in the ghettos in Europe, and the gene that gives us Tay Sachs is also the gene that helped us survive other pandemics.

“I read a bunch of research about it and the reason that a lot of people didn’t die from one of the other pandemics was because they had that gene.

“But then all the people who were left had the gene and they weren’t allowed to marry anyone else. So that’s why it’s so prevalent today.”

The show has been well-received around the world. Simone is particularly moved by messages she has received from Israeli viewers.

“They write that the war’s been really hard and ‘your show distracted me or let me escape what was going on and think about something else’. Those messages mean a lot.”

Despite the acclaim, the network has delayed screening the second season in New Zealand while Israel is at war with Hamas.

“It’s just weird that it’s out in other countries and not in New Zealand because, usually, you would launch it locally first and then it would go overseas,” she said.

The 32-year-old spent much of the past few months living in London — before returning home to work on Taika Waititi’s latest film.

And her time in the English capital coincided with the weekly pro-Palestinian rallies.

“It took such an emotional toll. I was really surprised how much it affected me and the other Jews I know,” she said.

“I think it makes you feel really misunderstood and alone. But I can’t explain it.”

It’s a similar situation in New Zealand. She points out that there were many Instagram posts with messages like “Will you free my Palestine on Valentine’s Day?”

Simone explained: “I don’t mean to sound bitter or anything because I also know that the people who attend the rallies and the people who post these things on social media strongly feel a connection to Gaza.

“And I’m devastated seeing the images that come out. War is a horrible thing. And so I truly believe that people have their hearts in the right place.

“It doesn’t totally meet up with my logical brain where I know that people are posting from a good place.

“It still feels very us and them. And maybe it feels a little bit like October 7 just didn’t happen to a lot of people and gets really lost.

“So it’s just a really confusing time to be Jewish and liberal as well.

“You suddenly feel you can’t have conversations with the people who you’re closest with because it’s just going to end up falling apart or you’re going to damage your friendship. So you end up just not discussing it, which feels worse.”

The second season of Kid Sister follows Ollie’s conversion to Judaism — something Taskmaster New Zealand star Paul went through.

“When we started dating six or so years ago, it was really more just a fun thing while I was back in New Zealand,” Simone told me.

“But then he wanted to continue, so we did long distance for a few years while I lived in America, and I think he knew from getting to know my family and from things I’d said that I would need to marry someone Jewish.

“So it was an awareness for him the whole way through.

“As we got on, I started saying, ‘I think we need to consider whether you are willing to do something like that’. And then he went and found a rabbi and started attending synagogue on his own while I was living in America.

“So it was quite independent in the sense that suddenly he was like ‘I went to shul with your dad and your brother’. And he had been talking to the rabbi about doing classes.

“It was really nice because it felt he had taken so much initiative and just started doing it himself. There was no gun to his head, but maybe there was a gun under the table.”

She added that her parents would have loved her to have met a Jewish boy while she was in America but “then they met Paul and they loved him”.

She added: “They really embraced what we were doing, especially when he was converting. And they were so happy.

“You have to go through the conversion process together. It’s not just him. I had to go to synagogue and to the classes as well.

“Pretty much everyone in our class were women converting, and Paul was one of the only guys.

“It just felt right to me that we would both be on the same page and both be the same religion if we wanted to have kids or something like that.”

Simone says the couple took the conversion “very seriously”.

She explained: “It wasn’t as dramatic as it was in the show. The hardest part of it was that the rabbis wanted us to settle down in one place so that they could oversee us, but, unfortunately, with our jobs, especially with Paul’s, he travels for work constantly because he goes to the New Zealand Comedy Festival and the Melbourne Comedy Festival.

“Then he does shows in London. And then he goes to Edinburgh and he has his really packed Taskmaster schedule as well.

“It was hard to give up his one day off to do Shabbos, but we came to really love it and it was a really unique experience.

“I don’t know if we’ll maintain that maximum level of religiosity, but it definitely is something that we wouldn’t do it if we weren’t planning to change our lives. What’s the point?

“It’s not just getting a tick next to your name, okay? Jew. It’s the point, especially because he doesn’t need to be Jewish for our children to be Jewish.

“The point is more for him to understand everything that’s going on. You want to be able to go to Shabbos and be able to sing along and all of the different songs at shul and not feel you’re just standing there, twiddling your thumbs, not understanding and feeling left out.

“So that’s something that we’ll definitely take with us forever.”

Simone described New Zealand as “a great place to grow up”, adding: “but I’m not exactly in the New Zealand that you would imagine with Hobbits and Lord of the Rings-esque views, because Auckland is really just a city.

“When I tell people to come to New Zealand, I always say skip Auckland because it’s like the main city where most of our population lives, but it’s not as beautiful as the rest of the country,

“And also the rest of the country hates us. They call us JAFAs, Just Another F****** Aucklander.”

Simone’s paternal family was one of the first Jewish families in New Zealand in 1840. Her father is of Moroccan-French-Portuguese heritage, while her mother’s family is from South Africa — like her fictional mother in Kid Sister.

“My dad was president of the Auckland Hebrew Congregation,” she said. “So I would go to shul with him and play with my Barbies at his feet.

“And there was quite a rich, inner city Jewish life here, although there weren’t a lot of families. So it felt very insular and quite special to be Jewish.

“And then once you reach the age of 11 or 12, the Jewish day school ended and you were cast out into the rest of the school system.”

Simone describes her secondary school education at an all-girls Christian school as “quite a culture shock”.

She said: “I wasn’t allowed to bow my head in church or go out on Friday nights to the socials and ball and stuff like that.

“Otherwise, I was kind of fine. I didn’t feel that different, but I was one of the only Jewish kids at my school.”

She didn’t face antisemitism at school because, she said, “there was just almost no concept of what a Jewish person was.

“And so there just wasn’t enough information to use to weaponise back at me. And going to an all-girls school, kids aren’t really mean in that kind of way.

“But my brothers went to schools where the insult that you’d use if somebody was being stingy is that they ‘Jewed you’ or ‘don’t be such a Jew’.

“But that was about the most that I think you’d get. I’m sure other kids have lots of different stories, but for us there was no frame of reference for being Jewish. So there are other things to pick on.”

Simone said the New Zealand Jewish population is small and dwindling as “you lose a lot of people to Australia, but we also had a lot of South African immigrants come in the 1980s and 90s, but a lot of them use New Zealand as a sort of jumping off point.

“And people leave when their kids get older because they’re looking for a more well-rounded Jewish life for their kids.

“It’s becoming harder and harder to have a thriving Jewish community in New Zealand, but the people who do stay are really amazing and really strong.

“It does make being part of the community feel a lot more meaningful, compared to when I’ve lived in New York or London, where you could come, you could not come. It wouldn’t really make a difference to other people.

“But in New Zealand, you often won’t get a minyan if the men don’t turn up. So there’s a feeling that you are needed literally in order to make this run.”

Simone recalled her batmitzvah where he mother insisted she read from the megilla.

“Basically it was Purim and so she made an all-women’s service where all my aunts and I did the megilla ourselves and the men weren’t allowed,” she told me.

“And the summer camp scene here is really huge still. You get people involved when they’re young so that even though they can’t go to a Jewish high school, you can always go to summer camp and winter camp and be involved in the youth groups like Habonim and Bnei Akiva (of which Simon was a member).”

Simone laughed about the rabbi she created for Kid Sister, explaining: “Growing up I had a string of the most amazing rabbis, they were almost like the wisest, most dignified, brilliant public speakers.

“And I feel bad that I’ve kind of put out a rabbi who’s such a dork, but I wanted to have somebody who, I guess, personified the community as it’s represented in the show in some ways, where it’s a bit bumbling and it’s trying really hard.

“That particular role is more of a character than a lot of the other characters in the show.

“It’s really like a comedy-first thing where you just have to be like, ‘what’s funny and what’s going to be the most interesting?’ Because, actually, a person being perfect or really righteous manages the tone and makes it really dramatic.”

Did her real mother worry about how Simone saw her by the fact that her screen mum was the same nationality?

“I hope she doesn’t feel that way,” Simone laughed. “Keren’s definitely a larger-than-life character, but she’s a lot of people’s favourite part of the show.

“Amanda Billing’s performance as well . . . so I think she does get a lot of questions and attention about it, but it’s generally pretty positive because my mum is hilarious and I think that character is hilarious as well.

“She’s just a very exaggerated version of my mum.”

Simone described herself as “a class clown at school”. But she added: “At the same time, I’m surrounded by very funny people and I soak it all up and then I’m able to formulate it into plot.

“My skill is recognising what is funny and being able to organise it into documents.

“Ever since I was a teenager, I’ve been keeping a quotebook where, whenever somebody says something funny, I will write it down in my quotebook. And then at the end of the year I like to print them off and bind them and just keep them for myself.

“I’m very interested in how the written word can make you laugh and then how you can take that from real life, put it into the written word and then put it back out into the real world through actors.

“My goal is to kind of recreate what’s funny in real life. But I don’t know how funny I am myself.”

It was attending shul that helped Simone break into writing.

One of the congregants was John Barnett, who produced the film Whale Rider, one of New Zealand’s most well-known films.

“They call him the Godfather of New Zealand television and he produced our longest-running soap opera, Shortland Street,” she said.

“I used to literally just stalk him at synagogue and ask him questions about making TV, writing TV, what the process was like and what was happening next, and who is the Ferndale Strangler — all these questions about what was going on in the show.

“Eventually when I finished high school and after my gap year in Israel, I started studying cinema studies and creative writing.

“I asked him for a summer job. He knew that I’d been interested for so long in the industry. And so he kindly sent me out with my first ever job, which was working at his production company.

“And from there I was able to see how TV shows are made and written and what it was that I was actually interested in, like which part I wanted to enter. I knew very quickly that it was writing.

“I didn’t know about acting or producing. That stuff came later and I really only acted in my show. I probably won’t act again on other stuff that I work on because it’s really stressful, really hard.”

He was also instrumental in Simone reading dramatic writing for her Master’s at New York University.

Kid Sister features a lot of Jewish tradition, such as sitting shiva, eating in the succah on Succot and being shomer Shabbat.

The Shabbos Goy episode is a classic piece of writing that will be familiar to many people who keep Shabbat laws.

“The Jewish soul is very funny and we inherit this ability to laugh culturally. It’s almost genetic,” Simone said. “It’s like we have learned that we have to laugh or cry. And I’ve just grown up around some of the funniest people ever because that’s just the culture.”

The episode features a dilemma about one aspect of keeping Shabbat, but you will have to watch it to discover what it is.

But it made Simone recall an incident in Hackney where she saw a young chassidic girl standing outside a building on Shabbat.

“She said her sister-in-law lived in the building and ‘I really need to tell her that our brother just had a baby’,” Simone recounted.

“I asked what apartment number and that maybe I could buzz her. And she was like, ‘you could do that, it’s up to you completely’.

“It was like a charade where it had to not be her idea or her asking me to do it. It was unbelievable.”

Simone is eager to point out that, despite the show being semi-autobiographical, she does not have nieces who are actually her daughters, referring to a situation in which her Lulu finds herself.

“In that sense it is not autobiographical, but a lot of the characters are based on real people.

“The rabbi, though, is a complete fantasy, and the grandpa . . . I don’t have a grandfather like that.”

The latter is an important admission as rampant grandpa Hershey (Peter Hayden) in the show spreads a sexually transmitted disease around his care home.

Simone describes herself as “very career driven” as she has worked to become a writer since she was 18.

“My life is sort of what Lulu’s life could have been if she had discovered what it was that she wanted to do,” she said.

“ But I wanted to create a character who was 30 and really didn’t know what they were doing with their life.

“She’d studied ceramics and maybe that was what she wanted to do, but she hadn’t succeeded in that. And so she was a bit of a man child, but a woman. She’s a bit of a woman child.

“And the same with Paul. He’s a successful stand-up and touring comedian. But in the show Ollie’s still doing gigs and has no idea what he’s doing.

“And his songs are kind of terrible and, again, there’s fantasy and reality side by side.”

Be warned, Kid Sister does feature a lot of swearing. Simone explained: “The show already has some quite mature content that is not appropriate for children.

“I wanted the tone of the show to be on a par with American comedies about 30-year-old women like Broad City and Search Party.

“I’m not making it for everyone. I’m just making it for people like me. And then if other people happen to enjoy it, that’s great.

“But my dad hated all the swearing. He hated the things on the toilet. My aunts messaged me saying ‘why do they have to swear so much?’.

“That’s just a completely generational thing. I’m trying to make a show that’s young and people talk the way we talk, so it’s not a family comedy for sure.”

Fellow Kiwi Taika Waititi — born Taika Cohen — has become a prominent person in Simone’s life.

Simone wrote episodes for the first season of the HBO comedy Our Flag Means Death, available on BBC iPlayer. But she co-produced the second season, which was shot in New Zealand.

Taika, who is an award-winning film director, stars as Blackbeard in the series, which Simone described as “a crazy show. I love it. It’s full fantasy.

“Taika is the highlight of the whole thing. I just think his performance is so brilliant and watching him work as an actor was so inspirational. Every single take, he just delivers something new.”

Simone also co-created Irish crime drama The Gone which won a number of awards at the New Zealand TV Awards in December.

Simone is unsure about the future of Kid Sister as it “has caught up to my real life now. So some things need to happen to me to write about”.

And there’s the fact that she is working with Taika on his new film.

I suggest that maybe season three could see Lulu take Ollie to Israel?

“Imagine shooting an episode there,” she grinned. “That would be so much fun.

“But we’d be more likely do something in Edinburgh at the Fringe Festival because there was so much about how Ollie wants to go there and connect with his Scottish roots.

“So him going to Scotland would be like his Birthright.”



Mike Cohen

Jewish Telegraph deputy editor and arts editor. Email with your Jewish arts stories