(JTA) – Once more for the record, Dave Chappelle: Jews don’t actually run Hollywood.
But anyone paying attention to pop culture in 2022 saw a lot of Jewish creativity. This year saw several big, distinctly Jewish releases across multiple media, ranging from acclaimed movies to popular TV shows to theater, books and viral social media posts. And amid endless debates over who has the right to tell (and be cast in) Jewish stories, it was notable just how many of the biggest pop-culture events of the year fervently embraced Jewish identity.
Here were the biggest Jewish cultural releases of 2022:
Growing up Jewish at the movies
Two of the year’s big art-house film releases were autobiographical portrayals of their directors’ Jewish upbringings. In “The Fabelmans,” Steven Spielberg’s account of how he became a filmmaker, a teenager in 1950s America navigates a fracturing Jewish family and antisemitism at school. And in “Armageddon Time,” James Gray’s retelling of his Reagan-era childhood (with appearances from the Trumps), a Jewish family in Queens, New York tries to assimilate into the WASPy upper class — while their young son brushes aside the needs of his Black friend.
‘Tár’ and teshuvah
While the families in “The Fabelmans” and “Armageddon Time” were obviously Jewish, Cate Blanchett’s monstrous fictional conductor in “Tár” was not — which made it all the more surprising when the film not-so-subtly incorporated several Jewish themes into its story of artistic success and karmic retribution. The acclaimed drama looks to make big inroads this awards season as it gives audiences a de facto Hebrew lesson.
A ‘Rehearsal’ for living Jewishly
Gonzo comedian Nathan Fielder staged elaborate simulations of everyday life in “The Rehearsal,” a new HBO series that proved to be among the buzziest TV shows of the year — and whose late-season pivot to discussions of Jewish parenting caught just about everyone by surprise. As the Internet lit up with conversations about Miriam Eskenasy, the Hebrew tutor Fielder hired for his fake Jewish son, JTA spoke to Miriam herself about the various questions of Jewish identity explored by the show.
‘The U.S. and the Holocaust’ under a microscope
The latest Ken Burns PBS history documentary, relaying how the United States responded to the horrors of the Holocaust both on the home front and in wartime, ignited a fierce national reckoning over America’s historic treatment of Jews and outsiders. Burns and his Jewish co-directors told JTA they hoped to communicate an important lesson to the country about antisemitism and xenophobia that could challenge America’s founding myths.
TV had Jewish conflicts, with heart
Narrative TV saw storylines about Jews clashing with each other and bonding with unexpected allies. FX/Hulu’s thriller “The Patient” dug into an inter-family divide between Reform parents and Orthodox children, even as the show weathered criticism for its casting of non-Jew Steve Carell as a Jewish therapist. Another Hulu show, Ramy Youssef’s “Ramy,” entered its third season with a storyline set in Israel and an Orthodox Jewish supporting character — notable for a series that focuses on a Muslim American protagonist.
A Nazi gold train on ‘Russian Doll’
Natasha Lyonne’s time-hopping Netflix series returned for a second season this year, reaching deep into the past to find Lyonne’s protagonist Nadia unearthing generations of Jewish trauma in her family. It all culminated with her exploration of a Hungarian “gold train” filled with treasures the Nazis supposedly looted from the country’s Jews during wartime. Lyonne was drawing on real-life Holocaust history for the plot, suggesting that Jewish inherited trauma remains with us to this day.
‘And Just Like That,’ some uncomfortable Jewish jokes
HBO’s “Sex and the City” follow-up was largely viewed by fans of the original as a fascinating trainwreck. Jewish viewers saw something else: a throughline of bizarre Jewish jokes, from a midseason flirtation with a Holocaust denier to a season-finale “They Mitzvah” that ultimately didn’t happen.
‘Funny Girl,’ serious cast conflicts
A classically Jewish Broadway show became the centerpiece of the year’s messiest backstage drama. “Funny Girl,” the hotly anticipated revival of the biographical musical about Jewish comedian Fanny Brice that initially launched the career of Barbra Streisand, debuted in spring to sky-high expectations. Lead Beanie Feldstein told JTA that taking on the role of Brice was “incredibly meaningful for me as a Jewish woman.” But following poor reviews and ticket sales, Feldstein exited with gusto — and was replaced by Lea Michele, the “Glee” star with Jewish ancestry who’d spent much of her career openly pining for the role of Fanny.
Tom Stoppard’s ‘Leopoldstadt’ puts the Shoah on stage
While Tom Stoppard would make just about anybody’s shortlist of the world’s most influential playwrights, he had never before explored his Jewish background onstage — until this play. Stoppard’s sprawling new historical drama, featuring a massive cast depicting several generations of Austrian Jews before and after the Holocaust, was Broadway’s most hotly debated play this year — and, he told JTA, its themes of assimilation and lost Jewish histories are ideas he found to be rich and poignant.
Non-Jewish authors explore Jewish legacies
Two seismic novels this year dealt in controversial ways with traumatic Jewish history, both written by European non-Jews. The Polish Nobel laureate Olga Tokarchuk delivered the English translation of “The Books of Jacob,” a one thousand-page doorstopper steeped in the tale of false messiah Jacob Frank, while Irish author John Boyne delivered “All The Broken Places,” a sequel to his infamous Holocaust fable “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” — as he defended the first against charges that it was implausible and tone deaf.
Jewish comedians stuck out their shtick
Stand-up comedy could be a scary place for Jews this year — see the aforementioned Dave Chappelle controversy. But a new generation of Jewish jokers still found ways to assert themselves, whether it was Ariel Elias parlaying a confrontation with a heckler into a very Jewish “Jimmy Kimmel Live” set or Ari Shaffir’s YouTube special about leaving Judaism, but not his Jewishness, behind. The New York Jewish Week was among the sponsors of a “Chosen Comedy Festival” that drew four thousand people to Coney Island for a night of unapologetically Jewish standup by the likes of Modi, Jessica Kirson and Elon Gold. Meanwhile, British Jewish comic David Baddiel opened up a giant can of worms by playing it straight with his TV documentary “Jews Don’t Count,” based on his book about the ways he believes progressive circles have disregarded the scourge of antisemitism.
The Miami Boys Choir lit up the Internet
If you recently found yourself moved to tears by clips of Orthodox boys singing harmonized Hebrew pop songs on social media, you weren’t alone. The Miami Boys Choir became a breakout viral sensation this fall, with millions of newly minted fans celebrating their besuited swagger — and a few of the group’s alums getting in on the fun, too. MBC’s success was welcomed by Orthodox Jews in every corner of the Internet, who often feel sidelined or misrepresented by their depictions in popular culture.
A new Museum of Broadway is a Jewish hall of fame
Delayed by COVID, the Museum of Broadway finally opened in the heart of New York’s Theater District. And while it doesn’t go out of its way to center the Jewish contributions to the Great White Way, the work of Jewish composers, lyricists, playwrights, producers and choreographers is everywhere, from exhibits dedicated to Rodgers and Hammerstein and Stephen Sondheim to tributes to Mel Brooks, Tony Kushner and the late, great cartoonist Al Hirschfeld.
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