By Andrew Lapin
Jewish pop culture had quite the “Unorthodox” year.
A new reality-TV sensation, a raunchy indie-film spin on shivas and a rare glimpse into Turkey’s Jewish community made a big splash in 2021, while elsewhere, old favorites (“Curb Your Enthusiasm,” “Jeopardy!,” “West Side Story”) made big impacts in the Jewish world.
Here is a review of some of 2021’s most Jewish pop culture moments.
A bold new voice in Jewish filmmaking emerged this spring: Emma Seligman’s independent dark comedy “Shiva Baby” follows a drifting college student who attends a shiva along with her clueless family, disapproving strangers, bitter ex-girlfriend … and sugar daddy. The future cult hit has been nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for best microbudget feature of the year, and successfully launched the career of its 26-year-old writer-director. Seligman was also one of The New York Jewish Week’s 36 Under 36 for 2021.
“Minyan,” directed by Eric Steel, was another fresh take on a Jewish story: a queer coming-of-age tale set among the Soviet Jewish refugee communities of 1980s Brighton Beach.
Three major Oscar contenders this year have Jewish ties: Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner’s remake of “West Side Story” once again poses the question of who should make the musical; “Licorice Pizza” stars Jewish rock musician Alana Haim as a young Jewish aspiring actress in the 1970s (check out the review of this movie on page 20); and “The Tragedy of Macbeth” marks the solo directing debut for Joel Coen, one-half of the greatest Jewish filmmaking duo of the modern era.
Wes Anderson’s “The French Dispatch,” a celebration of midcentury print journalism and Francophilia rendered in the filmmaker’s distinctive style, included its fair share of nods to real-life Jewish intellectuals — and an explicitly Jewish character.
“The Vigil” is a horror movie set in the Orthodox community, focusing on the mazzik, a Biblical demon.
A filmed version of the smash-hit Broadway musical “Come From Away,” a 9/11 story created by Jews and featuring Jewish themes, premiered on Apple TV+ for the 20-year anniversary of the attacks.
A real-life Jewish gangster gets his due — and is played by Harvey Keitel — in “Lansky.”
The top prizewinner at this year’s Berlin Film Festival was an angry satire about sex tapes, COVID, history education and antisemitism. “Bad Luck Banging Or Loony Porn” depicts Romanian citizens angry over a teacher’s private transgressions, but blind to their own ignorance about how their country has historically treated Jews.
Israeli film imports to the U.S. shone brightly this year, with the disability family dramas “Asia” and “Here We Are”; melancholy comedy “Golden Voices”; and intergenerational, cross-continental LGBTQ drama “Sublet.”
As Israel and Gaza burned this summer and national dialogue around the conflict turned ugly, Israeli filmmaker Ra’anan Alexandrowicz’s documentary “The Viewing Booth” explored how one American Jew’s preconceived views about the conflict impacted her interpretation of video footage from the region.
In the world of Holocaust cinema, the documentary “Final Account” interviewed elderly former Nazis about their memories of the Third Reich; the documentary “Love It Was Not” depicted the unsettling relationship between a Jewish prisoner of Auschwitz and her SS guard; the Slovakian drama “The Auschwitz Report” told the story of two camp escapees who tried to warn the world about the horrors inside; documentary “The Meaning Of Hitler” tried to break down fascism’s appeal in the modern age; and the documentary “Speer Goes To Hollywood” explored the lifelong denialism of Hitler’s architect (though its methods have been criticized).
The summer musical “In The Heights” told the stories of Dominican residents of a historically Jewish New York neighborhood.
The biggest Jewish TV phenomenon of the year was the Netflix reality series “My Unorthodox Life,” following the controversial exploits of “ex-Orthodox” fashion designer Julia Haart and her family; Haart pushed back against her critics. The show spawned a new tabloid feeding frenzy; one of Haart’s daughters split from her husband, starting an internet obsession.
The year was also dominated by “Jeopardy!” hosting drama, with Jewish actress/presenter Mayim Bialik eventually being crowned co-host of the long-running quiz show through 2022… after a former executive producer’s attempts to finagle the job for himself blew up in his face. (Among would-be host Mike Richards’ myriad troubles: He made antisemitic remarks on a podcast.)
The HBO phenomenon “Succession” introduced a Jewish character (played by Adrian Brody) who causes business trouble for the beleaguered Roy family. The mansion Brody’s character lives in is actually owned by a Jewish billionaire.
A smash-hit podcast about a therapist’s obsession with his troubled client inspired the Apple TV+ miniseries “The Shrink Next Door,” starring Paul Rudd and Will Ferrell. The show has deep New York Jewish roots; a Brooklyn politician even had something to say about sharing a name with the real-life patient.
“The Club,” a surprise-hit Turkish drama series from Netflix, explores Istanbul’s Sephardic Jewish community of the 1950s, and features a surprisingly large amount of spoken Ladino.
The very Jewy “Curb Your Enthusiasm” returned to HBO for its 11th (and, some might say, Jewiest) season of Larry David’s legendary complaints. Plotlines this season included Larry fending off a Klansman with a shofar, and Jon Hamm learning Yiddish so he could deliver a fake eulogy for Albert Brooks.
“Curb” co-star Jeff Garlin got into some hot water at his long-running ABC sitcom “The Goldbergs,” about a Jewish family in the 1980s; he’s exiting the show midway through its ninth season following an investigation into allegations of on-set misconduct.
“Shtisel,” the slow-burn drama about Israeli haredi Orthodox Jews, released a long-awaited third season, to familiar acclaim. And it was announced that respected director Kenneth Lonergan will helm an American remake of the series.
The second season of “Dave,” the heady sitcom from Jewish rapper Lil Dicky (Dave Burd), aired on FX and established its creator as a new force in TV comedy. It contained plenty of Jewish jokes, and an entire bar mitzvah episode.
Israeli TV showrunner Hagai Levi resurrected “Scenes From a Marriage” for an HBO miniseries starring Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain, in which Judaism played a significant part of the story.
“Foundation,” a series on Apple TV+, sparked renewed interest in author Isaac Asimov — whose relationship to Judaism was complicated.
The hosts of Showtime’s “Desus & Mero” visited a New York synagogue and, with the help of Jewish actor Eric Andre and a rabbi, had a bar mitzvah of sorts.
Netflix’s academia satire “The Chair” featured a professor who causes controversy by jokingly performing a Nazi salute in class — an incident possibly based on real life.
The PBS genealogy show “Finding Your Roots” welcomed Mandy Patinkin, and revealed that he had lost family in the Holocaust.
New Jewish faces abounded on small-screen comedies. Celebrated alt-comedian Sarah Sherman joined the cast of “Saturday Night Live”; HBO’s “Hacks,” based loosely on the career of Jewish comedian Joan Rivers, features a star-making turn from Hannah Einbender; “Ted Lasso” features the work of Haitian Canadian Jew Moe Jeudy-Lamour and Emmy winner Brett Goldstein; and “Reservation Dogs,” a sitcom set on a Native American reservation, features a breakout performance by Jewish Indigenous actress Sarah Podemski.
In the world of food, Padma Lakshmi explored the Jewish culinary traditions of the Lower East Side in her Hulu series “Taste the Nation,” while the latest season of “The Great British Baking Show” featured fan-favorite contestant Jürgen, whose recipes are frequently inspired by his Jewish wife.
“American Ninja Warrior” featured a contestant, Liba Yoffe, who is an Orthodox mom.
And on “South Park,” proud antisemite Eric Cartman did the unthinkable — he converted to Judaism.
Novelist Dara Horn’s essay collection, “People Love Dead Jews,” probed the ways in which murdered Jews have been fetishized in global culture – and provoked months of discussion and debate.
Mark Oppenheimer delved into “Squirrel Hill,” the Pittsburgh Jewish community’s efforts to heal in the aftermath of the Tree of Life synagogue shooting, for his acclaimed nonfiction book.
Whistle, Gotham City’s newest superhero, is Jewish, and her secret identity is Willow Zimmerman — courtesy of her creator, secular Jewish comic-book artist E. Lockhart.
Satirical Jewish novelist Joshua Cohen took a big swing at Israel’s most powerful family with “The Netanyahus,” a fictionalized account of Bibi’s father’s attempts to break into American academia.
The beloved Jewish children’s-book series “All-of-a-Kind Family” and its author, Sydney Taylor, are lovingly profiled in the biography “From Sarah to Sydney: The Woman Behind ‘All-of-a-Kind Family’,” by Jane Cummins and Alexandra Dunietz.
“Morningside Heights,” Joshua Henkin’s very Jewish New York novel, chronicles a marriage challenged by Alzheimer’s and the cultural divide between Orthodox and secular Jews.
“Plunder,” a memoir by Menachem Kaiser, chronicles his efforts to reclaim his grandfather’s property in pre-war Poland – and his run-ins with Nazi-obsessed treasure-hunters along the way.
Ezra Furman, acclaimed trans Jewish punk rocker, entered rabbinical school this year.
Black and Jewish rapper Doja Cat became one of the world’s most-streamed artists with the release of her Grammy-nominated third album, “Planet Her.”
In a first, an Ethiopian-Israeli represented Israel at the Eurovision international pop song contest. Eden Alene, who won the Israeli version of “The X-Factor,” didn’t win Eurovision — but she became a symbol of representation, and her song had lyrics in four different languages.
Jack Antonoff, the Jewish-day-school-grad-turned-in-demand-pop-producer, won a Grammy for his work with Taylor Swift on her acclaimed “Folklore” album, and was nominated in the fall for subsequent work with Swift.
Chanukah brought us more than eight days’ worth of musical joy: Jewish a cappella group Six13 produced a “West Side Story”-inspired Chanukah parody; Jewish pop rock group Haim updated Adam Sandler’s iconic “Chanukah Song”; the song also got remixed by Jewish hip-hop stars Nissim Black and Kosha Dillz; the Foo Fighters’ non-Jewish frontman Dave Grohl, along with his Jewish producer friend Greg Kurstin, brought back their “Hanukkah Sessions” series of fun cover songs by Jewish artists; and previously disbanded pop group Cobra Starship, led by Jewish frontman Gabe Saporta, returned for the holiday with a bop titled “Party With Jews.”