ToI culture critic’s top 10 moments of Jewish entertainment for 2022
NEW YORK — Was 2022 good for the Jews? This is a difficult question. Elements of 2022 certainly fit that bill, especially in the world of entertainment.
This was a banner year for great films, shows, and theatrical productions by and/or about the Jewish experience.
In addition to what is listed below, there are a few things that I can’t personally vouch for, but I hear are terrific.
The series “The Patient” with Steve Carell as a Jewish therapist, “Turn Every Page,” a documentary about the author-historian Robert Caro and his editor Robert Gottlieb, and Alex Edelman’s one man show “Just For Us,” are just three titles I’m kicking myself for not seeing yet. (And it looks like I screwed up with Edelman unless I want to take the train down to Washington, DC.)
Also, despite sleuthing through his Instagram and sending an email to his publicist, I have yet to confirm whether or not musician Peter Anspach of the jam-rock band Goose identifies as Jewish. I think he does, but even if he doesn’t, he and his innovative group deserve huzzahs for achieving escape velocity this year with two triumphant gigs at Radio City Music Hall and a mini-tour with the Trey Anastasio Band.
(But, I don’t like lying to you, dear reader, so I’ll let you know that of the many books I read this year, only four were from 2022, and while three were by Jews, I don’t know that I’d list them as great; “The Candy House” by Jennifer Egan, however, is great, and she has Jewish children, but this parenthetical has gone long enough!)
With all that out of the way, let’s look back and list the top 10 in Jewish entertainment for 2022.
10) ‘Fleishman is in Trouble’
The television adaptation of Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s rich and highly-detailed 2019 novel of the same name stars Jesse Eisenberg, Lizzie Caplan, Adam Brody, and Claire Danes, and takes place in a very particular corner of Jewish New York City. There are sequences set at the 92nd St. Y, mezuzahs are perched on everyone’s door, there are Shabbat dinners, and a key flashback takes us back to a semester abroad in Israel. The central character, Toby Fleishman, is a liver specialist at a renowned hospital (and therefore a source of financial pity among his wealthier neighbors in finance and entertainment), and the type of person who can say, with no sense of irony, that he is striving to live a righteous life. Naturally, he’s having some difficulties.
The series should probably rank a little higher on the list, but I must confess I’ve only had time to watch the first four episodes. What, you’d rather I lie?
9) ‘Blood Relatives’
Actor Noah Segan’s first feature film as a writer and director works a neat trick of being a crafty horror picture as well as a tender (and Jewish) family drama. The premise takes the antisemitic charge against Jews as bloodsuckers (a literal accusation during some chapters in history) and fires it back. Segan creates a new spin on the “wandering Jew”—an ageless vampire roaming the American West. It’s the only movie you are likely to see this year in which a cool guy in a leather jacket and slick muscle car says “oy vey.”
8) ‘Ahed’s Knee’
This Arava Desert-set film from Israeli director Nadav Lapid has further secured him a place of prominence as a true “auteur” on the international film festival stage. Like “Synonyms,” which won him the top prize at the Berlin Film Festival, “Ahed’s Knee” (which was awarded a Jury Prize at Cannes), is a kaleidoscopic look at a troubled man wrestling with his Israeli identity. There is no shortage of rage in this film, which suggests that Israeli society is sinking into a great “dumbing down” crisis. It can seem, at times, that the Israeli artists who make the biggest splash internationally are the dissidents, but at least they continue to work, and their criticisms are accepted and evaluated. The brilliant Iranian director Jafar Panahi is currently sitting in prison, and will remain there for six years on fabricated charges.
7) ‘The U.S. and the Holocaust’
Just when you thought there wasn’t much new you could learn about the Shoah, this PBS series, directed by Ken Burns, Lynn Novik, and Sarah Botstein, comes along to skew the focus. As the title suggests, the seven-hour documentary spotlights the American reaction (or lack of reaction) to the destruction of the European Jews during World War II. By taking a step back to watch a nation with lofty ideals prevaricate in the face of genocide, the facts and dates that may seem rote to those of us who have studied this atrocity brush aside the cobwebs in alarming and enlightening ways. (Read more in my review from September.)
6) ‘Russian Doll’ Season Two
Natasha Lyonne’s sarcastic, fatalistic downtown Jewess returned to Netflix this year, with another science fiction-driven plunge into generational trauma. The puzzling, circular pieces of the first season snapped together cleanly, while the sequel took a different approach, sending our heroine on a crazy train back to the 1980s Manhattan, then to the 1940s Budapest, and, finally, to some kind of cosmic, emotional sewer. (The ending gets a little weird.) Through it all, there are moments that seesaw between rich philosophy and zany (very Jewy) schtick. “Looks like Purim came early!” was certainly a catchphrase for me when I first watched this in April.
5) ‘All the Beauty and the Bloodshed’
It seemed a strange fit when firebrand director Laura Poitras, known for from-the-headlines political documentaries, announced the Jewish-American artist Nan Goldin as the subject of her latest work. While about half of “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” works as a “typical” artist portrait (inasmuch as anything about the boundary-pushing photographer could be considered typical), the engine that drives the movie is watching how Goldin uses her clout in the contemporary art world to push for justice against the profiteering Sackler family (shandas, every one of them.) Facing legal threats and intimidation, Goldin and her group put a halt to the “art washing” the Sacklers found by purchasing naming rights at many museums. (Sadly, not all institutions have fully dropped their name.) Whereas the courts have ultimately failed in holding the family responsible for aggravating and, in many cases, creating the opioid crisis, there are some who did not sit by and do nothing.
Playwright Tom Stoppard used his family history as a springboard to explore generations of Viennese Jews before, during, and after the Nazi Anschluss, and in turn created a late-career masterpiece. As I wrote at the time of its Broadway debut, “Its scope, its characters and its wit have a self-confidence that says, ‘I should, and I will, be studied.’” All of Stoppard’s hallmarks are here, including some witty badinage among learned characters about art, science, mathematics, and politics. (Reimann’s equation is not something I can summarize right now, but during the production I recognized it as a perfect metaphor for the foreboding doom of the extended Merz family.) This is far from an upbeat work, but it is a remarkable example of an artist with full command of his talents.
3) ‘Live at the Bon Soir’
For her 80th birthday, Barbra Streisand decided to give all of us a present. Digging into the vault, Streisand and Columbia Records released what was originally meant to be her first album — live recordings from the Greenwich Village club The Bon Soir. Recorded 60 years earlier, the hot-on-the-scene chanteuse rips through an hour of jazz standards, show tunes, and slings zings from the stage with a quartet featuring piano, bass, drums, and guitar. It’s ludicrous to think that she was only 20 years old at the time; when I was that age I could barely figure out how to ride a bus. For whatever reason, business managers decided to go with studio-recorded albums for her debut, plundering the repertoire for much of Streisand’s early work. Considering the estimated 150 million records sold, plus the Oscars, Emmys, Grammys, and Tony, it’s hard to second-guess any decisions in her career. Nevertheless, this unearthed treasure is further proof of Barbra’s genius, a must-listen for fans, and also a natural on-ramp for anyone who’s wondered what the fuss was all about.
2) ‘The Fabelmans’
A surefire nominee for several Academy Award categories, Steven Spielberg’s autobiographical movie deals with antisemitism and assimilation, but it also has an essence of casual Jewish-ness in every frame. It’s not just the way Jeannie Berlin asks, “You call this brisket?” or how Michelle Williams (a marvelous study) calls herself “mamelah.” There’s an unspoken fraternity — beyond typical family — that the characters share. Theirs is the only dark house on the block during Christmastime, but this outsider status is also a strange source of strength. It’s this bond, and love, that makes the eventual dissolution of the marriage at the heart of this story so upsetting. While there are no dinosaurs, sharks, or space aliens in the movie, it is, in my opinion, one of the best things the inimitable director has ever done.
1) ‘Armageddon Time’
The dumbest complaint anyone lodges against critics is to say they are biased. Of course they are biased! And when an already good movie also reflects — to an almost eerie degree — experiences that may have molded them while growing up, that’s naturally going to have a little resonance. But even if you weren’t a wisenheimer Jewish kid growing up in the greater New York area in the 1980s with refugee grandparents and striving parents who regularly agonized about doing what was right versus doing what was smart, James Gray’s memoir film is still a remarkable piece of work.
Not every critic was impressed with the film — some called it self-serving, others suggested it merely contained a different shade of the anti-Black racism it means to condemn. I disagree with these opinions. In my interview with Gray, he referred to his work as the opposite of a “virtue-signalling film.” It takes a lot of guts to say, “Look at the horrible thing I did and got away with,” and show that to the world. Ethical contortions aside, it’s simply an incredible piece of work.