It’s easy to look back on 2016 and see only the November 8 election. Well, maybe if you saw “Hamilton,” which swept the Tonys 6 months and what seems like an era ago, you remember two things about this year. But to dwell only on the election (and, admittedly, it’s hard not to do that) would do a disservice to a year that, at times, was pretty magical, even inspiring from an artistic point of view.
Of course, 2016 will be seen as traumatic by many, including the editor of these pages — not only did we witness the twilight of the presidency of Barack Obama, but we also lost some of the greatest artists of our time.
In the years to come, we will spend more than enough time rehashing and second-guessing what happened on the second Tuesday in November. But for just these moments, let’s take the time to remember and to celebrate the things that were wonderful about 2016.
In 1983, Philip Glass completed his “Portrait Trilogy” (“Einstein on the Beach,” “Satyagraha”) with “Akhnaten,” a lyrical opera about the progenitor of one of the world’s oldest monotheistic systems of beliefs, Atenism. The U.S. premiere was sleekly minimal and decidedly arty. Three decades on, Glass sits atop the small pantheon of contemporary composers who enjoy popular success.
The Los Angeles Opera’s splashy new production of “Akhnaten,” a co-production with English National Opera, where I saw it earlier this year, shows how what was once considered an avant-garde novelty has entered the ranks of modern classics. Contemporary operas rarely get performed past their premieres, but “Akhnaten” has been seen in over 40 different productions over the past 33 years. Phelim McDermott’s colorful production was at times a bit too Cirque du Soleil for my taste (juggling played a crucial role), but it shows how thoroughly the opera-going public has embraced this three-hour-long minimalist masterpiece performed in dead languages including Biblical Hebrew and Akkadian.
— A.J. Goldmann
Arthur Lubow’s biography of Diane Arbus, which claims that Arbus carried on a lifelong sexual relationship with her brother, appeared a month before “In the Beginning,” an exhibit of Arbus’s early photographs, opened at the Met Breuer. I submit that the images on display — uncanny but deeply human, curious and impartial, full of lust and anger and pure human longing — made one forget the luridness of Lubow’s revelations. The photographs are mini-vivisections, exposed beating hearts, painful and necessary. Whatever their maker did and felt is alchemized within them and burnished to a black-and-white sheen that booms louder than the grenade gripped in the taut hand of one of Arbus’s young subjects.
— Yevgeniya Traps
Not since Andrei Tarkovsky’s “Solaris” have I been as moved by a science fiction film as I was by Denis Villeneuve’s “Arrival.” What both films understand so well is that our urge to communicate with extraterrestrial life is actually about processing the mystery of life and death, loss and love. Amy Adams is haunting as a linguistics professor who decodes the reason aliens have landed on Earth by learning their language, a knowledge that necessitates a shattering decision in her own life. The film builds to a massive emotional payoff we should see coming but don’t. This is a profound meditation on the human need for connection.
— Irina Reyn
The most memorable film screening I attended this year was a memorial screening of “Bill Cunningham: New York” back on July 21. The eponymous star of the film, a shy New York Times photographer who documented New York’s and Paris’s fashion scenes on a bike, died at 87 on June 25 of this year, after being hospitalized for a stroke. Cunningham never married and was childless. Nevertheless, the one screening, which was open to the public was packed with friends, and fans. Also in attendance was director/cinematographer Richard Press and producer Philip Gefter. It was in every way a therapeutic wake, and I could hear people sobbing in their seats even as they laughed at Cunningham’s delicious wit.
The 7 pm screening was held at the IFC Center; it was the longest running film ever screened at the IFC Center. I had seen the film there in 2011 after it premiered at the Museum of Modern Art in 2010, and I did a double take to see “Bill Cunningham New York” again on the IFC marquee.
“Bill Cunningham New York” is the perfect character documentary because it celebrates a mostly unknown yet true hero, and is a love letter to New York as well.
— Laurie Gwen Shapiro
I adored Patty Dann’s “The Butterfly Hours: Transforming Memories into Memoir.” It’s a memoir that is poignant, wry and modestly profound all at once. Add to that fascinating glimpses into the lives that the author’s students wrote about in the class she’s been teaching for 20-plus years at the West Side YMCA. I vowed upon finishing this lovely, inspiring book to buy in multiples and send to those I know who have a story to tell. And so far I have.
— Elinor Lipman
‘Captain Fantastic” is noteworthy for its refreshing views of an authoritarian patriarch, Ben Cash (a terrific performance by Viggo Mortensen), gussied up as a forward-thinking intellectual. Dad’s political motto is “Stick It to the Man,” and he celebrates Noam Chomsky’s birthday instead of Christmas. His children are conversant in Marx, “Middlemarch” and Yo-Yo Ma, but are unable to cope with the real world. Cash, a professor on sabbatical, takes his kids deep into the forests of the Pacific Northwest to make it as survivalists. The kids have no social skills and are a source of amusement to the youngsters they encounter. It’s obvious they would be better off with their grandfather (the always excellent Frank Langella) a no-nonsense, church-going, super-wealthy pillar of the community. The film regrettably closes on a sentimental note, but it nonetheless offers an original and compelling portrait of a classic narcissist who is as uncompromising in his “radical” views as he is devoid of common sense and empathy.
— Simi Horwitz
My top 2016 museum experience meanwhile took place at The Morgan Library and Museum. “Charlotte Brontë: An Independent Will” opened September 9, and will run to January 2, 2017. Timed to celebrate the 200th anniversary of her birth, it is the perfect exhibit for a compulsive reader. I left my husband home and saw it with my best female pal after the 2016 election results; she had suggested the exhibit as an anecdote to my endless feeling of gloom. What an inspired suggestion. To be honest, the room was full of women in the same mental condition. It became an echo chamber for women to talk to each other about the betrayal they felt by men and some women as they admired Bronte’s writing desk, original manuscript, and day dress with impossibly tiny 18.5-inch waistline. There were so many unexpected lit-geek goodies to brighten my day, including the original manuscript for “Jane Eyre,” and two portraits of my heroine on loan from London’s National Portrait Gallery. About seeing Charlotte Brontë’s portable writing and art desk: can I admit I just cooed? Sexism ran rampant in her generation, just as it does in mine, and I could feel her wisdom hovering over all of her visitors, as if she was reading out loud, “I am no bird; and no net ensnares me; I am a free human being with an independent will.” With this unclouded moment of connection to one of the most inspiring of feminist predecessors, I left the room determined to sally against 21st century misogyny.
— Laurie Gwen Shapiro
I read Claudia Rankine’s “Citizen: An American Lyric” this summer, as I started a new job, teaching at a high-needs public school in New Orleans. Soon before the school year began, Alton Sterling was shot and killed by a white police officer in nearby Baton Rouge. I tried to process the onslaught of police murders against black men and women, and figure out what my place was, as a white woman, in fighting racism. Three lines from Rankine’s “Stop and Frisk,” remained stuck in my head for weeks: “Because white men can’t/ police their imagination/ black men are dying.”
— Sophia-Marie Untermann
I have a strong suspicion that the most important piece of theater this year was one I missed: Richard Nelson’s three-part “The Gabriels: Election Year in the Life of One Family,” at the Public Theater. His previous masterpiece, the “Apple Family Plays,” written in near real-time, was a richly novelistic examination of a liberal family in Rhinebeck, New York, on four signal dates of the Obama years. The new series focused on a nearby family that felt inexorably downwardly mobile, like the country wasn’t working for them anymore, and that’s the reality that drove a not-quite-majority of the country to take a flier on Donald Trump. I would have liked to see Nelson’s humane, sympathetic insights. Instead, I’m left with the thing I did see that most affected me: Ivo van Hove’s especially bleak revival of “The Crucible.” If I’d like Nelson to help me understand how we got to where we are, Arthur Miller’s classic reminds us of what can happen when righteously vindictive people take hold of the machinery of government. It was chilling in the spring; recalling it now is even scarier.
— Jesse Oxfeld
Imagine walking into a beautiful Fifth Avenue mansion then being transported along with 43 other guests to wintry Dublin in 1904 — to drink sherry and Irish whiskey with a handful of James Joyce’s characters. This was my time travel experience at New York’s American Irish Historical Society where the Irish Repertory Theatre staged an adaptation of Joyce’s “The Dead.” Each scene took place in a different room of the parlor floor of this Victorian mansion, and for the final scene between Gabriel and Gretta Conroy, the audience was invited to the second floor bedroom of the mansion as a snow blower blew white flakes against the glass. At dinner I sat between Mr. Brown and Aunt Julia, and as they slipped in and out of character while talking to me, I ate fluffy pudding and marveled at this perfect evening that gratified all the senses.
— Anna Katsnelson
‘Divines,” by French-Moroccan director Houda Benyamina, is set in the suburbs of Paris. The teenage Dounia and Maimouna know the limits of what the world will offer them and still dare to want more. A story of friendship told with the gravity of a love story, a hymn to hope and to hopelessness, the film swings wildly between flamboyant hilarity and heart-piercing tragedy, and leaves you breathless. This movie, director Benyamina’s first, is the best I’ve seen in several years. It was the talk of Paris this past fall — and it’s now available for streaming on Netflix.
— Nadja Spiegelman
Going into Bob Dylan’s concert at Tanglewood on July 2, 2016, I was prepared to hate it, having absolutely no interest in hearing him sing Frank Sinatra songs live (or on record, for that matter). Leave it to Dylan, then, to perform a scorching two-hour show. He alternated some of his moodiest, angriest, late-period rockers with pre-rock standards (most written by Jewish songwriters) that, in context with his own compositions and given the same intense delivery as songs like “Things Have Changed” and “Pay in Blood,” had the same apocalyptic impact in what turned out to be one of his all-time best performances.
— Seth Rogovoy
A welcome antidote for those in withdrawal from “Serial” (or for those who didn’t find the second season of “Serial” as satisfying as the first), “Embedded,” hosted by NPR’s Kelly McEvers, provided a master class in longform radio journalism. The podcast equivalent of a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative piece in The Atlantic or The New York Times Magazine, the show plunged deep, way deep, into stories about opioid addiction in Indiana, suicide in Greenland and America’s broken immigration system. Though the material was often grim, the attention to detail was riveting, even exhilarating — particularly in the final episode of the podcast’s first season about the closing of a public school in Wilkinsburg, Pennsylvania.
— Adam Langer
The best play I saw on Broadway this year was the revival of “Falsettos.” From its opening number, “Four Jews in a Room Bitching,” to its tear-inducing bar mitzvah denouement, it is also the most haimish.
“Falsettos” tells a story of love and family in the late 20th Century and it resonates as clearly today as when it first ran. Marvin, played by the talented Christian Borle, wants (as he sings) “A Tight-Knit Family,” including: his former wife, Trina; their son, Jason; her new husband, Mendel; and Whizzer, Marvin’s philandering boyfriend. For a while, everything seems possible, But bonds break, and Whizzer becomes very ill, throwing everything including Jason’s upcoming bar mitzvah into question.
Most of the plays I see are eminently forgettable. But every once in a while there is a confluence of subject, script and cast that is emotionally satisfying and intellectually fulfilling, and leaves an impression on both your heart and mind.
— Curt Schleier
A dark comedy that is at moments side-splittingly funny, “The Family Fang” zeroes in on the emotionally damaged adult children (Nicole Kidman, Jason Bateman) of two pretentious and talent-free performance artists (Maryann Plunkett and Christopher Walken). Fang Sr. is a manipulative bastard, openly contemptuous of his kids, a novelist and actress, respectively, because they are not “real” artists. This is not the first film to deal with autocratic patriarchs, but it’s singular in its portrayal of an unfamiliar universe and a father whose authority — and power over his children — stems from his self-anointed mystique as an artist. It also offers a great comic performance by Walken, whose character has no doubt that his ideas and work are significant even if we can still feel his frustration, misdirected rage and self-loathing.
— Simi Horwitz
In a year littered with disappointing cinematic reboots (“Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life,” I’m looking at you), “Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them” turned out to be an imaginative, entertaining and surprisingly timely prequel. The film, written by J.K. Rowling, takes place within the world of “Harry Potter” — only many years earlier, in 1920s New York. Rowling has always had a real knack for sandwiching real-life issues into a deliciously fantastical world, and she does it again this time, mixing themes of racism and populism alongside mystical creatures and wand waving. “Fantastic Beasts,” which featured a Jewish heroine named Porpentina Goldstein, managed to ride a very fine line between allowing for a feeling of glorious, immersive escapism and a sweeping reminder of the darkness that exists in this world (not that we really need any reminders). Thankfully, like all of Rowling’s work, there’s a sense that goodness can prevail. It was the first time in ages that I left a theater feeling a mixture of intense hope and a renewed determination to get things done.
— Thea Glassman
I first saw this zany British BBC comedy set in London a few months ago, and was hooked from the moment the nameless anti-heroine turned to the camera and asked if she had a “massive asshole.” If brevity is the soul of wit, then “Fleabag” is its irreverent bastard child. Phoebe Waller-Bridge, the writer/director/star, is magnificent as the eponymous Fleabag and helps to spin the old trope of boy meets girl into a profound and hilarious commentary on the nature of love and grief itself. A painfully good, painfully human show, every one of its six episodes had me in stitches.
— David Samuel Levinson
Audio veteran Jonathan Goldstein (of “This American Life” and the CBC Radio show “WireTap”) premiered his new show, “Heavyweight,” this year, and it quickly proved to be one of the best podcasts of 2016. Goldstein, who grew up with Brooklyn-born Jewish parents in a suburb of Montreal, has a voice that puts a unique but still recognizable spin on the tropes of Jewish humor. His work is at once playfully self-deprecating and sincerely empathetic, cutting to the heart of stories with an unguarded curiosity about what motivates people to do what they do.
— Lana Adler
In May I left a preview for “Indecent” at Manhattan’s Vineyard Theater uncharacteristically silent. The play was advertised as a tale about Sholem Asch’s “God of Vengeance,” a Yiddish play that famously closed after one night on Broadway, with its entire cast arrested on charges of obscenity. “Indecent,” co-created by playwright Paula Vogel and director Rebecca Taichman, stayed true to its billing, but its conceit served only as the base for what became a transcendent elegy to Eastern European Jewish life and culture. It was a puzzle pieced together with astonishing care and — despite its often painful subject matter — a rare, almost ecstatic grace.
— Talya Zax
Jenny Diski’s “In Gratitude” resonates as sharply as a slap to the face: Wake up, the book demands. Inspired by the author’s diagnosis of terminal cancer in 2014 (she died in April of this year), it tells a pair of interwoven stories: first, that of Diski’s dying, and then the saga of her teenage years, when she lived for several years as future Nobel laureate Doris Lessing’s quasi-foster child. What do these narratives have in common? Nothing — and everything. The idea is to connect memory and mortality in a mosaic that, like all of Diski’s magnificent nonfiction, coalesces around the ever-shifting question of identity.
— David L. Ulin
Susan Faludi’s “In The Darkroom,” a decade-long nonfiction project in which Faludi tries to understand her complex and volatile father after he undergoes a sex change, resonates not for this dramatic plot line, but for Faludi’s reporting chops. She examines her father’s relationship with the Holocaust as a Jewish boy growing up in Hungary and considers her own strains with her father’s mercurial, violent behavior. As Faludi grapples with the fluid nature of identity, the bond with her father flourishes. The book’s personal insertions pull us along on Faludi’s journey to discover the father who remained such a mystery, and yet became a profound figure.
— Britta Lokting
Anne Fontaine’s powerful and compelling French-Polish drama “The Innocents” is based on the little-known true story of the French Red Cross doctor Madeleine Pauliac, played by Lou de Laâge. Set in the bleak, snow-covered landscape of postwar Poland in 1945, it’s a striking film with an almost painterly quality to it as it ponders the fragility of faith and complex moral choices. When a nun pleads for her help, Madeleine (de Laâge) is taken to a convent where she discovers several pregnant nuns, victims of sexual assault by Russian soldiers. Despite their outward, identical black-and-white habits, the nuns’ individual characters and responses to the horror of their situation vary; their cloistered, melodic, religious rituals contrast with the pain of pregnancy and birth. Aside from a sentimental, too-tidy ending, this is a harrowing film that I found difficult to let go.
— Anne Joseph
For years I’ve been reading the essays and blog posts of MacArthur “genius” grant-winning pianist Jeremy Denk. Not since Leonard Bernstein has the music world had such a compelling explainer. Who else would compare a moment in the first movement of Beethoven’s Opus 31 No. 3 to a “Seinfeld” episode? Last March, I finally heard Denk play with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, performing Bartok’s Piano Concerto No. 2, a piece so technically demanding that critics have called it a “knucklebuster.” When he was done, the audience leaped to its feet. On November 13, four of us were back to hear Denk in a solo program that included works by Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert. Before beginning, he announced that—because he suspected some of us had slept as poorly as he had that week — he’d be swapping out John Adams’ “Phyrygian Gates” for more cheering fare, including piano rags by Scott Joplin and William Bolcom. Denk, a truly physical player, can go from the lightest touch to the fastest frenzy; you literally see the music moving through him. We went in contemplating our doom and left in awed silence, our feet hardly touching the floor.
— Sharon Pomerantz
Coastal elites, we have been told recently, need to pay more attention to rural, white America. Fine, let them watch Moby Longinotto’s documentary, “The Joneses,” set in the trailer parks and small-town churches of very red, working-poor Mississippi and focusing on a transgender grandmother. Jehri Jones, 73 and divorced, shepherds her hard-luck family (two of her sons are disabled) through depressions both economic and psychological. The family is also wrestling with decades-old scars — while Jheri was transitioning, her ex-wife shut her out of their children’s lives for seven years. “The Joneses” is as sweet and sad as a melted ice cream cake, but its bleakness is leavened by Jheri’s simple joy in her body and by the family’s earnest desire to care for itself: Think “Transparent” without the decadence or narcissism.
— Raphael Magarik
Even an annus horribilis can be redeemed if it contains a new Amos Oz novel. “Judas” was a quiet piece with a small ensemble roaming familiar Jerusalem streets, yet its deceptively simple structure hid multitudes. It wrestled with enormous ideas about love and loneliness, grief and treachery, presented with Oz’s characteristic mix of beauty, compassion, and wandering restlessness. After several years away, it was a pleasure to read Oz at novelistic length once more, and as when Saul Bellow gave the world “Ravelstein” aged eighty-four, what Oz has authored at 77 is quite remarkable.
— Liam Hoare
It wasn’t just that Chef Yael Peet’s lovingly rendered Japanese food at Karasu felt so personal, or that Peet managed to bring a fresh point of view to a cuisine that’s so often rendered as cliché. It’s also that every dish brought a surprise, whether it was lotus in Peet’s hijiki salad, mentaiko cod roe in her homemade pasta, or shiso pesto on her whole fish. And Peet accomplishes it all from a thimble-sized kitchen in a speakeasy space behind a Brooklyn bistro. Karasu itself feels like a find, and Peet — one of the world’s few Jewish women sushi chefs — gets my vote for most exciting and promising chef of the year.
What got me most this year, (pre-election, it must be said) was Beyoncé’s “visual album,” “Lemonade,” which chronicles a deep betraying love but is also about everything: The history of the world, being a black women in America, fathers and daughters, performance, mothers and daughters, American cities and countries and towns, violence. Alchemy. Deep, unapologetic, beautiful rage. Writing. Poetry. Celebration.
I wasn’t expecting it. But I was captivated and then undone and then rebuilt and then destructed by it. In other words, it did all the things art should do to you. And it instructed too. It told me: Go there. Commit. Do what you do. Do it right. Do it best. Be brave.
Use all your kinds of magic.
— Jennifer Gilmore
This may be a case of who-can- remember-what-happened-in-January, but I can’t get out of my mind the play I saw just at Signature Theater, Athol Fugard’s “Master Harold… and the Boys.” I am an easy mark for all things South Africa, and yet: On a rainy afternoon in apartheid-era Port Elizabeth, the white son of the St. George’s Park Tea Room’s owners commits a scalding injustice against one of the family’s two black servants, who also staff the tea room. The play meanders for its first half, but then midway through, it snaps straight like the cruelest rod, and you can’t take your eyes off for the remainder. I think Fugard explains a bit more than necessary now and then, but his play left a visceral mark, especially considering the social and political climate in which we find ourselves now.
— Boris Fishman
In Jeff Nichols’s “Midnight Special,” a father spirits his 8-year-old boy away from a cult and government agents to return him to his true home, which turns out to be a very different one. What I love about this sci/fi movie, in addition to its understated tone, is its revelation of another world that we can’t see even though it is all around us. Beautiful and spiritually provocative.
— Barbara Brotman
‘Mr. Robot,” in its second season, seemed to show up on the scene out of nowhere. Partly this may be because it aired on the USA Network, and so the first season didn’t make an impression until it hit the binge-watching warehouse of Amazon Prime. Or maybe, more likely, it’s because the show was a few steps ahead of its cultural moment. In either case, it’s breathtaking. Both in form and substance, it points the way toward a new way of looking at and talking about America. The spikey, nervous aesthetics of the show — the deep focus camera work that places the characters in uncomfortable positions vis a vis their locations, the washed-out, yet simultaneously garish color schemes, the heavy, ambient music that’s used for narrative purposes, discomforting the viewer in much the same way that cheesy soft rock is used by lesser shows to yank the tears from your eyes — all evoke the anxious experience of what it’s like to live now. But furthermore, the cast, all of whom are excellent, break from both of the usual types of homogeneity that our cultural products usually use to indoctrinate us with their lies; these actors and the characters they play are not just multiracial, but also multiethnic, by which I mean that they’re allowed to be human beings with multifarious cultural roots, not just rich, successful people who happen to be something other than white. This show evokes the economic and culturally diverse reality of present-day New York City better than any art out there, in any form. Which shouldn’t be a surprise. It was created by the grandly talented Egyptian-American writer-director Sam Esmail, who’s married to the American Jewish actress Emily Rossum.
— Joshua Furst
Growing up Jewish in Brooklyn, I often heard that Jews were the Chosen People. So, imagine my surprise when I realized that Moana, the Polynesian princess in Disney’s new animated feature, repeatedly proclaims herself to be “chosen.” She is chosen to save her people — and she has no doubt that she has been chosen.
My mom explained the idea of being chosen to me by way of the Hebrew National commercial I grew up with. A deep voice told us that Uncle Sam allowed Hebrew National to put a lot of dreck into its hotdogs, but didn’t. Why? Because Hebrew National had to answer to an even higher authority, at which point the camera tilted up to clouds and lightning. My mom explained that it meant God was watching and would know if Hebrew National put dreck in their hot dogs. That’s why we don’t eat the goy hotdogs, she said, it’s all part of being chosen.
To me, the Jewish way of being chosen felt like God was being a super unfair Santa – paying close attention to how we behaved, but really focused on how we misbehaved.
So what have Jews been chosen for?
From an early age, I knew about tikkun olam. I grew up in a Mitchell-Lama lower-middle-class high-rise building, and when the water went out, we brought containers of water to people who were old or infirm and made sure they were ok. In our building, we had a lot of communist Jews camp survivors, Jews who had walked with Martin Luther King, Jews who fought for their own survival and for others.
“What, you don’t think they won’t come for you next?” I heard as often as, “What, you on a new-fangled diet or something?”
In the early 70s, my mother would take my sister and me to the South Street Seaport to hear Pete Seeger and learn protest songs and go on marches — this was a Jewish thing to do — to help repair the world, and I assumed Seeger was Jewish too as we sang his clear directive: “We Shall Overcome.”
And this is Moana’s directive too. She hears a deep calling that impels her to leave home and safety and go beyond the reef. She is not too clear what her mission is, but she knows she has to go, even though her dad tries to keep her safe — “Stay at home bubeleh, be the princess.” Well he doesn’t call her bubeleh, but he might as well have.
Moana is not mentally ill; it turns out that she truly has been chosen to repair the world and awaken her people. The sea won’t even let her drown; she is blessed with empathy and compassion — combined with chutzpah, bravery, a good sense of humor and an inner drive. And so she risks death rather than remain the princess of Manhattan, I mean her Polynesian island.
Moana discovers that her people have forgotten who they are. Once a seafaring people, they now have comfort and like to stay put. Who wouldn’t?
She appropriates a catamaran and sets off to sea. It is revealed to her that she must return the jade stone-like heart that was stolen from the goddess Te Fiti, a stand-in for Mother Nature. The ocean gives the heart to Moana, which reminded me of how Moses received his staff, but what had me gasping at the climax was when Moana walks through the sea which parts for her, full-on Moses style.
After the bountiful heart is restored and nature is in harmony again, Moana returns to her people and awakens the story of who they are and who they have been. Not only do they happily embrace this truth, they also reclaim their original identity as seafaring nomads.
I remember being spooked by the plants we had when I was a kid – Wandering Jews, my mom told me, impossible to kill. She explained how even without much water they send shoots out all over and can always find new soil in another plant’s pot! “Like Jews,” she said with a laugh. “Always searching for another place to escape.”
As we have a president-elect who denies global warming, as this country now feels closer to the insecurity the Jews must have felt when America was slow to respond to the growth of fascism in Europe before World War II, the studio with the brand of the known anti-Semite Walt Disney, may finally be giving us our first covert Jewish princess. Still, the film gives us a reminder: While we might be “the chosen,” we need to remember what we were chosen to be and do. And perhaps we wandering Jews might need to search out new lands.
When Moana returns the heart, she sings to the enraged destroyed monster, “They have stolen the heart from inside you but this does not define you. This is not who you are; you know who you are.”
“We know who we are!” is the victorious song of Moana’s people as they sail off in search of new lands. Maybe they are in search of Bernie Sanders in that faraway land of Burlington, Vermont, to practice tikkun olam, with our first JPP – Jewish Polynesian princess – in the lead.
— Laura Albert
We’re all addicted. And we’re all in trouble. That’s the blaring siren of a message from Andrew Sullivan’s New York magazine cover story from September, “My Distraction Sickness — and Yours.” The piece tells the personal story of how Sullivan unplugged from his life as a hyper-prolific blogger and spent time recovering at a silent meditation retreat in Massachusetts. But there is universal resonance when Sullivan writes that his relentlessly plugged-in online life “was actually becoming a way of not-living.” I had many memorable cultural experiences this year —Paul Kalanithi’s posthumous memoir, “When Breath Becomes Air,” A Tribe Called Quest’s comeback album “We Got It from Here…Thank You 4 Your Service,” Barry Jenkins’s gorgeous film, “Moonlight” — but Sullivan’s piece is the one that haunted me most. “Just look around you — at the people crouched over their phones as they walk the streets, or drive their cars, or walk their dogs, or play with their children,” he writes at one point. “We have gone from looking up and around to constantly looking down.”
— Philip Eil
‘Next Thing,” the latest album from Frankie Cosmos, is a masterclass in “Less is more.” The album has 15 songs but runs for only 28 minutes. These 28 minutes, however, have significantly more depth than their run-time suggests. Lead singer Greta Kline (daughter of actors Kevin Kline and Phoebe Cates) uses bare bones synths and soft guitars, matter of fact vocal delivery, and lyrics, all of which appear juvenile on the surface. And indeed there is an adolescent angst to “Next Thing” – but just beneath it all is the impressive ability to plumb universal feeling from idiosyncratic metaphors and personal experience.
— Jake Romm
No options but jail or death; look askance at a cop at your own peril; we’re failing our kids, our young adults, our own humanity. These are but some of the messages Anna Deavere Smith channeled in her indelible show, “Notes From the Field.” Melding journalism, anthropology and performance, Smith stitched a riveting investigation of the political, economic and social forces that have built — too well — the vast school-to-prison pipeline. It brimmed with pathos and bits of hope. When she delivered the speech of the Rev. Jamal Bryant at the funeral of Freddie Gray, the audience was transported to church, grieving alongside Gray’s family. When she assumed the role of the NAACP’s Sherrilyn Ifill, observing the “heaviness” across our land and lamenting our collective decision to invest in prisons, you could not help but take the remark as as prognosis for our near future. Will we redirect our resources? Will a day come when every child gets a fair chance at hope? Smith alone cannot provide answers. But together, her fascinating and tragedy-filled production implies, we may well have a critical shot.
— Sara Ivry
My best time at the movies this year was seeing “On the Map,” an uplifting documentary directed and written by Dani Menkin about how the hard work of the players of its Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball team put Israel on the world map in 1977 by winning the EuroCup. Menkin deftly interweaves archival footage with interviews with players, including team captain Tal Brody along with Hall of Famer Bill Walton. I’m not exaggerating when I say that I laughed, I cried and I watched in anticipation to see what would unfold. Even better was that I brought my kids, and I loved experiencing the film with them, as it brought Israel’s history to life, and made us feel a love and pride for the country, in a way that only an actual trip there usually does.
— Laura Hodes
One of my greatest Jewish art surprises of 2016 came during a tour of two provocative Archie Rand exhibitions — “Sixty Paintings from the Bible” (1992) and “The Book of Judith” (2012) — at Cleveland State University with professor and curator Samantha Baskind. It’s not that Rand was a surprise to me — you may have heard of his series of 613 canvases, one per biblical commandment. And Baskind, who edits Pennsylvania State University Press’s “Jews and the Cultural Imagination” series, may be familiar to you, too. But here I was turning a corner in the gallery with Baskind at which point I found myself face to face with Rand’s painting of Joseph trying to flee as Potiphar’s wife dramatically tugs at his red cloak. “F—k me,” the speech bubble states. That’s not quite how the biblical text reads, but to Rand’s eye, it might as well. Where this exhibit drew upon centuries-old biblical drawings, which Rand treated with a bolder and more modern palette and drawing style, the Judith series draws upon classic pin-ups. Both decisions shed considerable light rather than detract from or disrespect the religious texts they portray.
— Menachem Wecker
My go-to streaming pleasure all year has been “Republic of Doyle” on Netflix. The series features a father and son private eye team in picturesque St. John’s, Newfoundland. The focus is cocky, impulsive Jake Doyle, played by show creator Allan Hawco. Jake takes more punches than he gives, though the violence and humor owe more to “Three Stooges” than to true crime. In a meta-moment, a Toronto mystery writer who shadows Doyle for inspiration brilliantly dubbed what they’re all doing as “Quaint Location Crime Fiction.” There’s no Yiddishkeit here, but plenty of head-butting and name-calling, all in the name of familial bonding. The show has so much charm that I plan to reach out to the Jewish Community Havura in St. John’s when I make aliyah to the Republic of Doyle.
— Wayne Robins
Lines and line breaks are poetry’s structural units, in much the same way that timbered planks — and the gaps that must be filled between them — create a ship’s hull. Fittingly, the rapturous poems in Robin Beth Schaer’s “Shipbreaking” are fashioned from taut lines joined by tension. Nautical imagery of wind, waves and wreck suffuse this volume. The horrors and wonders of the natural world—extinctions, disasters, migrations — and the fragility of human life are commingled. Schaer refracts the personal through the political in ways reminiscent of Yehuda Amichai, whom she cites as an influence. And traces of Jewish thought are inscribed across Schaer’s verse, as in “Fear,” which draws inspiration from the Talmud to fashion a psychological bestiary. She may be the only contemporary poet who can turn a contrite lover into a coelacanth, or depict toasting bread with so much sexual tension.
— Adam Rovner
Paul Simon has intimated that “Stranger to Stranger” will be his last album (“I am going to see what happens if I let go,” he told The New York Times) — but wow does he ever go out on a high note. The first two cuts get stuck in your head – “The Werewolf,” an eerily prescient forecast of our present doom (“the grinners with money-colored eyes eat all the nuggets then they order extra fries”) and “Wristband,” an infectious upbeat ode to jive. But the rhythmic variety and verbal play of the songs that follow make this Simon’s most memorable album since “Graceland.”
— David Laskin
Why do I love “Stranger Things?” I was the same age in 1983 as the main characters, and the show contains a slew of 80’s cultural references aimed directly at my sentimental sweet spot. And then there’s Eleven — not since 12-year-old Natalie Portman made her big screen debut in “Léon: The Professional” has there been a character with such a mix of vulnerability and sheer badassery. But what speaks to me most is the show’s emphasis on friendship as a way to face our deepest fear — a useful message as we find ourselves struggling against the darkness of a world turned upside down.
— Eric Schulmiller
What’s “Stupid F—king Bird” about? Oh, so, so many things, including the need for new forms in art and the impossibility of those forms; the unrequitedness of love, romantic and familial alike; the foolishness and vanity of human wishes; the frailty of the flesh and of the spirit. Now, add music. Aaron Posner’s adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s “The Seagull” keeps the pathos and the insight of the great Russian dramatist of the human condition, adds some levity, punctures some breathing holes, and makes the whole thing soar. It’s two and a half hours, but it feels like a beautiful passing fancy. I’m still thinking about it, and I saw it in April. Nothing stupid about it.
— Yevgeniya Traps
The book that haunted me most this year, Michel Houellebecq’s “Submission,” didn’t disturb me because of its premise — the election of France’s first Muslim president. What got under my skin was how quickly and subtly change swamps the detached, aimless protagonist, and how viciously the novel points out the smugness and solipsism of the boho-intellectual milieu it inhabits. After our own electoral nightmare, the acuteness of Houellebecq’s satire became clear to me: Comfort and complacency aren’t just numbing, but also potentially fatal.
— Michael Kaminer
“Swim Through the Darkness” by Mike Stax was easily the most moving and inspiring book I read in 2016. Stax’s biography of Craig Smith — a promising musician and songwriter who took a wrong turn at the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, and fell forever through the cracks of society — is a deeply heartbreaking one. But the book also doubles as a fascinating detective story, and the author’s suspenseful recounting of his nearly 15-year search for Smith makes “Swim Through the Darkness” read like the “Citizen Kane” of rock bios.
— Dan Epstein
Jill Soloway’s “Transparent” might be the most perfect example of a liberal, privileged bubble, but it transcends this much-discussed bubble, because every character is profoundly flawed and any hint of smugness is quickly eradicated by humor and pain. 2016’s third season offered so many memorable images and lines, but it’s the opening credits that get me every time. The nostalgic composition (reminiscent of a music box) juxtaposed with home movies of characters of varied femininity and one particularly memorable bar mitzvah boy. It’s a plunge into the most Jewish kaleidoscope of family love and hate and the gorgeous mishegas in between.
— Joanna Hershon
I was going to say how much I enjoyed the personal whimsy and occasional profundity of Joseph Skibell’s “My Father’s Guitar,” a collection of autobiographical and stylish stories. But then, the tribes spoke at the ballot box, in the United Kingdom and then in America. The outpouring of (often unacceptable) antipathy towards people outside of your own group needs to be understood in the context of the strong feelings of belonging and home that certain groups, certain tribes, engender. Sebastian Junger’s “Tribe” is a powerful yearning for and explication of the tribe from a war reporter, a cosmopolitan, a writer who probably feels that we should all universally love one another but really don’t. He puts his finger right on the sore spot of capitalist alienation and explains how much we want to belong yet how deeply sore we are.
— Dan Friedman
It took me a moment to appreciate Leela Corman’s brilliant graphic novel, “Unterzakhn” because it’s all things I am not: brassy, polished and containing multiple complex storylines. Leela, forgive me the review I wrote in this newspaper when I was an insecure young person. I’ve been saving Corman’s recent book — a collection of short picture-essays called “We All Wish for Deadly Force” — for a moment when my need to escape into art would outweigh my embarrassment. That moment has come. Thanks, Trump! There are times when we feel we can’t go on living, and then out of the blue someone describes the inexplicable cruelty of the world very sweetly and simply and perceptively, and with lightness. I have a few pages left in this quiet, honest, funny, sensitive book that is about obscene tragedy yet reads like a series of anecdotes and until I finish, I do know that the world will keep spinning. Thank you, Leela!
— Liana Finck
Ang Lee might have gotten the most press this year for his 3-D technical achievements in the otherwise forgettable film “The Long Halftime Walk of Billy Lynn.” But the most amazing cinematic achievement I saw this year was Sebastian Schipper’s Berlin-based thriller “Victoria,” which unspools an entire two-hour heist drama in a single take. Alfred Hitchcock tried a stunt sort of like this in his 1948 film “Rope.” But where that film was stagey and theatrical (in the worst sense of the word), Schipper’s was utterly exhilarating, combining the best of New Wave French cinema style with the blistering speed of “Run Lola Run.” “Victoria” was officially released in 2015, but it didn’t make it to Netflix until this year. And it’s the best film I’ve seen in either of those years.
— Adam Langer
As a well-known spokesperson for medium purism, I must say I hate collage. But in my role as professional political operative I have to admit I enjoy a good juxtaposition. One of my favorite phenomena is the disconnect between whatever art I’m personally consuming and the general narrative of a political campaign. To wit: In 2008, while extolling the virtues of hope and change in factories, diners, and gymnasia, I was reading Mishima’s “Japan Tetralogy,” which is of course the virtual opposite of the hope and change mindset. Delightful.
This year, in 2016, in between ducking mobs of millennials who were “feeling the Bern,” and preparing to torch the closest major bank outlet, I consumed nothing but Karina Longworth’s “You Must Remember This” podcast, immersing myself fully in her meticulously researched and immaculately written Golden Age of Hollywood stories. Thinking about Bette Davis and David O. Selznick was a welcome reprieve from seeing Debbie Wasserman Schultz or Wolf Blitzer. Angry old hippies in the crowd became cigar-chomping studio heads, the kids upfront struggling starlets.
So immersive is the world Longworth creates that, like the 18-year-olds who desperately wanted to meet Bernie on the rope line, I’m pretty sure if we all hung out, we’d be friends.
— Arun Chaudhary
The musical year of 2016 was bookended by dark valedictories: David Bowie’s “Blackstar” and Leonard Cohen’s “You Want It Darker.” Both Bowie and Cohen knew that their ends were near, and both passed on to the next realm just as their last brilliant works were released. Cohen’s final album — in particular its haunting title song — stands as one of the finest Jewish works of art of the 21st century so far. “You Want It Darker” is among Cohen’s most Jewish songs, complete with a cantorial solo and the refrain of “Hineni, Hineni… I’m ready, my Lord.” Cohen here is the shadow Abraham: ready to obey God’s terrible command, ready to die, ready to plunge yet further into the darkness, since that, apparently, is what God wants. Tragically for us all, Cohen’s prophecy proved truer than expected: While he knew his own health was fragile, he couldn’t have known that America, too, was about to fall into a period of prolonged darkness. As history turned out, “You Want It Darker” has now become the eulogy of both a brilliant songwriter and a nation.
— Jay Michaelson
Adam Langer is the Forward’s culture editor. Born and raised in Chicago, he now lives in New York. He has written plays, films, criticism and a memoir, but most of the time, he writes novels.
He is the author of the novels “Crossing California,” “The Washington Story,” “Ellington Boulevard,” “The Thieves of Manhattan” and “The Salinger Contract” as well as the memoir “My Father’s Bonus March.”