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These were the 20 best pop culture moments of 2020

During the thousands of days of 2020, the way we consume pop culture has radically changed.

Case in point: This list begins in January with an Oscars speech that my boyfriend and I, who had just moved to Brooklyn, watched from a bar we’d already designated as our “regular place.” We exhaled aerosols everywhere. We availed ourselves of public restrooms. A complete stranger explained to us that “Phantom Thread” (a film that was not even under consideration for any awards) was not actually as sexist as some women erroneously believed. In other words, it was a perfect night.

The list ends just a few days ago, with Chrissy Teigen’s low-key and restrained Hanukkah celebration — a.k.a., an enormous meal prepared by cookbook author Adeena Sussman. I viewed videos of this event while lounging on the couch in my favorite work-from-home leggings. Then I logged off and prepared an Instant Pot dinner with the aid of a cooking blog devoted to “one-pot weeknight meals for busy working moms,” one of many such websites I now follow devotedly. In other words, it was a typical pandemic evening.

Had I learned while watching the Oscars that a global pandemic would scuttle all in-person events for the foreseeable future, I would have predicted that the assembled stars would simply retreat to their compounds until it was once again possible to strut the red carpet in a bedazzled harness.

But that’s not what happened. Instead, celebrities continued to annoy, amuse, surprise and seriously confuse me. Call it inspiring, or call it a desperate bid to remain relevant. However you put it, the fact remains: pop culture absolutely did not stop for coronavirus.

Here, in chronological order, are the best, most astonishing, and least expected Jewish pop culture moments of 2020.

Best Oscars speech

Taika Waititi

Image by Getty

Jewish filmmaker Taika Waititi snagged an Oscar for his adaptation of “Jojo Rabbit,” an unlikely Holocaust film notable for providing the weirdest Hitler portrayal ever seen on the silver screen. In his acceptance speech, he thanked his mother and cast doubt on the quality of the coveted trophy he received, saying it felt “lighter” than he expected.

Earlier in the night, Waititi also paid tribute to the Native American tribes who once lived where Hollywood is today with an official land acknowledgement. It was the first time the Oscars included such a gesture.

Best non-Oscars speech

Adam Sandler

Image by Getty

If you clenched your teeth through all 135 gut-churning minutes of “Uncut Gems,” you were probably surprised to find that the Academy Awards didn’t even nod to Adam Sandler’s portrayal of uniquely sleazy diamond dealer Howard Gutman. Instead, Sandler cleaned up big at the 2020 Film Independent Spirit Awards. At the ceremony, he took the opportunity to dunk on his competitors, comparing Oscar nominees to “feather-haired motherf—kers” who were more popular than him in high school.

Spiciest reality TV drama

Karlie Kloss

Image by Getty

Karlie Kloss, supermodel and spouse to Joshua Kushner (younger brother of Jared), took flak for her connections to the First Family on the set of “Project Runway,” where she’s a celebrity judge. During one episode, she criticized an ensemble created by contestant Tyler Neasloney as entirely too pedestrian.

But Neasloney was ready with a clapback, asking Kloss if she could wear the outfit “to dinner with the Kushners.”

As you would expect, Kloss made many shocked faces and Neasloney was promptly booted from the show.

Coolest magazine cover

In January, French rabbinical rock star Delphine Horvilleur graced the cover of ELLE France — a rare instance of glossy magazines giving front-page status to women who are neither movie stars nor models. A public intellectual and advocate for her country’s small liberal Judaism movement, Horvilleur talked about the “je suis juif” movement, women rabbis, and diversity in the Jewish community.

Most scrumptious late night snack

While filming an episode of Jimmy Fallon’s “The Tonight Show,” the members of cult-favorite K-pop band BTS sampled the goods at the historic Katz’s Deli before “making” sandwiches for several bemused customers. Presented with a plate of pastrami sandwiches, their verdict was: “Heavy.”

Classiest bat mitzvah jewelry

A woman who knows how to wear her Magen David.

A woman who knows how to wear her Magen David. Image by Getty

Like pretty much every other bat mitzvah girl, Tiffany Haddish received a Magen David pendant to celebrate the occasion. Unlike most bat mitzvah girls, she has Barbra Streisand, who gifted her the necklace, to thank.

Yes, we know that Haddish’s bat mitzvah was technically in 2019. But she sported this six-pointed star at every subsequent fancy-dress event until the pandemic cancelled fancy-dress events forever.

Most embarrassing celebrity cover

The first weeks of the pandemic were chaotic ones. But what better remedy for a public health crisis than a dozen celebrities recording an off-key John Lennon cover from the comfort of their indistinguishably mid-century modern mansions?

That, apparently, is what Gal Gadot was thinking when she organized the now-infamous “Imagine” collaboration, which included too many key signatures and too many self-serious cameos from stars like Kristen Wiig, Sarah Silverman and Mark Ruffalo. The video didn’t cheer anyone up, but mocking it on social media probably did.

Smoothest seder

Arriving in an era when Zoom still felt exotic, “Saturday Night Seder” had all of the Exodus and none of the gefilte fish. And unlike the “Imagine” debacle, this online event actually raised money for a good cause — ultimately, it pulled in $2.9 million for the CDC Foundation’s Coronavirus Emergency Response Fund.

Sneakiest ketubah

Did Penn Badgley inadvertently show off his ketubah during a video interview with Variety? This question has not been answered definitively. But Badgley is married to Jewish songwriter and doula Domino Kirke, so we’re going to go ahead and say he did.

Tastiest Challah

“So there’s this awesome…bread.”

That’s what Pittsburgh Steelers offensive tackle Zach Banner said upon tucking into his first two “slices a.k.a. hunks” of challah. The livestreamed taste test came after Banner expressed solidarity with the Jewish community in the wake of antisemitic social media posts from a fellow NFL player. Watch this video and never take challah for granted again. (Also, check out the nice Jewish bakers who gave Banner his first taste.)

Most dramatic read-aloud

Ben Shapiro reads “WAP” lyrics. Image by twitter

The only thing that disturbs commentator Ben Shapiro more than rap is the prospect of women unapologetically embracing their own sexuality. So when Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion released “WAP,” a rap banger about women unapologetically embracing their own sexuality, he had no choice but to devote an entire segment of his show to a dramatic reading. Shaming women for enjoying sex: truly a service to humanity.

Cutest celeb cause célèbre

This wonderful man wants you to shop local.

This wonderful man wants you to shop local. Image by Getty

An actual service to humanity: Jake Gyllenhaal hawking bespoke copies of his tie-dyed Russ & Daughters t-shirt, to help the legacy appetizing store stay afloat during the pandemic.

Most delightful Jewish parents

Strange as it may seem, this couple is attending not an oneg Shabbat but the Season 8 premiere of “Homeland.” Image by Getty

“Princess Bride” star Mandy Patinkin cannot get you a coronavirus vaccine, and he has no control over the nationwide pandemic response. But he is very good at making us believe that everything will be OK. The actor and his wife, Kathryn Grody, accrued an unexpected social media following over the summer, when their son Gideon began posting videos of them puttering around the house during quarantine. In the fall, the couple parlayed that attention into a grassroots GOTV effort — complete with TikTok appearances and twerking.

Biggest Emmy win

The “Schitt’s Creek” cast in the before-times. Image by Getty

Sitcom “Schitt’s Creek,” won big at this year’s socially-distanced Emmy Awards. The show, which follows a wealthy Jewish family brought low by financial malfeasance and stars real-life father-son duo Eugene and Daniel Levy, won a total of nine Emmys. It’s now the comedy with the most wins for a single season in the awards show’s history.

Most subsequent moviefilm

Sacha Baron Cohen in “Borat 2.” Image by Amazon

No one really asked for “Borat 2,” but we got it anyway. Besides catching Rudy Giuliani in a (maybe? Sort of?) compromising position, the sequel to the 2006 film, shows trickster creator Sacha Baron Cohen dressed up as a “typical Jew” in a hilariously offensive outfit complete with a prosthetic nose. Our critic argued that the film unfairly painted Kazakhs as rampant antisemites, in willful ignorance of the country’s history as a haven for Jewish refugees. But, in one of 2020’s more unpredictable twists (and that’s saying a lot), the Kazakh government embraced the franchise, creating a tourism ad campaign around Borat’s signature catchphrase: “Very nice!”

Most succulent babka

The face of a woman devising a now-infamous hot take.

The face of a woman devising an infamous babka hot take. Image by Getty

New York Jews and right-minded babka lovers from many locales came out in force when “Great British Baking Show” judge Prue Leith, apparently taking leave of her senses on live TV, intimated that British babka is better than what you can get in the Big Apple. But considering the show’s history of fumbling Jewish foods (um, challah is not a Passover staple!) we shouldn’t have been surprised.

Most helpful GOTV stunt

During an early-voting process vexed by bad weather, Paul Rudd handed out gourmet cookies to Brooklyn voters braving the rain. Truly, this man deserves his ageless face.

Most halachically-compliant reindeer

Just a few months after releasing his first album in four years, Israeli-American rapper Kosha Dillz starred in a video adaptation of a children’s book about a Jewish reindeer — named “Shmuck the Buck,” of course — who saves Christmas. As the Santa in this video says, “Screw Rudolph.” There’s a new reindeer in town, and he eats latkes.

Cuddliest Hanukkah gift

Ethan Hollingswoth and Jack in “Puppy for Hanukkah” Image by The Disney Channel

Obviously a puppy called Monica is what everyone wants for Hanukkah, and that’s what you’ll get with the Forward-certified “bop” Daveed Diggs recorded for Disney this year, “Puppy For Hanukkah.” The song, and the music video accompanying it, earned acclaim for showing a diverse crew of kids lighting candles and opening presents. A Forward investigation into the song’s creation did reveal one shocking detail: the dog that plays Monica is, in fact, a boy.

Crispiest latkes

Supermodel and emerging food influencer Chrissy Teigen isn’t Jewish. But she celebrated Hanukkah in style with latkes cooked by Jewish gourmand Adeena Sussman. And you can spare her the “it’s-really-a-minor-holiday” discourse, because she’s really into the Festival of Lights. Filming several skillets of browning latkes, she uttered the two sentences Jews love to hear: “Honestly, why have I not been doing this? Christmas, what the heck?”

Irene Katz Connelly is an editorial fellow at the Forward. You can contact her at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter at @katz_conn.

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