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Best of 2007

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This is the time of year when top-ten lists spread like kudzu, when critics and editors muse over the greatest works of the past twelve months and agonizingly select the very finest of the fine. This is not one of those lists. We’ve ignored the big works, flouted comprehensiveness, and made very personal choices. Seventeen of them, to be exact.

The Latke Who Couldn't Stop Screaming

Best Children’s Book That Isn’t Really a Children’s Book

Billed as A Christmas Story,” Lemony Snicket’s The Latke Who Couldn’t Stop Screaming is really a Hanukkah story, but in the best, most complicated sense. The titular pancake—rendered in mustard tones, with perpetually raised eyebrows, by the retro-chic illustrator Lisa Brown—escapes a pan of hot oil and goes running out into the snow. There he encounters the accoutrements of an American Christmas—a set of colored lights, a candy cane, and a pine tree—all of which try to fit him into their noel-centric universe. So you’re basically hash browns,” the colored lights tell him. Maybe you can be served alongside a Christmas ham.” It’s no wonder the poor latke can’t stop screaming. —Joanna Smith Rakoff

Best One-Woman Show You’ll Ever Walk Out Of

In Dai (Enough), Iris Bahr plays eleven patrons at a Tel Aviv café, ranging from a retired Israeli army general to a Russian prostitute. Each character gets a scene, and each scene ends abruptly (as does the life of the character) with a violent blast: the lights go out, and there’s a horrific sound collage of shattering glass and screaming. Yet the show is very funny. Bahr (who grew up in Israel and the Bronx) is a tremendous performer, fully inhabiting each character. So why did I walk out? Because those blasts shattered my nerves every time. Yes, that’s the point—we’re meant to experience viscerally, for an hour, what Israelis (and people in many other parts of the world) experience every day. I lasted only thirty minutes. Still, I recommend the show, which has been revived in New York City (you can also get a taste of it here). But I’m holding out for a DVD. —Julie Subrin

'Steal a Pencil for Me' movie poster

Best Concentration-Camp Romance

Michèle Ohayon’s Holocaust documentary Steal a Pencil for Me focuses on the 60-year marriage of the Dutch Jews Jack Polak and Ina Soep, whose love flourished while they were imprisoned in Westerbork and then in Bergen-Belsen—and while Polak was married to someone else, who was also in the camps. Polak’s and Soep’s eloquent, passionate letters, which were passed back and forth furtively at the time, are artfully read out loud throughout. The film’s frank look at their experiences and memories (and their own candor in talking about their sometimes unflattering behavior under unfathomable duress) is fresh, incisive, and unexpectedly entertaining, and gives the viewer a new perspective on the Dutch Jewish community, too often associated only with Anne Frank. —Lawrence Levi

Kalooki Nights

Best Graphic Novel That Contains Not a Single Drawing

Howard Jacobson’s Kalooki Nights, about Maxie Glickman, a cartoonist en route to selling out his Orthodox childhood chum (a conflicted man who gasses his own parents) to a tabloid television program, is outrageously hilarious, sometimes simply outrageous, and altogether the most creative novel I’ve read this year. Its absurdities (Glickman, the brains behind a comic history called Five Thousand Years of Bitterness, weds only women with umlauts in their names and has an Irish brother-in-law who thinks the k in knish is silent) leaven its graver, astute meditations on love, loss, and identity politics in postwar Manchester. Who is a Jew and where ought his loyalties lie? The question arises, but Jacobson takes no sides. Rather, he conjures an engrossing microcosm that along the way invokes icons like Maimonides, Ilse Koch, Harvey Kurtzman, and Mark Rothko—a little something for everyone. —Sara Ivry

The Empress of Weehawken

Best Novel to Read Aloud in a Mel Brooks-Style German Accent

By turns bombastic and heartbreaking, Irene Dische’s pitch-perfect The Empress of Weehawken is presented as the memoir—a gory little narrative . . . a kind of True Confession”—of Elisabeth Rother, a haughty German of aristocratic stock (or so she believes) who defies her family and marries a Jewish doctor, a decade or so before the Nazis’ rise to power. Needless to say, things get bad for the Rothers, despite the doktor‘s conversion to Catholicism. They wind up in the New Jersey city of the title, but the war eventually takes its toll, even on them, and their grandchildren begin to wonder about their heritage. The novel’s drive comes from Elisabeth’s hilarious, unbridled narration, which often proves slyly unreliable in its hardness. It’s a mystery that I cannot explain . . . why God singled me out to practically drown in Jewry,” she moans, even as she reads Der Aufbau, a Jewish newspaper, and waits at the mailbox for news of her husband’s beloved relations. — Joanna Smith Rakoff

Back to Black

Best Argument for Abandoning the Good Jewish Girl” Stereotype Once and for All

Amy Winehouse’s sultry neo-Motown sound and otherworldly voice are so enchanting that you almost don’t notice her songs’ debauched lyrics. (Her debauched life, on the other hand, has been impossible to ignore.) The hard-living Jewish antiprincess has made it clear that, when it comes to ubiquitous pop chanteuses, even the coffeehouse set is ready to trade in the Nora Joneses and Vanessa Carltons of years past for something a little racier. Her second album, Back to Black, is an irresistible mix of romantic pleasure and frustrated pain; we’re more likely to remember Winehouse’s addictive single Rehab” than the behavior that has landed her in the real thing. Here’s hoping she keeps making them. —Hadara Graubart

Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice

Best Excuse to Continue Quoting Gertrude Stein without Having Read Her

Halfway through Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice, her book about Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas, Janet Malcolm recounts a meeting in which she confessed to some Stein scholars that Stein’s near-incomprehensible writing is not congenial to me.” The scholars, she recalls, looked at me pityingly. ‘Well, you’re honest,’” one said. Malcolm doesn’t take it for granted that Stein’s writing is brilliant; instead, she seems most interested in the writer as a great eccentric of the twentieth century, a Jewish lesbian who survived Vichy France through the sheer force of her denial—and with the help of a Nazi-sympathizing friend. Finding an author more interesting than her work is a common enough experience—and source of guilt—for readers of literary biographies, and Malcolm suggests with refreshing candor that it might be for their writers, too. The transparency with which she discusses her research process reels us in, and the obvious pleasure she takes in it keeps us hooked. —Marissa Brostoff

'Arranged' movie poster

Best Heartwarming Movie about Jews and Muslims That Isn’t The Band’s Visit

In Arranged, two Brooklyn women in their early twenties—an Orthodox Jew (Zoe Lister-Jones) and a Syrian-born Muslim (Francis Benhamou)—are grade-school teachers whose respective parents intend to marry them off. As they adapt to their secular students (who ask, Don’t Muslims want to kill Jews?”) and resist disappointing suitors, they bond. If these sound like the ingredients of a ho-hum indie drama, they are, but the restrained lead performances and an insightful script (by Stefan Schaefer, who directed with Diane Crespo) make it surprisingly affecting. Comic touches like Gary Shteyngart‘s cameo as an aspiring husband add to its charm. In comparison, the calculated quirkiness of The Band’s Visit—the Israeli movie that’s jerking tears worldwide—seems all the more shallow. —Lawrence Levi

Cures for Heartbreak

Best Antidote for Gossip Girl

As the television adaptation of Cecily von Ziegesar’s blockbuster series claws its way up the Nielsen ratings, a couple of recent novels provide a refreshing reminder that your average adolescent isn’t a Prada-clad, martini-swilling, spirit-crushing mean girl, intent on sleeping with her best friend’s boyfriend. Margo Rabb’s impossibly bleak, unflinchingly honest Cures for Heartbreak follows fifteen-year-old Mia Pearlman through the year following her mother’s sudden death, from the cookie-cutter funeral (When the rabbi arrived we realized God was definitely a comedian from the Borscht Belt”) through her father’s subsequent heart attack (‘Sable. Lox. Kippers. Sturgeon,’” he moans, lamenting the salty foods he can no longer eat) and remarriage. And in Dana Reinhardt’s spry, genuine A Brief Chapter in My Impossible Life, ultranormal New England teen Simone Turner-Bloom discovers that her birth mother, Rivka, is Jewish—and, thus, so is Simone. If both novels, in précis, sound like treatments for afterschool specials, the reality is anything but. Rabb nails the all-consuming anxiety and loneliness of mourning (exacerbated by the horror of adolescence) and Steinhardt is unafraid to send Simone questing after serious spiritual and ethical questions. —Joanna Smith Rakoff

Best New Old Restaurant

Is there any choice? The beloved 2nd Avenue Deli, which was unceremoniously shuttered two years ago, has just reopened its doors. No matter that it’s about a mile further uptown, on an undistinguished block of East 33rd Street, and about half the size of the original space: the restaurant is the real deal, resuscitated by Jeremy Lebewohl, the 25-year-old nephew of the deli’s founder, Abe Lebewohl. Much of the menu has been preserved, a good portion of the staff has been rehired, and many of the physical details have been recreated (the trademark ceramic tile floor has been installed, and while Molly Picon has lost her room, pictures of her line the walls). And the food does not disappoint: I can’t report on most of the menu, but the chopped liver (handed out on strips of challah to famished customers waiting in line on opening day) and the pastrami—warm, on soft rye—were heart-stoppingly delicious, nearly worth a two-year wait. —Ellen Umansky

The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Best Provocation of Nonfiction Readers through a Work of Make-Believe

Monitoring the comments posted in response to an interview with Michael Chabon about his novel The Yiddish Policemen’s Union was disheartening. Here was a book that took the noir trope made legendary by Raymond Chandler and speckled it with insider locutions that begged to be puzzled out (a sholom [peace] here meant a gun, or piece) and then savored. Its opening gambit, that Israel as we know it today does not exist (and that Alaska has become the Jews’ designated homeland), incited howls of foul. More alarming, though, is the deduction that Chabon’s conceit means he’s anti-Zionist. To me, Chabon’s feelings on Israel are irrelevant. In all the clatter of J’accuse! readers are missing out on something delicious: the clever, wild world of gumshoes, outsiders, and heroes that Chabon has so lovingly invented. —Sara Ivry

'Black Book' movie poster

Best Nazi-Loving Role Model

The Hague, 1944: A frisky young singer joins the resistance after narrowly escaping the Nazis’ massacre of her family. To help free a resistance leader’s captured son, she seduces the handsome local head of the Gestapo. Do they fall in love? Of course! But in Black Book, the wild, violent, sexy thriller by the Dutch provocateur Paul Verhoeven, that’s mere plot. Verhoeven is also out to expose his countrymen’s anti-Semitism and barbarity. He does it with typically outlandish wit and cinematic dynamism—and by putting an awe-inspiring Jewish superheroine (Carice van Houten, in the performance of the year) front and center. —Lawrence Levi

Learning to Drive

Best Urban Renewal of a Dream City

There are many New Yorks, and in her essay collection Learning to Drive, Katha Pollitt lays claim to several—the Brooklyn of her youth, with its seething housewives trapped in beautiful brownstones; the bohemian havens that become gentrified the moment she moves in; the Upper West Side of the Nineties, full of moms who go on the warpath for cuter playground furniture. The New York she seems to treasure most is a fantasy version of the city in which the communist Jewish intellectual circles of her parents’ youth survive into the present day, but cease to exclude women. She tries to realize her dream, joining a Marxist study group that meets in a Greenwich Village apartment with thickly plastered walls and yellowing Braque prints”; she fails dramatically when her boyfriend, the group’s charismatic leader, betrays her. By taking an unsentimental look at her own nostalgia, she breathes new life into a familiar view of old New York. —Marissa Brostoff

'Wristcutters' movie poster

Best Movie Based On a Novella by a Nextbook Columnist

What do you get when you cross an indie film about the disaffected malaise of youth with Beetlejuice? Wristcutters: A Love Story, Goran Dukic’s cuddly, whimsical movie about an afterlife for suicides. In this familiar world (it’s like ours, we’re told, only a little worse”), a new inhabitant named Zia (Patrick Fugit) makes friends with a Russian musician (Shea Whigham) whose tragically inclined family members have all offed.” Together they go on a road trip, pick up Winona Ryderesque Shannyn Sossamon, rock out to Gogol Bordello, hang with Tom Waits, and face off with Will Arnett. Based on Etgar Keret‘s novella Kneller’s Happy Campers, it’s a morbid romance that proves this year’s anti-quirkiness naysayers are missing out on good stuff. —Hadara Graubart

About Alice

Best Marriage to Envy

There are no revelations in Calvin Trillin’s About Alice, no salacious marital details revealed. Instead this slim elegy is an unapologetic love letter—old-fashioned, sweetly restrained, and ultimately heartrending—to Trillin’s wife of more than thirty-five years. In 1976, Alice, then the mother of two young girls, was diagnosed with lung cancer. She beat the odds and survived for another quarter century. Rather than focus on her illness or his grief (Alice died of cardiac failure on September 11, 2001, her heart weakened by the radiation treatments she’d undergone years earlier), Trillin, with his trademark light touch, draws a vivid portrait of Alice—her intelligence, humor, and warmth. But in the end, it’s the depiction of their marriage that one remembers. Recalling the party where he and Alice met, Trillin writes, I never stopped trying to match that evening—not just trying to entertain her but impress her. Decades later . . . I still wanted to impress her.” —Ellen Umansky

Aromas of Aleppo

Best Candidate for Her Own Food Network Show

Poopa Dweck, author of the new cookbook Aromas of Aleppo: The Legendary Cuisine of Syrian Jews, is everywhere these days. Praised by the likes of Mario Batali and Claudia Roden, cited in the New York Times Magazine‘s Year in Ideas” issue for her belief that shared recipes might be the first step in bringing peace to the Middle East, she certainly seems poised for bigger things. But the clincher is her personality. She’s smart, feisty, sexy, deeply religious (which has its appeal these days), and down-to-earth. What’s more, she’s a dynamo in the kitchen (as Nextbook learned when we spent a day with her for an upcoming podcast). And then there are the recipes: kibbeh bi’kizabrath (cilantro-tomato soup with Syrian meatballs), sambousak (buttery cheese-filled sesame pastries), ajweh helou (walnut-stuffed dates) . . . watch out, Rachael Ray. —Julie Subrin

Best Reason to Be Glad We Live in the 21st Century

AMC’s Mad Men has garnered tons of attention since its debut this summer, much of it focused on its almost fetishistic recreation of New York circa 1959, from globular cigarette dispensers to long-lined bras. But the show’s success has more to do with its no-holds-barred approach to the ethnic and racial divides of its period. Have we ever hired any Jews?” asks the head of the ad agency around which the show revolves, as he and his creative director, Don Draper (Jon Hamm), prepare to meet with potential client Rachel Menken (Maggie Siff), the owner of a Fifth Avenue department store. Most of the Jewish guys work for the Jewish firms,” Don replies. Gorgeous and imperious, Rachel shocks them, scoffing at their suggestions for coupons and sales, and shutting down a young account exec who asks why she doesn’t simply work with one of those Jewish firms. I want your kind of people,” she snaps. People who don’t care about coupons.” Within a few episodes, Don has fallen crashingly in love with her, less because of her exotic ethnicity—refreshingly, she’s depicted as no more stereotypically Jewish” than any of the women who populate Draper’s pristine suburb—and more because of her pervasive intelligence and independence, a welcome change from his sweet wife’s closemouthed subservience. The Sixties are on their way . . . —Joanna Smith Rakoff

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Best of 2007

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