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Taika Waititi’s big win & other Jewish Oscar moments

By Emily Burack

(JTA) — When Adam Sandler was shut out of this year’s Academy Award nominations for “Uncut Gems,” the Oscars lost out on the chance to have an acceptance speech as hilarious as the one Sandler delivered Saturday at the Independent Film Spirit Awards.

But this year’s Oscars had some pretty wonderful Jewish moments nonetheless. Here’s a roundup.

Maori Jewish director, writer and actor Taika Waititi had a big moment

Waititi, 44, took home the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for “Jojo Rabbit,” his first Oscar win and the first ever by an Indigenous director. Waititi’s “anti-hate” satire about a boy who has Adolf Hitler as an imaginary friend, was up for six awards, but Waititi’s win was the only one for the film.

The director dedicated the award to “all the Indigenous kids in the world who want to do art and dance and write stories. We are the original storytellers and we can make it here as well.” Waititi’s father is from the Te Whanau-a-Apanui, a Maori tribe. 

He also shouted out his Jewish mom: “Thank you for being my mother, and for many other reasons, but for giving me the book that I adapted. This film wouldn’t have existed without you doing that.”

Waititi’s mom, Robin Cohen, told her son to read Caging Skies by Christine Leunens — the story that Waititi adapted into his satirical film.

“Today, we know Hitler as the evil madman who engineered the torture and murder of millions of people,” Cohen told Variety. “But if we don’t think more deeply about how he convinced half the world to help him, we leave the door open to a repeat performance. When Taika depicts him as the affable hero of a small boy’s imagination, our idea of Hitler is skewed like a needle scratching across a record. This imaginary Hitler reminds us of an uncomfortable reality — that in the right climate, what we come to imagine can be deadly.”

In the press room after winning, Waititi echoed his mother’s sentiment on the prescience of the film. He said he made the film in response to a “resurgence of hate and intolerance and hate speech.”

“At the end of the war, there was a very clear rule: if you were a Nazi, you went to jail. Now, the rules have changed a bit: if you’re a Nazi, feel free to have a rally down in the town square and you can invite all your mates. So, something’s changed and something’s not right.”

Waititi also returned later in the show to honor the indigenous populations of Southern California, acknowledging the Tongva, the Tataviam and the Chumash people who lived in what is now Los Angeles: “We acknowledge them as the first peoples of this land on which the motion pictures community lives and works.”

Idina Menzel sings

Idina Menzel, the voice of Elsa in “Frozen” (and its sequel) performed the Oscar-nominated song “Into the Unknown” with backup performers from around the world.

The Jewish mom was introduced by her Jewish “Frozen” co-star, Josh Gad, who made a point to pronounce her name correctly, saying, “the iconic and brilliant Idina Menzel, pronounced exactly as it is spelled.” (A dig at John Travolta, who could not pronounce her name at the 2014 ceremony.)

No Hebrew performer, unfortunately.

Natalie Portman’s dress makes a statement

Actress Natalie Portman’s dress was embroidered with the names of eight female directors who were snubbed by the Academy this year, among them Israeli director Alma Har’el who directed the film “Honey Boy.” Harel tweeted: “My first time at the Oscars couldn’t have been more beautiful.” 

Jewish stars honored in memoriam 

Presented by Jewish director Spielberg — the “in memoriam” segment honored those Hollywood lost this year. As Billie Eilish sang, the show paid tribute to “Schindler’s List” producer and Holocaust survivor Branko Lustig; iconic Jewish actress Sylvia Miles; and Buck Henry, screenwriter of “The Graduate” and “Get Smart”; and Kirk Douglas, who died last week at 103.

Not during the show, but…

“Saturday Night Live” Jewish comedian Chloe Fineman — a newcomer to the SNL cast — delivered pitch-perfect impersonations of the nominees on a Weekend Update segment.

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