In the new movie "Prime," Meryl Streep is wearing a lavender button-down shirt, a red shawl draped comfortably around her broad shoulders and a brown hairdo that manages to have bangs, wings and flips all going at the same time. But somehow it's the double strand of big red beads dangling around her neck like a loose noose that manages to convey the high state of suffering -- boy does she suffa -- of a guilt-ridden, guilt-giving Jewish mother.
That's right, 56-year-old actor extraordinaire Streep of "Out of Africa," "Sophie's Choice," "Kramer vs. Kramer," "Postcards From the Edge," "Angels in America,"etc. and 13 Academy Award nominations fame has taken on the comi-tragic role of a Jewish mother.
And oy! what a Jewish mother she is. Streep plays Lisa Metzger, M.S., C.S.W., an Upper West Side therapist who loves too much: She loves patients like Rafi Gardet (Uma Thurman); her eldest son, David Bloomberg (Bryan Greenberg); and her religion (Judaism). When Lisa discovers that her 37-year-old patient has been dating her 23-year-old son, she is beset by a professional concern that is the classic stuff of comedic conflict: Should she continue to treat this patient and how? But her character also is more deeply plagued by a concern that is tragedy for her: Her son is dating a woman who is not Jewish.
To be sure, interfaith dating is not the only theme or conflict in the film. "Prime" is a New York-based romantic riff on love and what happens when obstacles are placed in the way -- obstacles like age, family, religion or the fact that your therapist is the mother of the man you're in love with (a situation that's probably less likely to happen in real life than in the movies).
But at its core "Prime," which opens this Friday in theaters, is also a movie about the not very cinematic subject of religion -- and the threat of intermarriage.
"I thought it was really unusual to have a script that had as one of its central dilemmas the question of faith," Streep said. "That's just amazing. That's not edgy at all, but it's something people contend with."
It is a subject that writer/director Ben Younger ("Boiler Room") contends with personally: He was raised Modern Orthodox in Brooklyn and Staten Island. While the 33-year-old New Yorker is no longer part of that community he still feels emotionally connected to it.
"I think it's important for all people to be open," Younger said. "It's that exclusionary nature of religion that I do have a problem with."
If it's true that artists make a statement in their work -- consider Jewish artists like Chaim Potok, Philip Roth, Woody Allen -- then perhaps "Prime" is Younger's way of sending a message in a bottle to the Jewish community.
Consider this heart-to-heart conversation between the characters David and his mother Lisa (Streep, at this point, is wearing a khaki-ish floral shirt and a thick rope of olive bead strands secured by red stones).
Lisa: "So you're still planning on marrying someone Jewish."
David: "Ye-e-s. Sure. OK?"
Lisa: "But then I don't understand why you need to go down this road. You may end up getting hurt for nothing, or worse -- hurting her. Don't you value your culture and your history?"
David: "Mom, it's not one or the other, Mom."
Like "My Big Fat Greek Wedding," the struggles in "Prime" are probably applicable to any insular ethnic or religious group in America. But with intermarriage, the stakes are especially high for Jews.
"Once a Jew intermarries, he or she as an individual remains Jewish, of course, but the likelihood of that person having any Jewish descendants is close to nil," concludes a self-published study on intermarriage called "Will Your Grandchildren Be Jewish?"
Once Jews understand the cost of intermarriage ramifications, said Antony Gordon, a co-author of the study, "most decide that they do not want to be the person who breaks the link in the chain that spans about 110 generations back to the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai."
The National Jewish Population Survey (NJPS) 2000-1 indicates that intermarriage held steady overall at 47 percent from 1995 to 2000, and has increased 4 percent from 1990. Of all Jews currently wed, the 2000 NJPS study found, one-third are intermarried.
Experts note some statistical flaws in the more recent data, but it has nonetheless sparked debate over intermarriage: Everyone agrees that it's a problem, but how big a problem -- or priority for Jewish funding and programming -- is it? And more importantly, what is the best way to deal with intermarriage?
Rabbi Kalman Packouz at Aish Hatorah in Florida, takes a direct approach to the problem. Packouz is the author of "How to Stop an Intermarriage: A Guide to Preventing a Broken Heart" (Feldheim, 1984) a book for "Jewish parents who want their child to marry a Jew but don't know how to articulate it," Packouz said. His book provides a 10-part questionnaire for interfaith couples considering marriage, covering topics such as personal, financial and religious compatibility as well as "Latent Anti-Semitism" and "Conversion" and "What is the Likelihood of Divorce?" The extensive 159-question survey asks sensible queries such as "Do you think that your potential spouse might be painting an unrealistic picture of him or herself and that you might be marrying an illusion?" There also are blatantly loaded questions: "Do you or your potential spouse think it is wrong to aid in the destruction of an endangered species? How do you feel about aiding in the destruction of the Jewish people?" In that light, even a question about data can become tilted toward a viewpoint: "Are you aware of the higher rate of divorce amongst intermarried couples?"
The point, Packouz said, is that, statistically, intermarriages have a higher rate of failure. And that is just the type of tactic that Streep's fictional character takes talking to her son. Lisa tells her son: "If you're smart enough to know that it makes sense to marry someone from the same background -- and it does, any of the studies will show you that in as far as the divorce rates go, then you should be smart enough to know not to start something where nothing can come of it. You're only going to make a mess."
David, like many kids who were raised with some Jewish tradition in a primarily American culture, is outraged at his mother's sudden springing of her "Fiddler on the Roof" issues at him.
Packouz offers a line of argument for parents who are accused of suddenly bringing up their Jewish values. He said that a parent should tell a child who is considering intermarrying: "Right now I understand what I really believe. I thought about golf and stock, and how you did in college, but I never really thought about how important it is to be Jewish. I go twice or once a year to services, but now I realize that it really matters to me. It's who I am in life."
In the film, David does not come from an extremely assimilated family -- in fact, he is trying to break out of their bourgeoisie mores, such as trying be in an artist rather than the standard professional -- and he calls his mother out on the double-standard of her Jewish vs. American values.
David: "You're a therapist, you would never tell that to a patient."
Lisa: "Not true, not true, I encourage patients to have relationships within their respective faiths. It's easier. I encourage them to go to mosque or church or whatever. I think religion is paramount in a person's life."
David: "OK, yes. But encouraging them is not discouraging them. And I know that you draw the line there. Would you tell your patient not to date someone that they don't think they're going to marry?"
Lisa: "Oh quit asking me what I tell my patients. They're not my children."
Therein lies the dilemma. Parents teach their children to love everyone equally, to not discriminate, to help the poor, heal the sick, defend the weak -- but only date within the faith?
"We can have all sorts of rules in the world, but when it's our own children the rules go out the window," Streep said. "You know, what's objectively best is different from what's subjectively understood to be the best for your own kids."
In real life, of course, Streep is not Jewish, and she does not believe in marrying within the faith: "I believe in diversity. And mixing up the DNA -- I think it's very good. I believe in making a mess in life. And as for my daughter's husband I have one demand: He better be nice!"
Even so, Streep did not find it difficult to play Lisa.
"I wanted her to be kind of momish, roundish," Streep said. "We picked clothes that were a little bit too tight so that everything looks lumpish. She's nicely groomed and everything but she doesn't care about the style label and I'm sure she goes to Loehman's and tries to get a bargain. She spends a lot of money on her jewelry basically [because] they don't make clothes for women her age, her size, her style -- that's not what fashion is about anymore, so you sort of compensate with interesting necklaces."
Streep said her character has a universality beyond Judaism: "At base we all feel the same things: You want to protect your kid. You want them to move out, but you want them to come around all the time -- I mean you're very conflicted as a parent and it goes forever."
But Streep also understands her character's concern about intermarriage: "When you marry outside of your religion, you set up a whole different bunch of difficulties and challenges."
Within Judaism itself, the perspective on intermarriage varies depending on the denomination.
In the old days, parents sat shiva for a child who intermarried. Not much has changed, in spirit, in the Orthodox world.
"[Intermarriage] is absolutely discouraged," said Rabbi Daniel N. Korobkin, the West Coast Orthodox Union's director of Community and Synagogue Services.
At the other end of the spectrum, while Reform rabbis don't encourage intermarriage, they do perform the wedding ceremonies and invite non-Jewish partners into their religious communities.
In the middle, as usual, the Conservative movement forbids its rabbis from performing an intermarriage, but more Conservative congregations are taking steps to be inclusive to non-Jewish spouses.
But here's the funny thing about fighting intermarriage with facts and figures, the threat of excommunication or community approbation: It doesn't necessarily work.
"The general evidence seems to be that nothing that any movement does or nothing that any part of the [Reform] movement does affects the mixed marriage rate," said Rabbi Richard Levy, the director of the School of Rabbinic Studies at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. "What I think is happening is that Jews are so integrated in the population ... much of the sense of difference between Jews and non-Jews has been polished away."
It's the flip side of Jews' comfort in America; there is no isolating ghetto or shtetl -- and Jews are mixing with and marrying their non-Jewish neighbors.
"People are doing it. And in huge numbers. And have resisted all of our efforts to beat them down with demographics," said Rabbi Dan Shevitz, of the Conservative Mishkon Tephilo synagogue in Venice. "Very few people date or make choices for marriage on what's best for the Jewish people. If they find someone they think is their soul mate, very few people are willing to give that up for the sake of Jewish demographics. Some are, and I think that's great."
Shevitz believes in the Conservative position that Jews should marry Jews, but the facts on the ground dictate flexibility toward outsiders.
"It's important for us not to tell people that non-Jews are dangerous and 'other' or alien, and that we need to stay away from them," he said. "The notion of making our children afraid of non-Jews is counter-productive and is not working and is false."
At this stage, he added, Jews need to be promoting the concept of Jewish families.
"It's neither racist or sinful or illiberal [to be] in favor of continuing our community. But that shouldn't translate into a fear and hatred of the other. And traditionally it has.... We have a good product -- if we can articulate it clearly and proudly."
Perhaps that is the message -- or one message -- that filmmaker Younger is trying to get across in "Prime." Although only a movie, and only one 33-year-old's religious and artistic take, perhaps such pop-culture works are a better indicator of the cultural zeitgeist than proclamations from on high.
Like Conservative Rabbi Shevitz, Younger believes that the Jewish community -- the religious community -- needs to be more open to the "other" in the world, when it comes to the arts and when it comes to dating as well.
"If Judaism is so wonderful -- and it is -- then why close yourself off?" said the tall New York hipster. "Anyone who knows me knows it's so ingrained, I am Jewish through and throughout, and it's how I am, so why not share that with someone else?"
Younger could have been quoting the David character when he said, "If it's as good as we say it is, why is it threatening to speak to someone who isn't Jewish?"
It is a great religion; it is a great way of life. It touches on your daily life in a way that I haven't seen any other religion -- so why this fear?" Younger said. "Why immediately close off someone from your world? Maybe they'll love it, too."
"Prime" (www.primemovie.net) opens in theaters Friday, Oct. 28.