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Jewish Journal

Humor in ‘Eat’ an Acquired Taste

by Sarah Price Brown

April 6, 2006 | 8:00 pm

When Rabbi Mordecai Finley, leader of the nondenominational congregation Ohr HaTorah, saw the new Passover comedy "When Do We Eat?" -- he loved it.

"I laughed and laughed and laughed," he said. He saw the movie three more times, and each time he liked it better.

Hap Erstein, the film reviewer for Florida's Palm Beach Post, had a different reaction.

Since seeing the movie about a dysfunctional family trying to make it through a Passover seder, "a bad taste has been left in my mouth," Erstein said.

Where Finley saw a story about the "redemptive power of a seder," Erstein saw "mean-spirited and low-targeted humor."

By now, the creators of the film, which has played in film festivals around the country and opens in theaters today, have come to expect such polarized reactions to their movie. Viewers either love it or hate it.

"When Do We Eat?" centers on the Stuckman family, which includes grandfather Artur (Jack Klugman); father Ira (Michael Lerner), who tries to lead "the world's fastest seder"; his neglected wife, Peggy (Lesley Ann Warren); and their children.

Daughter Nikki (Shiri Appleby) works as a sex-surrogate. Son Ethan (Max Greenfield) recently became Chasidic, but has a hard time resisting the wiles of his sexy cousin, Vanessa (Mili Avital). Youngest son Lionel (Adam Lamberg) is an autistic obsessed with the number seven. Jennifer (Meredith Scott Lynn), Ira's daughter from a previous marriage, is a lesbian and brings her African American girlfriend, Grace (Cynda Williams), to the seder. Zeke (Ben Feldman), a teenage stoner, slips his father some ecstasy halfway through the meal.

Salvador Litvak, the film's 40-year-old director and producer, co-wrote the screenplay with his wife, Nina Davidovich, 38. The way they see it, "When Do We Eat?" fits into a current trend of "in-your-face, proud-to-be Jewish" cultural statements, from Matisyahu, the Chasidic reggae singer whose latest album topped the charts last month; to "Go for Zuker," the recent German Jewish comedy about a dysfunctional family; to the irreverent, New York-based Heeb magazine.

"Some people get it, some people don't," said Litvak, an observant Jew who wears tzitzit and wakes up at 6 a.m. everyday to study Talmud. While "When Do We Eat?" opened the Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival, it did not make it into the Boston or New York Jewish film festivals.

"The people who get it," he said, "are the people who can laugh at themselves."

Erstein, in his review in The Palm Beach Post, labeled the movie "lowbrow sitcom" and charged Litvak with "trafficking in broad caricatures and ethnic stereotypes." In an interview, Erstein said the movie reminded him of "Meet the Fockers" and "There's Something About Mary," comedies that use crude jokes to target the lowest-common-denominator viewer.

What bothered him about this movie, Erstein, 56, said, was the way it portrayed Judaism.

"It's taking cheap shots at it," he said.

Here lies the central contention, the age-old question: Is this movie, ultimately, good for the Jews?

"Some people seem to have a reaction that it isn't good for the Jews," said Davidovich, who co-wrote the film. "I think that's a short-sighted reaction, because the cause of anti-Semitism through the years -- well, a large part of it -- has been people's perception that we think we're better than them. In this movie, we're portraying Jews as no better than anybody else."

But no worse than anyone else, either, Litvak added, explaining that the family was made to be outrageously dysfunctional for comedy's sake.

Davidovich stressed that she went out of her way to contradict stereotypes.

"What drives me nuts," she said, banging a fist on her skirt, "is in popular culture, Jewish women are always portrayed as unattractive, big-mouthed, annoying, bossy women" and "Jewish men are always portrayed as dorky, nerdy, nebishy, insecure, self-effacing."

So, she chose an all-Jewish, good-looking cast.

Davidovich and Litvak insisted that in the end, their film comes down on the side of Judaism. The movie shows that the Jewish religion, and the Passover seder in particular, can provide a framework for personal redemption, Litvak said.

Rabbi Mark Blazer, the 38-year-old leader of Reform Temple Beth Ami in Santa Clarita, agreed: "This [movie] can really show people what the Passover seder can do, that it can be a really transformative experience."

Blazer also sees the movie as part of a trend toward Jews' opening up about Judaism in popular culture. For years, Jews who produced TV shows and movies shied away from discussing their Jewishness on screen, he said. But today, Jews are finally willing to explore the essence of their religion in their art.

Blazer attributed the opposing reactions to the movie to "a generational gap." Younger Jews do not feel as anxious about seeing Jews portrayed in a negative light as those born closer to the time of the Holocaust, he said.

"Some see this movie, and they worry about the message that it sends," he said. "They're worried that it's going to contribute to anti-Semitism."

But "for us," he added, "we don't have that same level of discomfort."

For more information on showtimes, visit www.whendoweeat.com.

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