While the suits of the Jewish-American foundation circuit were banging their heads on their office desks, grappling for ways to engage an increasingly secular, drifting Diaspora youth, 28-year-old Jessie Kahnweiler, a loud Atlanta native with a Shirley Temple “Jewfro,” walked onto the scene in a pickle hat and made a crack about her pimps ’n’ hoes-themed bat mitzvah.
The suits caught on soon enough. Late in 2011, Kahnweiler, who had recently moved to Los Angeles and was working odd jobs in the film industry, scored a $40,000 grant from the Six Points Fellowship. The arts fellowship, according to its director, Josh Feldman, is an offshoot of the Foundation for Jewish Culture, built on “the realization that culture is … a major portal for meeting these young Jewish adults who are no longer going to synagogue.”
Kahnweiler was the New York fellowship’s first L.A. gamble, its first filmmaker and arguably now its most famous export. Her 11-part series, “Dude, Where’s My Chutzpah?” — filmed using the Six Points grant money plus a few thousand dollars from crowd-funding Web site Jewcer — has amassed around 300,000 views collectively on YouTube.
This makes her grant-givers giddy. “Ninety percent of those were watched on mobile devices,” Feldman said. He believes this “confirms that young Jewish adults are looking for content and ways to engage in Jewish life. And when a project is made that actually speaks to them and their generation, they will watch it the way they view content — which often is on their phone.”
The “Chutzpah” series followed Kahnweiler on a bouncy, messy spiritual journey from her bubbe’s funeral to an L.A. synagogue to a Holocaust survivor’s porch patio to the Holy Land and back, as she attempted to conquer the question: What does my Judaism mean to me? Until the 20-something could find a way to “live Jewish” for at least a year, according to the storyline, she would be cut off from the grand Jewish fortune that her bubbe had left behind.
If that sounds a little on the dorky side, she kind of thought so, too.
“I really half-assed my pitch,” Kahnweiler said of applying to the fellowship. “I was like, ‘I’m never going to get this. I’m the worst Jew.’ It was sort of like, OK, let me make something about being Jewish, so I’ll cover bagels, I’ll cover temples in L.A. — it wasn’t from a personal place at all.”
And when, much to her shock, she was crowned a Six Points fellow, Kahnweiler said, “It was just dread. Like, ‘Oh, great. What the hell am I going to do?’ ”
But after some nudging from Feldman to take the creative process more slowly and allow herself a research phase, Kahnweiler’s fictional journey toward Jewishness began butting into her own reality.
Just months after her on-screen bubbe died, Kahnweiler said, her real-life grandmother passed away as well. And although the latter wasn’t the cranky old tradition-monger portrayed in the film (“I swear she died so she could get me alone in a room with a Jewish doctor,” Kahnweiler says on-screen), her own bubbe’s death did, in a way, help bring out her inner chutzpah.
“My grandma would always smile at me in this way whenever I would be loud and crazy,” Kahnweiler said in a phone interview. “I feel her smile all the time — and it’s especially when I’m making noise and making a ruckus. That’s what my grandma would be proud of.”
For the spiritual climax of the “Chutzpah” series, Kahnweiler hits Israel like an untamed Yankee in a spotted blue sundress, a kiddie backpack and an oversized hair bow. She skips through the tear gas at the West Bank separation wall, hitting on Israeli soldiers and Palestinian activists alike, and wheels a watermelon around Jerusalem’s Old City in a baby carriage. In one scene, Kahnweiler dresses up like an Orthodox Jewish man in order to enter the strictly male prayer section of the Western Wall. In another, she takes shots at a Tel Aviv nightclub until dawn, then runs toward the ocean, screaming up at God: “Come on, reveal yourself! Burn my bush!”
“I meet a lot of self-hating Jews in L.A.,” she said over the phone. “They’re like, ‘Ugh, I’m Jewish.’ And it’s like, well, yeah, you are that kind of Jewish. But I’m not that kind of Jewish. I’m sexy, inquisitive, dangerous — why can’t that be Jewish? Why does my Judaism have to be allergies and overeating?”
In Israel, Kahnweiler said, she witnessed a different approach. “You meet all these people that are like, ‘I’m passionate, and I’m sexy, and I’m a risk-taker — I’m an Israeli.’ I think that was the turning point for me, when I shot in Israel, and I realized, ‘Oh — that can be Jewish.’ ”
Although “Dude, Where’s My Chutzpah?” never lands on a definitive answer for what it means to “live Jewish,” as it sets out to do, its many parts do add up to a greater sense of awareness for both Kahnweiler and her followers. And now that the series is over, the filmmaker’s openness and curiousness toward herself and strangers — her ultimate incarnation of living as a nouveau Jew — is apparent in everything she does.
Kahnweiler’s 2013 follow-up series, “White Noise,” watches her run around Los Angeles, conducting racially themed street interviews with topics such as “Why do black guys want to bang me?” and “Can a white chick be a Latino day laborer?” They sound pretty bad at first — girl knows how to troll — but the videos are surprisingly warm and nuanced, and reveal loads about our own preconceptions.
Her moments of comedic relief are never predictable but always distinctly Kahnweiler. She’ll raise her eyebrows halfway up her forehead, stretch her mouth sheepishly across her face and kind of cock her head, as if to say, “Don’t hate me ’cause I’m ignorant.”
But she embraces ignorance, and stereotypes — if only as a weapon against apathy. If the other Angelenos shuffling past the Latino day laborers and homeless guys on Skid Row are the realistic ones, Kahnweiler would rather approach the world from a clean slate of cluelessness. So she kicks it outside Home Depot for a day and asks a man named Jose what kind of job he would have if he were king of the world.
“It’s difficult to answer,” he says. “Well, I’m a difficult woman,” she replies. “Welcome.”
Kahnweiler’s most-viewed short to date is her most recent, and her most controversial: an anecdotal piece titled “Meet My Rapist.” In the film, Kahnweiler is flirting with vendors at a farmers market when she runs into a dude (or more a beard in a hoodie) who raped her eight years ago while she was studying abroad in Vietnam. So she takes her rapist on a tour of her current life, including to a family dinner and a job interview.
In this way, Kahnweiler shares the extremely intimate and confusing experience of harboring mixed feelings about one’s own rape, and not being able to cleanly cordon off its vivid memory into the rape-baggage department.
“I have one sexual identity,” she explained, “and it’s very dense. The same sexual identity that got raped is the same sexual identity that holds hands with my boyfriend in the rain.”
Ever since “Chutzpah,” Web sites like Hipster Jew and Jewcy have rallied around Kahnweiler. But with “Meet My Rapist,” she busted out of the Jewish circle and into the greater Internet, attracting admiration from big feminist-leaning sites like Jezebel and the Hairpin.
Lindy West, Jezebel’s most popular writer, wrote of the film: “It’s a brilliant, troubling example of how ‘rape jokes’ can be cathartic and complex and difficult and empowering — for victims and allies, not for the predatory and indifferent. … Nobody speaks truth to power like a sharp-toothed goofball.”
Kahnweiler said of the attention: “I continue to be really floored whenever I get feedback from non-Jews — just so happy and excited. I’ll get e-mails from people who are like, ‘I’m Irish-Catholic and this really spoke to me.’”
She described this as “the paradox of filmmaking. If I can be very specific about my experience and really honest, I can be the most universal. You don’t have to have a lady mustache to identify with me. It helps, but, you know.”
Naturally, she also has her haters, like the woman at her Los Angeles “Chutzpah” premiere who took offense at Kahnweiler’s portrayal of Shabbat dinner with an Orthodox family, and YouTube commenters like the one who recently called her a “duck” and a “dumb ass.”
But the filmmaker, and her backers, only see these as signs of success. “We really believe that art does not have to be all things for all people, and we’re happy there have been strong reactions to her work,” Six Points director Feldman said.
Kahnweiler recalled being ushered into Mel Brooks’ office just a few weeks before her big “Chutzpah” debut for a meeting that had been set up through a connection at Six Points. Although Kahnweiler said that at first, “He was like, ‘I don’t know who the hell you know to get in here,’ ” Brooks ended up giving her some career-altering advice.
“I started telling him about the ‘Chutzpah’ series, and I was like, ‘I’m really nervous that it’s going to offend people,’ ” she said. “And then he started telling me about ‘The Producers,’ and the controversy that he had to deal with. And he was like, ‘Just let them talk about you, and while they’re talking about you, just keep making more work. Just keep going.’ ”
She added: “Meeting Mel Brooks definitely gave me the kick in the ass to be like, ‘Yeah, I made this — I need to stand behind this.’ If he can get through ‘Springtime for Hitler,’ like, I’m all right.”
The young comedian also knows just when to pad her work with self-awareness. Throughout the “Chutzpah” series, she constantly calls out Hallmark moments as she sees them, reacting to any signs of stodginess much as she would in life: with slightly offensive yet lovable sarcasm. “You sound like Gandhi’s Twitter feed,” she tells her fictional L.A. rabbi at one point.
Kahnweiler has been compared to “Girls” creator Lena Dunham, another funny Jewish female currently telling the true story behind Gen Y. But Kahnweiler shrugged off the likeness in an interview with Jewcy: “If you’re young and you’re a woman, people need someone to compare you to in order to understand you.”
Now Kahnweiler is working on a longer documentary on homelessness in Los Angeles. For the piece, she’s dating — or at least building an on-screen relationship with — a 20-year-old homeless guy named Shemuel she met on Skid Row.
“I don’t want to get preachy about class separation in L.A.,” she said. “But what I can do is challenge my own beliefs and my own reality by saying, ‘OK, well, I love homeless people, I volunteer, I’m a nice liberal girl. But what about in a personal way?’ Well, I don’t know. And it makes me uncomfortable to say it, and that is exactly the reason I’m making the film.”
It’s another step in her decidedly Jewish search to expand her own understanding of Los Angeles and the world. As one red-bearded rabbi in Jerusalem told Kahnweiler on her quest for chutzpah: The first thing that God says to Abraham in the Torah is that in order to discover one’s own spiritual reality, “You need to leave from your land, from your birthplace, and from your father’s house.
“When you’re away from yourself,” continues the rabbi, “you can now view yourself in a clearer manner. You can now view yourself in a conscious way. … Now you’re living consciously.”