What do Chinese waitresses, vaginoplasty and hunting rifles have in common? They all figure into plot points in "Jewtopia," a romantic comedy in which a Jew helps his gentile friend pretend to be a member of the tribe so he can land the local rabbi's hot daughter.
The film is loosely based on writer-director-producer Bryan Fogel's hit off-Broadway play of the same name (both were cowritten by Sam Wolfson). The cinematic version draws on the play's general premise — Jewish guy who likes to chase Asian skirts pimps out gentile best friend on JDate — but with some twists. Here the gentile blue-collar laborer wants the sassy, confident Jewish girl while the neurotic nebbish with a toehold in the family embroidery business feels suffocated by his pushy Jewish fiancée, a top-rated gynecologist.
“In the movie, we realized the JDate thing is done, that dressing up as a Hasidic Jew and all this absurdist comedy that worked so well on the stage, as a movie would be a farce,” explains Fogel, who starred in the original stage version but preferred to stay behind the camera for the film. “About 20 percent of the play is the movie, and the rest was a reimagining of how to take that concept and the cultural aspect and turn it into something that would work for the big screen.”
In the film, actor Ivan Sergei plays Christian O’Connell, a tall, handsome plumber (albeit with a college degree) from an itinerant military family who meets the stunning, self-assured Alison Marx (Jennifer Love Hewitt) at a Jewish singles mixer. Christian long ago decided he wanted to marry a member of the tribe — “because I never want to make another decision again” — and finds his dream girl in Allison, who wastes no time telling him what to do. O’Connell does what any NASCAR-attire-wearing plumber angling to woo one of God’s chosen women would do: He filches the name “Avi Rosenberg” from a plaque on the synagogue wall and pretends he’s a Jewish doctor.
From there on, the film is an over-the-top satirical take on Jewish life and culture, as Christian persuades best bud Adam Lipschitz (Joel David Moore) to give him pointers on what Jews do. On the list of do’s: Always send back your meal at restaurants, talk to your mother on the phone multiple times a day and make sure to tell her you love her, and get rid of all your tattoos (for Jewish burial purposes). The mock conversion culminates in Christian undergoing a late-stage circumcision (never mind that in reality a hatafat dam b’rit, or symbolic drawing of blood, would have sufficed).
Sure, this is all a bit far-fetched, but Sergei, who plays Christian, said “all relationships are based on some sort of lie because you’re putting the best representation of yourself out there when you first meet someone."
Meanwhile, Adam has his own problems. He’s drowning in his engagement to the domineering Hannah Daniels (Jamie-Lynn Sigler) and his parents, played by Jon Lovitz and Rita Wilson, don’t see that their son is suffering because they're too busy smothering him (in one scene, Wilson pops a blackhead on Moore’s forehead).
Truth in stereotypes?
There’s a running theme here: Jews are loud, overbearing and uninhibited, and the goyim can’t get enough of it. But haven’t we seen all this before?
“The play and movie were about having fun with stereotypes,” contends Fogel. “My actual mother couldn’t be farther from that stereotype. That said, there are always truths in stereotypes. The history of Judaism is that we’ve thrived on making fun of ourselves. 'Jewtopia' is no different than Chris Rock doing his whole routine about Obama and whether they’re going to steal everything from the White House. As a white Jew, I obviously can’t perform a stand-up routine about Obama clearing out the White House, but as a Jew I can get up there and say funny semi-true stuff about Jews.”
Moore, who is not Jewish, also appears to be in on the joke. “I was married to a Jewish Israeli and spent about 10 years with her, so I learned the ins and outs of the culture, religion and lifestyle of her and her family,” he says. “And I spent time in Israel as well, so I feel like I was maybe more Jewish than anything over that period of time. And yes, a lot of these cultural references in the film are based off realities.”
But there are so many inaccuracies in "Jewtopia" — on both the Jewish and gentile sides — that it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what cultural references the film is making fun of. Take Adam Lipschitz: asthmatic, anxious, prone to panic attacks. He’s every bit the consummate Jewish male (think Woody Allen but in the garment industry). But the thing is he’s not. In his piece for The New York Times, Daniel Smith, author of "Monkey Mind: A Memoir of Anxiety," puts it best: “We, the Jews, have encouraged the world to think of us as anxious. We’ve done this by propagating the figure of the Neurotic Jew — our hysterical clown.”
So while Fogel’s intent was to play around with Jewish stereotypes, one could easily argue that these stereotypes are not stereotypes of Jewish behavior but stereotypes of stereotypes we’ve been exposed to for decades. All these years of watching caricatures of ourselves on TV or reading about them in books has worked to convince us that this is who we are. Yet the landscape of modern Jewry is changing so rapidly that these stereotypes don’t always hold.
What does all that matter, though, when the film's complicated relationships all come together nicely with an (ultimately) happy end?
As for Fogel, the director, art doesn’t necessarily mirror life He was single, as of press time, but says he's not looking for a relationship that’s as complicated as the ones he created for "Jewtopia."
But is he looking for a member of the tribe? “I’d love to be in a happy relationship with a very Jewish girl,” he says. “You get one another. You understand one another. It certainly makes things easier.”
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