My God plays hard to get
by Jessie Kahnweiler
“Jessie! Turn around so I can film you throwing up!” Addie, my Israeli cinematographer, barked as tear gas engulfed us signaling the protest had officially begun. I turned toward the camera and finished hacking up the remaining smoke from my lungs before signaling a cut. The scene was over. I was ready to go home.
I came to Israel to find my Jewish identity, so what was I, a nice Jewish girl from Atlanta, running around in a polka dot dress on the Palestinian side of the West Bank choking on tear gas for? This wasn’t exactly the kosher Eat Pray Love journey I had anticipated. After two weeks in Israel, I was starving, single and, as the tear gas bombs started up again, apparently farther from God than ever before.
Two years earlier, as a struggling filmmaker in L.A., I was blessed with a fellowship endowing me with funds to make a film about anything I wanted. Anything, of course, as long as it was Jewish. I panicked because I, like many of my contemporaries, considered myself devoutly ambivalent toward a religion that always seemed more like my grandma’s thing. I didn’t need to pray, I had a shrink! My passionate apathy inspired the search to find my authentic relationship with Judaism, eventually becoming my web series, Dude, Where’s My Chutzpah?
I dove in head first by interviewing more than 30 esteemed rabbis in the Los Angeles area who all had such eclectic versions of God, yet carried a universal confidence I found puzzling and at times smug. Like God was one of those paintings from the mall with the hidden messages and I was the only one who couldn’t see the stupid sand castle. After a few months of false starts in L.A. and the deadline for my project looming, I knew I had to go straight to the source. I needed to find the organic unfiltered fresh off the tap God: I needed to get my tuchus to Israel.
Originally, I had intended on filming at the Western Wall, figuring it was equivalent to Lakers courtside seats at the God Playoffs. Yet, once I arrived in Israel, I quickly realized the Holy Land had different plans for me. I approached the Middle East conflict with severe trepidation because I wasn’t sure as an American Jew if I even had a right to be conflicted about it. Any time I tried to bring it up, my Israeli friends would chuckle promising, “The more you learn about the conflict the less you will know.” I wondered what God’s role was in all this. I pictured God getting drunk at a bar and promising to go home with both countries. What a mess. I wanted nothing to do with it. And so when I awoke one sweaty Tel Aviv night with the idea to film a scene where my character winds up at the West Bank instead of the Western Wall, I knew it wasn’t me doing all the thinking.
“Yala! Come to this bush for safety!” Mohammad, one of the local Palestinian boys who accompanied us, shouted as he brought me into the modest shade. I collapsed on the dirt as he calmly doused me with water. His body seemed so used to the gas — like, way too used to it. As the bombs ceased, I felt relief longing for the crew van and the Popsicle that awaited me in the cooler. The crew and I began to walk toward the car as Tali, my Israeli activist guide, called out to me, “So, ya wanna get a closer look?” I shook my head, “No,” only to immediately follow her toward the border. I was shaking all over as she grabbed my hand assuring me I probably wasn’t going to die.
As we approached the sterile wall covered in barbed wire, I found myself weirdly at ease, like the summer before when a typhoon almost swallowed me whole, as chaos gave way to a poignant peace. We began to film as I asked the IDF soldiers which was the closest way to God, pretending like I was in fact at the Western Wall. Confused, they began to yell as their guns pointed straight at my unibrow. I just kept talking — even louder. In that moment, I actually started to think about God: If he could see me now, would he be proud? Or embarrassed, like a teenage girl whose dad tells dirty jokes during carpool? We got the shots for the scene and ran to safety as Tali exclaimed, “Wow, either you’re a total genius or a complete fool.” God only knows…
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said that life should be lived “with radical amazement.” I believe if I’m ever going to find God he’s going to be at the end of a sentence like that. My travels to the West Bank, and my journey making this film in general, did not turn me into some perfect super Jew or provide a VIP ticket to heaven. Instead, it forced me to get the hell out of my own way and find the answers that only lead to more questions.
My Jewish identity is not defined by what I don’t eat or what prayers I know, but by the acknowledgement of that inner spark buried deep below my ego. My life is a humble attempt to turn that spark into a blazing fire.Tags: Dude Where's My Chutzpah?, Filmmaker, God, Hollywood, Israel, Jessie Kahnweiler, Jewish identity, Middle East conflict