Rabbis Get the Short End of the Shtick in “This Is Where I Leave You”

“This is 2014!” sister Wendy Altman (Tina Fey) admonishes brother Judd (Jason Bateman), when Judd thoughtlessly starts to light up in the car in the dramedy This Is Where I Leave You. A similar chronological admonition could be directed at Shawn Levy’s adaptation of Jonathan Tropper’s novel, whose conspicuously post-Jewish consciousness is betrayed by a rabbinic blind spot.

Although it revolves around the traditional weeklong Jewish mourning ritual of “sitting shiva”—prompted by the purported dying wishes of the Altman family’s beloved patriarch—the film decidedly plays it both ways with religion. Papa Altman himself was an atheist who married a gentile (Jane Fonda’s Hillary), and his three sons and a daughter seem, at the very least (Hebrew school notwithstanding), non-observant. The family follows the ritual custom of sitting on low chairs but ignores the covering of mirrors, tearing of garments, and barring of bathing. And though the latter transgression is comically referenced in in the electricity’s shorting out whenever Judd takes a shower, religious redemption is by no means the film’s raison d’etre.

Countering Jewish stereotypes, on the other hand, appears to be one of them. All three Altman sons are light years from the Woody Allenish schlemiel still prevalent in media representations such as Big Bang Theory. Youngest brother Phillip (Adam Driver) and oldest brother Paul (Corey Stoll) are both absolute hunks, and even Bateman’s Judd is a more modest but still sexy everyman while Fey’s Wendy could just as well be a shiksa. As useful as this counter-typing may be in evening the score, it is also undercut by the fact that neither Driver, Bateman, nor Fey is Jewish.

As if to compensate for this deracination, in character and casting, the film’s young Reform rabbi is as nerdy, big-nosed, and, in actor Ben Schwartz, as Jewish as they come. Moreover, while all the main (Jewish and non-Jewish) characters are far from flaw-free, all but the rabbi are portrayed multi-dimensionally and, ultimately, sympathetically. The rabbi remains stuck in his Jewface mask and the prime butt of the jokes, capped by the relentless, and tedious, references to his teenage nickname: “Boner.”

The scapegoating of Jewish rabbis, by Jews, is nothing new. As William Novak and Moshe Waldoks point out in The Big Book of Jewish Humor, newly emancipated 19th-century Jews from the ghettos of central and eastern Europe loved to poke fun at somber Orthodox rabbis, often portrayed as charlatans. Woody Allen’s lampooning of bearded Hasids and Seinfeld’s mocking of mohels (ritual circumcizers) tapped into this tradition.

Another obvious reference point for This Is Where I Leave You is Bye Bye Braverman, Sidney Lumet’s 1968 film adaption of Wallace Makefield’s 1964 novel To an Early Grave. In Braverman, four Jewish friends, in dealing with their eponymous friend’s death, end up at the wrong New York funeral and a rabbi’s serio-comic eulogy. Rather than treating this as another occasion for rabbinic mockery, Braverman both satirizes the rabbi and uses him—in his sermon’s mingling of the sacred and profane and his portrayal by comedian Alan King—to demonstrate the conflation of Jewish humor and wisdom and the rabbi’s (writ large) potential melding of stand-up comic and Mosaic scold.

This is Where I Leave You has much to recommend it. After a formulaic and over-the-top opening—literally, in its potty humor and exposure of Hillary’s surgically (and CGI) enhanced breasts—the film allows its excellent cast to milk the familial poignancy for all it’s worth, and ends with an LGBT punchline that’s a simple delight. As for the Altman siblings’ post-Jewishness, this accurately reflects the straying from the faith, including at the altar, of American Jews in general, for whom the intermarriage rate decades ago trended past the 50-plus percent threshold of “no return.” Pity, then, that instead of touching, at least in passing, on an issue of justifiable concern to an ethnicity numbering a mere two percent of the U.S. population, This Is Where I leave You leaves us with a rabbi turned dick joke.

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Vincent Brook teaches at UCLA, USC, Cal-State LA, and Pierce College. Besides dozens of journal articles, anthology essays, encyclopedia entries, and reviews, he’s authored or edited five books, most recently Land of Smoke and Mirrors: A Cultural History of Los Angeles and (as co-editor) Woody on Rye: Jewisheness in the Films and Plays of Woody Allen.

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