I first heard the portmanteau “Shiksappeal” in an old “Seinfeld” episode. I knew, of course, what a shiksa was, but I’d never heard the word used insensitively, as it was on the sitcom. With its sexist implications and tinge of exceptionalism, it’s somehow worse than its male counterpart, shaygetz. It’s anachronistic and offensive, a Yiddish word we should abandon, like the Yiddish reference to people of color.
But a Swiss film recently released on Netflix blasted the S-word back into my eardrums. “The Awakening of Motti Wolkenbruch,” originally released as “Wolkenbruchs wunderliche Reise in die Arme einer Schickse” (Wolkenbruch’s Wonderful Journey in the Arms of One Shiksa), is, in a word, dreck.
It’s a simple formula: Orthodox Jewish man falls for non-Jewish woman. But it traffics in overly simplistic (and sometimes offensive) portrayals of members of the Orthodox community. Oh, and it’s not funny.
A chasidic young man, Motti, goes on shidduch dates arranged by his mother. He works for his father’s insurance firm and is studying business at a secular college. There, he meets Laura, a jeans-wearing, gin-and-tonic-swirling bartender. They chat in class and soon they go on a bike ride together. His eyes wander and find themselves on her behind.
Later, Laura warmly chides him for leering at her. The scene plays into the trope of the sex-hungry, repressed chasid. Motti complains that all Jewish men follow a prescribed formula: “We are born and have a bris at eight days old, have a bar mitzvah at 13, and later we marry a Jewish girl who is as devout as we are, and we have as many Jewish babies as possible. And between all that, we work and we pray, and we become grandfathers and great-grandfathers, and one day, we die. Everything is nicely laid out, whether we like it or not.”
Like that narrative, all the characters in the film are reduced to stereotypes. Motti’s mother is a histrionic chasidic woman whose only goal in life is to marry off her children. So, when she is behind the wheel and gets the news from Motti that his shidduch date with a chasidic woman went well (it was a ruse to get both of them some breathing space), she proceeds to drive into oncoming traffic and cause an accident. She barges into the shower as her son bathes. She schemes and plots with other mothers to make sure their kids don’t “screw it up.” She even surprises him with unexpected shidduch dates. As the clichés mount, the mothers literally hide in the bushes, spying on their kids’ dates and narrating the play-by-play as if they are sports commentators.
Worse, the director can’t decide if the characters are chasidic or Litvish. They wear fedoras (Litvish) but have sidecurls and beards (chasidic). Motti’s dates are similar to bashows, or chaperoned quasi-dates in one of the parents’ homes (chasidic). Also, how many chasidim go to college? The terminology is off and the family conversations are all about silly communal gossip. The women in the film don’t seem to think about anything besides men, and the film would surely fail the Bechdel Test.
After Motti meets Laura for the first time, he shaves his beard. What? Slow down, Motti! Of course, the decision brings about the ire of his family. Later, he trades his white shirt for a tee, black pants for jeans and wire glasses frames for a pair of plastic ones.
He goes on a whole soliloquy about women’s posteriors. He does side-by-side analysis of Jewish women versus non-Jewish women. It’s terribly sexist and unfunny. The film is like a Swiss version of the 1999 raunchy teen comedy “American Pie,” or later, “Superbad.”
Two jokes, however, hit their mark. In one, Motti imagines taking the non-Jewish Laura home to meet his mother. He brings Laura into the kitchen, where his mother is washing dishes. As his mother turns from the sink, Motti says, “I’d like you to meet someone.”
Laura is there, in her skinny jeans. His mother says, “A shiksa?!” Her eyes narrow and she grabs a knife, yelling to her son, “I’ll kill you.”
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Motti puts his hands up in defense, and exclaims about the knife, “Wait, that’s milchig” (dairy).
In another scene, Motti comes home to dinner clean-shaven with plastic-framed spectacles. His brother comments that he looks like that “Jewish film director.” They try to remember his name, with Motti’s father finally chiming in, “Woody Allen.” It’s a subtle hint to a story from 2014 when yeshivas banned “Woody Allen-style glasses.”
Those two jokes aside, the film is offensive on many levels. I am still unsure whether I was more put off as a Jew, as a film lover, as a comedy fan — or as the owner of four plastic frames.
Eli Reiter’s column appears monthly.