Where are all the uplifting #WLW storylines in Jewish film?

BY LILY SHELDON, IMAGE BY CURZON/ARTIFICIAL EYE

Content warning: spoilers of Kissing Jessica Stein, Disobedience and Shiva Baby

Film has always acted as an escape. We can walk in the shoes of other characters but it also acts as a mirror for possibility as it replicates reality. However, as someone who strongly takes pride (literally) in their Jewish and queer identity, I felt a genuine absence in queer Jewish film with a female focus: when, in the rare productions, there was a lesbian-centred storyline there without a doubt failed to be a happy ending.  

Determined to believe that Hollywood does, in fact, want Jewish lesbians to end up together, I decided to watch three films in more depth: Kissing Jessica Stein (2001), Disobedience (2017) and Shiva Baby (2021). Whilst none of these buy into the “Bury Your Gays” trope, none of them provided me with the hope that I could end up in a happy and meaningful Jewish marriage to a woman. 

KISSING JESSICA STEIN (2001)

My family first watched Kissing Jessica Stein in the deep and dark lockdown days of January. It was my turn for the pick of the film and we even went the extra mile of renting it on Amazon. It is an indie film written by and acted by Heather Juergensen and Jennifer Westfeldt, featuring the beloved Jackie Hoffman in the late 90s. It was released in 2001.

It is set in New York and the premise of the film is that Jessica (Westfeldt) is done with being single and with the typical man. Now, unlike me in 2021, they can’t defer to the good ole swipe-swipe on Tinder if they want some fresh (but unknown) meat, but rather had to do an anonymous publication in a public newspaper. Jessica pushes herself to respond to a “woman seeking women” (WLW in our language) and ends up dating Helen Cooper. An archetypal story, they fall in love faster than one can say “lesbian” and Helen Cooper pushes her beyond her conventional type-A limits. One of the most memorable scenes is when Helen Cooper gives Jessica an orgasm at a restaurant.

This film is extremely culturally Jewish. There’s the Friday night dinner that ends up in the guests sleeping over, the pushy, marriage-focused parents and the vanilla-protagonist-love-interest male that we all know from synagogue. But although the film has some beautiful Jewish and queer moments, the two do not end up together. Rather, Jessica picks Josh and there is the happily ever after that Jessica’s parents would have wished for. I was optimistic that this movie would give me hope, but it rather outlined that although Helen had more chemistry in her toenail with Jessica then Josh did in any scene, Helen stood for doing what you want in your 20s, but was never a viable end option. 

DISOBEDIENCE (2017)

So perhaps we can excuse Kissing Jessica Stein for being outdated because it was produced a decade before marriage equality was even legalised in the US and the UK. However, Disobedience, a movie produced in 2017, falls into the same trap of not giving us Jewish queer girls any chance of a happy ending. 

Disobedience follows the story of Ronit (Rachel Weisz) returning to her ultra-Orthodox community after the death of her father. She had been isolated from the community due to her sexuality and the audience witnessed her reconnecting with her childhood friend and lover, Esti. The film does a good job of magnifying their sexual chemistry and it is far more palpable than in Esti’s relationship with Dovid. It is clear why they cannot be together within the confines of their community. However, the movie ends with Esti leaving the community but yet Ronit and Esti do not end up together. 

This film is Jewish in the most religious of senses and yet again fails to produce a replicable relationship. I watched this film on the plane and am convinced the airplane stewardesses could feel the tension in the sex scene we all wanted but didn’t know was possible. So, this film was not lacking passion but was lacking a happy ending when your hormonal gal was thousands of miles up in the air. 

SHIVA BABY (2021)

Shiva Baby was the first film that me and my ex-girlfriend went to see post-lockdown. I had been following the producers and actors on Instagram and, as a Jewish bisexual girl who suffers from disordered eating, wants to be a journalist and has an uber Jewish family, a film with a protagonist that suffers from disordered eating, is an aspiring journalist and has a culturally Jewish family, excited me.

The film takes place over the space of one day at a shiva. A shiva is the seven day mourning period after a loved one has died in which there is a daily service and people visit the family. At the shiva, the protagonist Danielle (Rachel Senott) realises that her sugar daddy, her sugar daddy’s wife and baby and the girl that she hooked up with in high school are all present. 

Any culturally Jewish person would agree that any event acts a constant catch-up, even at a shiva: ”How are you doing?”, “what are you doing?” “who are you doing”? The small talk in the film allows us to see how lost Danielle is, as everyone in their 20s seems to be. Our parents seem to work in the professional services, but they’ve created a generation of lost queer kids who don’t know what career path they want to take.

My favourite scene is when Maya (Molly Gordon) loudly announces, in a small talk conversation, that she gave Danielle her first orgasm at prom. Their relationship is complicated and aggravating, even to the audience. However, again, there was no definitive relationship at the end but at most a queerbaiting hand-hold at the end of the car scene between Maya and Danielle. 

These films all have a Jewish WLW love interest and thus an opportunity of providing us with a road map to what a Jewish queer love story looks like, but frankly, it seems unattainable. It seems that the media does not reflect that we are living in 2021: we no longer need to whisper about marriage equality or tell everyone that we are just best friends who happen to live together. We’re not asking for Disney magic or a fairy godmother or even your simple suburban picket fence, but rather something more representative of everyday life: a movie with a depiction of a happily ever after between two queer Jewish women. Hollywood, for the love of our Judaic god, let the Jewish queer gals have it.

@eleanornoyce_

DIVA magazine celebrates 27 years in print in 2021. If you like what we do, then get behind LGBTQI media and keep us going for another generation. Your support is invaluable. 

linktr.ee/divamagazine 

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.