Matzah Mischief

Ever take a look down the long seder table at the grumpy grandpa of a patriarch and think, "Boy, that's one bitter Herb!"

Maybe it's because someone slipped an Easter egg into his egg matzah or, after years of fruitlessly awaiting the arrival of Elijah — whining over how much Manischewitz they've wasted all that time — he's discovered the prophet's been sipping gin with the gentile next door.

"Matzo & Mistletoe" is a struggle akin to Lancelot versus "Spamalot," begging the question: Why is this knight different from all other knights?"

Hide the afikomen: It's secular and the siddur in this wonderful first film by Kate Feiffer, not so much asking "Who is a Jew?" as "What is a Jew?" The discussion is open this weekend at its world premiere at the Philadelphia Jewish Film Festival at the Gershman Y.

With its at-times funny focus on nonreligious Jews coming to grips with their Judaism with the adeptness of a hot Momma trying to handle a hot latke without her mitten, "M & M" is melt-in-your-mouth mischievous, a Chanukah bush of a bash in which Feiffer drums up attention about those Jews who wonder why gefilte fish is so hard to catch.

Feiffer should know; she's one of them. In one of the funniest scenes in this fine, hourlong documentary, the filmmaker becomes her own screen-saver: In a discussion of Passover delicacies, she is reeled in by a kibitzer, falling hook, line and stinker for the myth that gefilte fish swim in a school all their own.

It's an education for Feiffer to discover that gefilte is really a batch of fish thrown together only to carp about who winds up in the tail section.

It's just one of the real tales to come out of a movie made by this former TV producer and writer who early on not only saw Momma kissing Santa Claus, but making him breakfast.

"I didn't find out I was Jewish until I was 6," relates Feiffer, whose animated discussion of her nonreligious roots draws on the history of being raised by her famous Pulitzer Prize and Oscar-winning cartoonist/playwright/screenwriter dad, Jules, and mom Judy.

Pass the popcorn — it's Pop and daughter! The post-Saturday-night screening of "Matzo & Mistletoe" at the Y's "New Filmmakers Weekend" will feature Kate and Jules as well as Andrew Perlmutter addressing his "Ethics on the Edge of Life."

Don't look down; their relationship is uplifting and inspirational. Yet it was a household where ho-ho-ho provided the oy-oy-oy of self-identity for a girl whose family celebrated Christmas, and who believed Santa Claus was just a cherished chimney drop-in each year "until I was about 8 or 9."

Indeed, she didn't know borscht about being Jewish, but then, neither did her young friends, which explains why the Brooklyn babe in the woods was more familiar with Christmas Carols than Passover Pattys.

"It just never came up," reveals Feiffer of knowing that she was Jewish.

"Our Crowd" was crowded with such secular Jews whose sense of Judaism was more of 2 cents plain than plainly understanding the rites behind the reasons for their religion. "Almost all my friends were secular, nonpracticing Jews," she recalls.

Although there was a mesmerizing mezuzah of a clue that something was different. "There were a lot of Bar Mitzvahs I went to," she remembers of her childhood, "but it never got more Jewish than that."

Who could be more Jewish than Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald, director of the National Jewish Outreach Program, featured in the film lamenting the loss of self-identity among Jews and the need for continuity in this country?

Indeed, he adds a spark to the secular debate with a shout-out to those Jews whose ignorance has caused what he calls a "silent holocaust" in this country.

Silent no more; the phrase is a lamb- shank slap in the face to some in the film who argue the propriety of such a term.

Among those coming to terms with the contention? Surprisingly, Mike Wallace. Who could be perceived more as a jaded Jew than the much maligned Wallace, the ageless, timeless "Sixty Minutes" legend who, time and again, has had to defend himself from false claims of being a self-hating Jew because of controversial Mideast broadcasts he's been involved in? In one of the film's biggest surprises, Wallace, sensationally secular, describes how, each night before he goes to bed, he recites the Shema.

Sham? No way, says Feiffer, who knows some may have a hard time believing Wallace's claim, but it's a fact that even Andy Rooney would have a hard time repudiating — not that he'd want to.

As for her famous father, the jewel of cartoonists — who started out as an intern with Will Eisner in 1929 on The Spirit — Jules offers some spirited discussions of why the secular spirit moves him if not the religious practice.

Little marrors? Secular doesn't mean seceded, explains his daughter of the man more familiar for his screenplay of "Carnal Knowledge" than his knowledge of Jewish liturgy. "In many ways, he is connected; he grew up with a very Jewish family but not tied to the religious aspect."

The ties that unbind stretched to Kate, too, who "married a nonpracticing Catholic," marveling in the later paradox of their daughter "having to explain to us the story of Chanukah."

So, what's the story with "Matzo & Mistletoe"? Feiffer's fine new film adds a hint of horseradish to a heated debate. Seven years in the making, it's made for some dynamic daughter-parent discussions. "Since she's grown up during the making of the film, she's been part of the discussion," says her mom of the mitzvah of living and learning and lensing.

"We're proud to be Jewish, and this film has made me think of issues I hadn't thought about," she acknowledges.

Think her father would change his decision not to attend the family seders thrown by an aunt? That's one of more than four questions asked this time of year around the Feiffer fiefdom.

The family affair — a seder that's not afraid to find the "ha" in Haggadah and serve as the last supper to end all suppers — is as apt to be visited by Feiffer as Elijah. Her father feels, says Kate, that if he were going to attend one, it would have to be a serious seder rather than the raucous ritual he considers this one to be.

Passing up a Passover dinner is history anyway since "we haven't had one of those gatherings the last couple of years."

Here's a thought; why not throw one herself?

It seems to throw the director for a loss — or maybe a latke. Muses the filmmaker who admits to liking her matzah with "just butter" and concedes "I've never been kissed under a mistletoe," hosting one herself would leaven the playing field considerably but raise more than four questions.

Why? "Because I wouldn't know what to do." 



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