Lawrence Sher, Double Feature Films
Any doubts that Zach Braff’s new movie, “Wish I Was Here,” centers on his Jewish identity evaporate into thin air the second the film’s dog barks. “Kugel!”
The dog’s name is only one of the many Jewish elements in the movie, which tells the story of Aidan Bloom (Braff), a struggling actor who decides to home school his two children when his father (Mandy Patinkin) stops paying the tuition fees for their yeshiva after being diagnosed with cancer.
The film, which also stars fellow tribe members Kate Hudson and Josh Gad, marks Braff’s return to directing a decade after the cult indie success of “Garden State.” And just like his first film showed Braff mining his home state of New Jersey for inspiration, “Wish I Was Here” allows him to come to terms with his Jewish upbringing.
The Forward’s very giggly Anne Cohen and Anna Goldenberg caught up with Braff in his suite at the Waldorf-Astoria, in New York City, to ask him about growing up in a kosher home, falling asleep in Hebrew school and his most embarrassing bar mitzvah moment.
Anne Cohen and Anna Goldenberg: You grew up in a Conservative home in New Jersey. What was your bar mitzvah theme?
Zach Braff: My bar mitzvah, embarrassingly enough, was musical theater themed. I knew I wanted to be an actor as a kid, and while all the other kids were having their bar mitzvahs themes be, like, sports and all these jockey things, I was like, “No, mine will be Broadway musical theater.”
What was the most embarrassing moment?
When I walked in to the song “Let’s Hear It for the Boy.” That was pretty embarrassing. I didn’t know they were going to play that when I walked in.
How’s your Hebrew today?
I can read it. I can’t really converse in it. I have a good Israeli friend who’s taken me to Tel Aviv a couple of times. I really love Israel; I want to spend a lot of more time there. I was raised Conservative and kosher. That’s one of the things in the film that’s about trying to find a Jewish spirituality when you were raised religious and yet today you don’t know what that means for you. You don’t respond to it. I love the culture and identify as Jewish, but how do I, as someone who was raised religious, find his own version of that spirituality in 2014? I think there’s a lot of Jews who I know who are feeling that way — who identify as Jewish, but they don’t go to shul; they’re not kosher. They want to find some spirituality that makes sense to them in their lives.
The film shows two extremes of Judaism. Is there no middle ground for you?
The kids are on one extreme, Modern Orthodox, and the parents are totally secular. They are only sending them [to yeshiva] because it’s a good education the grandpa was paying for…. It’s about finding a common ground. The film takes great care to not criticize anyone’s religion…. [Aidan] learns to respect that Orthodoxy works for his young daughter, and [he helps] nurture it for her, and not criticize it, like he does in the beginning of the film. When he goes to the older rabbi, who doesn’t really know how to talk to someone like him, he gets no help at all. And I’ve had that experience, too, talking to a young, sort of Modern Orthodox rabbi, who would say: “Let’s break down the semantics. Let’s not worry about that so much. What does work for you? What do you believe? And let’s work off from that.” And I just thought that was revelatory and exciting to me.
Tell us more about talking to rabbis.
When I have spoken to younger rabbis who knew how to talk to someone who was secular and [how to] connect to them, I have had that experience where they made it okay for me to tap into the spirituality that worked for me, and find it that way — as opposed to saying, “Here are the rules, you need to have peyes, and you need to not have bacon….” That’s why I think Jews will relate to it, especially those Jews who aren’t very religious but relate as Jews. I notice so many Jews like me, proud to be Jewish, would wear a Star of David, love Israel, love the culture, love Woody Allen movies, love it all…. I don’t think that anyone cares what I eat, that anyone cares about me putting tefillin on my forehead. If that works for you, that’s wonderful — but I want to find my spirituality in Judaism.
The movie is overtly Jewish. Did you just wake up one morning and say, “I’m going to make a movie for Jews”?
I don’t think anyone is making a movie for Jews like that. There is no movie for Jews. There are Woody Allen movies; there is a movie, “A Serious Man” by the Coen brothers; we have “Yentl.” Other than that, nobody is really making a movie for modern Jews. In a way that “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” is bringing that culture to the masses a little bit, in my own way I wanted to show the rest of the world a little bit of that Jewish conundrum — that is, that there are some people who are as extreme as Orthodoxy, and there are some who are grappling with secular spirituality.
Did you revisit your own Hebrew school experience?
Not really, because also I was in a Conservative and not an Orthodox school, so it was quite different. But you know that camera shot that’s moving, and then you see Tucker [Pierce Gagnon] asleep, chewing on his tzitzit? That was me. My brother was always getting yelled at for not having his tzitzit on, so that was the scene in the car, “Argh, you forgot your tzitzit; come on, man….” And he was like, “I was thinking about that Aston Martin.” That was my brother. But that song, that prayer, “Oseh Shalom”, I always remembered fondly. I wasn’t into the religion as a kid, to be honest. I felt like [going to Hebrew school] was a chore I had to do. But I loved singing. So when it was time to sing that beautiful prayer every week, that was what I liked.
This interview has been edited for style and length.