Call me naive. I honestly thought the tired, sexist trope of nagging Jewish mothers was fading from our cultural canon. The merciless mama bears – the floating head of Woody Allen’s mother in New York Stories; Liz Sheridan hounding her son in Seinfeld; the screeching Mrs. Wolowitz in The Big Bang Theory – regressed from unstoppable forces of comedy (they were funny, once!) into tired writers’ comedy scripts, illustrating little originality or depth.
I had – mistakenly, I admit – started to think writers were moving past this trope. Why? Because excellent Jewish TV shows of the last decade, such as Broad City, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Transparent and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, had rocketed into the mainstream, winning accolades and awards with subversive, nuanced portrayals of Jewish motherhood. Sure, these women were still a little naggy, but audience members could understand their motivations. In the befuddling musical finale of Transparent, Judith Light croons an ode to maternal Jews in tango verse: “When I was your age/ I’d do every chore, everything that she asked me to/ To quiet her rage/ I was the pillow she screamed every night into/ So I promised I’d never/ Do that s–t to my daughter.”
Alas, a new Netflix movie crushed my optimism. In October, Netflix debuted The Awakening of Motti Wolkenbruch (which, in German, was granted the superior title of Wolkenbruch’s Wondrous Journey Into the Arms of a Shiksa). The streaming algorithm, which I have to assume knows I’m Jewish by now, incessantly recommended the film to me, so, fine, I relented. And I’m sorry I did.
The film stars Swiss-Israeli actor Joel Basman as the titular Motti Wolkenbruch, a studious Orthodox Jew attending a public university, where he meets a manic pixie dream shiksa. Slowly, he sheds his religious life for the earthly pleasures of beer, drugs, colourful T-shirts and premarital sex.
And so much premarital sex, this kid has! It’s one of those movies where numerous women, totally inexplicably, rush to bump uglies with this nice, meek little dude. Motti offers nothing and is given everything. The movie so badly fails the Bechdel test (a feminist barometer: “Do two women have a conversation that isn’t about the male protagonist?”) that not only is every significant woman weirdly obsessed with Motti, but the only woman who isn’t in love with him – he meets her during a failed shidduch – handily falls for his best friend in a wink.
But the woman most obsessed with Motti does not jump his bones. His mother screams and cries and faints and prods, singularly hoping for her son to marry a Jewish girl. Nothing about her is amusing or creative. It’s base, retrograde comedy that banks on Jewish stereotypes for cheap laughs – and even then, it fails, because the script isn’t very funny.
For context, the film suffers issues beyond its ingrained sexism. A relentless attack on Orthodox Judaism leaves no opportunity for what could have been an interesting insight into its merits, why people choose to stay, which feels unfair given how central it is to the story. The film ultimately meanders toward an unearned ambiguous ending, which might have worked better in the novel upon which this train wreck is based.
I applaud Netflix for picking up an oddball foreign comedy, which Switzerland has entered into the Oscar race for best international film. (God help us if it actually gets nominated.) But there’s a higher bar for Jewish comedy in 2019 than there was in 1989, when Woody Allen envisioned a gigantic blow-up of his obnoxious mother floating in the clouds above New York City in Oedipus Wrecks, kibitzing with baffled locals in broad daylight.
That was funny – it took a typical dynamic and exploded it to citywide proportions.
Motti and his mother, however, aren’t subverting the stereotype. They are the stereotype.