When the Torah describes Noah as a righteous man in his generation, the sages famously argue over that qualifier. Was it that even in that generation he was righteous, that with more moral tools he would be even better? Or was it that the bar was so low that his mediocre morality is what passed for righteous? Which naturally brings me to a rom-com released in April of 2000 C.E.
I first watched “Keeping the Faith” around when it came out, and only came back to it this year with a close friend. I was quickly struck by two things. Despite falling into all the tropes of its time, it represents Judaism in ways which we still rarely see. It also shows that the answer to the above question is that both things can be true.
Our main character Jake (Ben Stiller) is a hot young rabbi whose best friends are a hot young Catholic priest Brian (Ed Norton) and a hot young ambiguously gentile businesswoman Anna (Jenna Elfman). The movie is a snapshot of life for Ashkenazi Jews on the Upper West Side in 2000. The attention to detail shows their dedication to honestly portraying this community. From name dropping JTS (Jewish Theological Seminary) and Rodeph Sholom (a Reform synagogue), to what it’s like to run into people from shul at the 68th Street AMC, they make Jake’s identity more than just set dressing.
The first time we see Stiller as adult Jake, studying for semichah (rabbinic ordination), he immediately yells at his teacher, “I don’t want to listen to any of you!” and storms off. Which already sounds like every rabbinic student I’ve ever known. However, unlike most on-screen Jewish characters, Jake’s faith isn’t something to overcome, a punchline, or flavoring. He explores it in every d’var Torah (speech), in his conversations with Brian, and particularly well in a bar mitzvah lesson. The poor boy is struggling to keep his aggressively pubescent voice on key, until he gives up saying that he sucks. Jake says, “You suck, but that’s OK, you’re supposed to suck. This isn’t a talent contest, it’s a rite of passage … God knew your voice would change at this age … it’s a challenge.” He talks about struggling with faith, with identity, and how an essential part of Judaism is embracing that very struggle.
Maybe even more important than his faith is how hot Ben Stiller is in this movie. In every other movie of that decade he’s sweet, he’s nebbishy, he’s funny, but here he’s a total babe. And it’s not in spite of his Judaism, it’s because of it. He’s confident with his congregation and he’s ambitious in his practice. In romantic scenes with Anna they let him be shorter than her, and it makes them both sexy as heck. Then there’s the scene where, in a sun-dappled room, they show him saying Shacharit (the morning service), and they recognize the objective hotness of wearing tefillin.
The conflict of the film begins as Jake is up for a promotion to Head Rabbi of the congregation. One big problem is that he’s single. We see in this movie the beginnings of the modern discussion of how to make Jewish congregations more accepting of single people. Many single congregants still feel excluded from the community, partly because they feel seen as lower status, partly because of the pressure to couple, and partly because they have fewer social opportunities. Jewish American communities in the aughts were struggling with redefining themselves, and this issue was symptomatic of the eternal question of balancing innovation with tradition.
Jake is torn between wanting to move his community forward and holding on to the traditions which have upheld that very community. He sees his own people as stagnating in the last century, which brings us to the film’s central question: intermarriage.
Jake’s mother, Ruth, is played by Anne Bancroft. Bancroft herself is not Jewish, but she had a long and beautiful marriage to Mel Brooks. This, with Bancroft’s world class acting chops, make Ruth a vital part of the film’s message. In many ways, Ruth is a familiar portrayal of a Jewish mother, from the way she asks about her son’s dating life, to her ease in oversharing her own. So it’s not surprising that she doesn’t speak to her other son who is already married to a Catholic woman.
Yet, Ruth is anything but stereotypical. We see how she treats and loves Anna. We see her own struggles between loving these beautiful traditions and her desire to see her community progress. Unsaid in all of this is how her generation grew up in the shadow of the Holocaust — how that trauma led so many to see deviation from tradition as a larger attack on their safety. There is an intergenerational struggle which acknowledges the complexity of all sides, with depth and compassion.
Which is why the way this movie treats its other women is so frustrating. Some are purely offensive caricatures, like Lisa Edelstein’s Ali. She’s shrill, she berates a man asking for charity, and she even describes herself as a “princess.” Using a woman with very stereotypical Ashkenazi features to play a Jewish American Princess, and doing so to Lisa Edelstein of all people, would be deplorable for any film. From one which clearly gets the Jewish experience, there’s no excuse.
Then there’s Jenny Elfman’s Anna. She is written in a way which is very endemic to men who only read the first chapter of any feminist discourse. They make her a perfect character. She’s smart, funny, gorgeous, supportive, successful, and so much else, but there’s no depth. She never does anything wrong. The closest thing she has to a flaw is that she’s attached to her flip phone. So she comes out less as a person, and more as a fantasy.
“Keeping the Faith” was a righteous film for its time. It passes the Bechdel Test. It has a character who is a Punjab Sikh with Jewish in-laws and an Irish Catholic grandmother. It has a tender moment with trans POC sex workers. Many of its pitfalls were common for its time: the misogyny, and some other unsavory tropes. Yet the way it treats Jewish faith, and Jewish culture, is something few modern films have matched. Even modern media about minority groups tend to have a narrow focus, and because of that end up hurting other marginalized people. Though we can look back and see its glaring mistakes, it also shows us vital progress we need to make ourselves.
In conclusion, I humbly demand they make a sequel/reboot starring Jenny Slate and Henry Golding.
Late Take is a series on Alma where we revisit Jewish pop culture of the past for no reason, other than the fact that we can’t stop thinking about it?? If you have a pitch for this column, please e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org with “Late Take” in the subject line.