I remember the first time I told my parents about “Tahara.” I was in their hotel room at a Hilton in Evanston, IL, days away from graduating from college, and didn’t have a job lined up — but did have a finished screenplay. I don’t know what I expected them to say, but it wasn’t what they said: Reach out to the Executive Director of our temple, Debbie Zeger, and make the thing happen.
I grew up in a family that is very Jewish, very queer and very much in love with the movies.
My maternal grandmother, Dr. Alina Pressman, was a Holocaust survivor who would see any movie, anywhere, at any time — even if she were, say, taking an international trip the next day and still hadn’t packed. On my dad’s side, my bubbe and zayde introduced me to Turner Classic Movies; if there’s a movie about World War II, spies and England, there’s a 99% chance they’re watching it for the fourth time. From my parents to my cousins to my aunts who are not really my aunts, one thing has always been true: Going to the movies, talking about movies and trying to remember which actor was in which movie is our love language. And, as a theater kid-turned-high school playwright-turned-screenwriter, I always wanted to see more people like my family members on screen.
Not movie lovers — we’ve got plenty of those. No: I’m talking about awkward, funny, queer Jews. And that’s why I made “Tahara.”
A labor of love in all regards, “Tahara” exists not only because I wanted to share this story about uncomfortable Hebrew school existence with the world, but because others, Jews and non-Jews alike, saw themselves in it. As a writer, I won’t lie, that was a huge boost to my ego. But as a queer Jewish artist, it felt like the community-building I had always wanted back in those Hebrew school days. Though this story is deeply personal (though not true! By the way! Not based on real life!), everyone with whom we shared the script and pitch deck could relate, even if they never had to sing prayers to the tune of the Jeopardy theme song (did other people do this? Please let me know). And though making this film and bringing it to theaters has felt more like wandering through the desert than I would’ve wanted, its creation affirmed and expanded my own Judaism in a way that I never could have imagined.
The film centers around a toxic friendship between Carrie (Madeline Grey DeFreece), a black Jewish teen discovering her sexuality, and Hannah (Rachel Sennott of “Shiva Baby”), a white Jewish teen realizing she’s not the center of the world. This dynamic is complicated, obviously, but it’s also real. Jews don’t look one way, they don’t act one way, and they certainly – if we’re getting “Tahara”–specific here – don’t grieve one way.
And yes, some Jewish people don’t think people should be kissing, let alone making a film in, an actual synagogue. And sure, some might question our casting choices. But these concerns shouldn’t preclude the hard conversations that this film hopes to spark. I mean, if a group of teens can have a talkback surrounding the death of their classmate, I hope that our communities can talk about what it is they want to see in Jewish cinema, art and life.
I’m excited to share this film. We made “Tahara” less than a year after that Hilton conversation with my parents about getting in touch with Debbie (and, by the way, endless thanks to Debbie and everyone at Beth El; this movie was only possible due to their generosity). I’m so proud of the work our collaborators have done. When I look back on the things we faced (construction at the temple, rejection after rejection, and, oh yeah, an ongoing global pandemic), I feel like it’s a miracle that others will be able to experience this film in theaters.
But I’m scared, too.
I’m scared that others will reject us out of hand, will not want to engage with their discomfort and will choose to dismiss us because our film doesn’t fit with their definition or understanding of Jewish life, or because our storytelling doesn’t reflect their exact experiences. I understand that judgment — I’ve made it myself — but now that I’ve made a film of my own, I know that nothing is, or should be, that simple.
Art can be a mirror, but it can also be a portal, a way to transport one to another place and make one consider a different way the world could be. From one movie-loving queer Jewish artist to the world, I’ll say this: What’s better than going to the movies and chatting about it after?
After a festival run with stops at TIFF, Outfest, NewFest and Slamdance, “Tahara,” now a NYTimes Critic’s Pick, premieres this week in theaters. You can find out about screenings and tickets here and follow the film on Instagram @taharathefilm.