This weekend, when I decided to use an hour and a half of my precious free time to watch Between Two Ferns: The Movie on Netflix, I thought I knew what I was getting myself into. Having watched Zach Galifianakis’ web series of the same name on Funny or Die for many years — in which he and a celebrity guest sit between two ferns and suffer through an aggressively bad, awkwardly hilarious interview — I figured this movie would be an extended version of that ultimate cringe-watch. We’d see movie stars dodge rude, personal questions that a real interviewer would never ask. We’d see Galifianakis in all his deadpan glory, never breaking from character. And, because it was a feature-length mockumentary, I’d figured that while there’d be some flimsy plot line to tie it all together, the movie would rely on its many celebrity cameos to remain watchable.
Spoiler: I was right. The first scene opens on Galifianakis interviewing Matthew McConaughey, in which he cannot pronounce his last name correctly and refers to the reception of his last three films as “alright, alright, alright.” Then we’re given our first taste of the drama to come: a leak in the studio where “Between Two Ferns” is filmed (in the world of this movie, it airs on public access TV in Flinch, North Carolina) turns into a major flood that will eventually spur the crew into an epic road trip with more celebrity appearances, overly dramatic moments, and a sexual rendezvous with Chrissy Tiegen.
It is a completely silly film, everything a fan of Zach Galifianakis has come to expect. But there is one line, said by notorious fountain of youth-drinker Paul Rudd, that is not only one of the funniest Jewish jokes I’ve heard in a long time, but a surprisingly accurate comment on how many Jews, especially those who define ourselves as “secular” or “cultural” Jews, feel today.
About 30 minutes into the movie, Zach and crew track down Paul Rudd in Chicago, who says he’s there working on his foundation, Bones for Kids. (“It’s for kids that are born without bones.”) Once he gets him between the ferns, Galifianakis asks Rudd such cutting questions as, “Some people have it all: looks, talent. How does it feel to only have looks?” and “Which do you prefer, being in Marvel movies or being in stuff that nobody’s ever heard of?”
But then the questions turn to Judaism, and this is where it gets really good:
“What advice would you give to a young actor who wants to hide his Jewishness as well as you have?” Galifianakis asks.
“I’ve never really tried to hide my Jewishness,” Rudd replies.
“Jesus was Jewish and he didn’t hide it,” Galifianakis says.
“No, he put it out there for everybody to see. He’s one of our best.”
“Are you practicing?”
“No, I’m not a practicing Jew…” Rudd says, looking over his right shoulder to the fern and then whipping his head back around to complete the line with a knowing smirk: “I perfected it.”
It’s no surprise that starting this weekend and continuing throughout today, it feels like I’ve seen just about every Jewish person I know and follow sharing this clip in some way.
Jarett Wiesleman, who does social for Netflix, shared it with the comment, “solid Jew content from Paul Rudd.”
solid Jew content from Paul Rudd pic.twitter.com/EGJxAJFb4m
— Jarett Wieselman (@JarettSays) September 22, 2019
Abby Stein, author, former member of the ultra-Orthodox community, and trans Jewish activist, shared it with, “Omg, yes yes!… That is so me.”
Omg, yes, yes!
"I am not a PRACTICING Jew, I perfected it!"
– Paul Rudd
That is so me. Whenever I am asked if I 'observe' Shabbat or holidays, or Jewish law.
I don't observe anything.
I celebrate many parts of it. https://t.co/QYUa27CdzG
— Abby Stein (@AbbyChavaStein) September 23, 2019
But after sitting with this joke for a couple days, I began to think that it’s not only just a great one-liner, but a deeper comment that gets to the heart of how so many Jews today feel. If someone were to ask me, “Are you a practicing Jew?” I would probably say no. I don’t keep kosher, I don’t observe Shabbat, sometimes I partake in certain elements of the holidays and sometimes I do not. I fasted for Yom Kippur last year, but I didn’t keep Passover. One Friday night a few weeks ago, I went to a friend’s Shabbat dinner, but last Friday night, I went shuffle-boarding instead (yes, this is a thing you can do in Brooklyn).
But just because I’m not a “practicing Jew” in the halakhic sense of the word, that doesn’t mean I’m any less Jewish. For one, I’m the editor of the website you’re reading right now, Alma, which is a site for Jews, by Jews, on which we talk solely about Jewish things. Judaism is a huge part of my life, from little things like wearing a hamsa necklace everywhere I go to how I view the world through the lens of caring about others and our planet. It’s part of the jokes I make and the shows I like and the foods I eat. It’s at the core of who I am. So does that make me any less “observant”?
Earlier today, Mordechai Lightstone, a rabbi and social media editor for Chabad, shared a clip of Rudd’s joke from Between Two Ferns with some serious insight:
This is a very important message before Rosh Hashanah for each of us:
People think of the High Holidays as time of sadness. But really it's a time of return to ourselves. We are perfect Jews – we need only look inward and get in touch with that perfection. https://t.co/iFeCl1Pc5K
— Mordechai Lightstone (@Mottel) September 23, 2019
“People think of the High Holidays as time of sadness. But really it’s a time of return to ourselves. We are perfect Jews – we need only look inward and get in touch with that perfection.”
I’m not sure if this is Rabbi Lightstone’s way of saying it’s okay if you skip out on Rosh Hashanah services this year — we come from decidedly different backgrounds, and I would never put words in his mouth — but I do think his use of “we” here is really beautiful. We, all of us, are perfect Jews. We are all made in the image of God, after all. And that goes for those of who aren’t even sure if we believe in God (hiiiii). A Jew is a Jew is a Jew, no matter how you “practice” it or not. And so I find the concept of actually being “perfect” at Judaism, wherever you are on the sliding scale of observance, incredibly empowering.
Is this what Paul Rudd or the writers of Between Two Ferns had in mind when putting together this film? Probably, definitely not. But can we use it as our rallying cry anyway, the ultimate retort the next time someone tries to make us feel less Jewish for not observing it all by the book? Yes, yes we can. Thank you, Paul Rudd.
Image screenshot via Netflix