Film Review: My Coffee with Jewish Friends

Flawed yet interesting exploration of contemporary Jewish identity.
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Anyone foolish enough to believe that Jews (indeed, any ethnic group) represent a monolithic body should check out the lively, freewheeling—yet flawed—documentary My Coffee with Jewish Friends. A title and to some degree a conceit inspired, one assumes, by My Dinner with Andre, this 97-minute movie by veteran filmmaker Manfred Kirchheimer (Stations of the Elevated, Canners) explores what Jewish identity means today among a spectrum of 21 Jews, including a Reformed activist woman rabbi, a politically conservative dentist, an Israeli-born Zionist, and more than a few Holocaust survivors (including 86-year-old Kirchheimer himself).

A handful of high-school students—from Israel to South America to Long Island—are thrown into the mix, but the majority of interviewees are Upper West Side intellectuals—some wholly secular; others practicing Jews (within parameters); and still others ambivalent on the topic of religion—who’ve seen the better side of 75 and live in spacious, messy book- and vinyl-album-filled apartments that harken back to another era.

Topics of discussion among the talking heads (these are mostly one-on-one interviews): anti-Semitism (old and new); women and Orthodoxy; Martin Buber; interreligious-ethnic marriage; and of course Israel—the latter eliciting the most intense responses on all sides, underscoring just how much of a hot-button issue it is for Jews.

Paradoxically, the section on Israel coming in the latter half of the film is the most focused, tightly edited, and the least interesting, as few new insights emerge. Equally problematic, the feel of the film, structurally and thematically, abruptly shifts gears; not that the first part is problem-free either, as it flits from topic to topic without any real cohesion. Still, some thought-provoking nuggets surface; if only Kirchheimer had allowed for elaboration with perhaps a few voices weighing in on a specific subject.

One interviewee says that whenever he’s among Gentiles he intuitively feels the need to represent Jews in a positive light; another speaks about being relieved when a criminal cited on the air is not Jewish. One can’t help wondering how they and others might respond to an anti-Semitic joke, for example, if it comes up in mixed company. Tribalism—and more often fear of appearing tribal and/or parochial—is a defining experience for many Jews. I wish we had heard more about that.

By contrast, the religious theme is fleshed out. All concur that Jewish history casts a long shadow. Several interviewees attend services at least on the High Holy Days because not to do so, they say, is an act of betrayal to those who perished in pogroms or the Holocaust. But others cannot believe in God and refuse to go for precisely the same reasons: the pogroms and the Holocaust

One couple, both Holocaust survivors, married 60 years, embody respectively each viewpoint: The husband is observant and visibly disturbed when his wife says she’s turned off by all of it and can’t wait till the services are over. A low-key and neutral interviewer, Kirchheimer handles the delicate situation with compassion and grace as he steers the conversation away from religion to the longevity of their marriage that, despite the conflicts, appears loving.

My Coffee with Jewish Friends is a conundrum. There are far too many interviewees, topics discussed and opinions voiced; yet these multi cross-currents that at times feel like clutter also evoke a complex, contradictory culture.