Jessie Kahnweiler is in the market for chutzpah. After winning a Six Points Fellowship in Los Angeles, the filmmaker embarked on a search for Jewishness, which brought her—and a fictional alter ego also named Jessie—into contact with boxing Holocaust survivors and Zumba-dancing Orthodox Jews. Now the intrepid director is bringing her web series, “Dude, Where’s My Chutzpah?” to Israel for a three-week long shoot in the Holy Land. Jspace caught up with Jessie to find out about the serious questions motivating the comedic series and what happens when the premise lands in Israel.
Jspace: How did “Dude, Where’s My Chutzpah?” come about?
Jessie Kahnweiler: I’m a filmmaker from the East Coast, and I was living in Los Angeles for five or six years, just working in the industry, and I heard about the Six Points Fellowship. My friend said, “You have to apply,” but I was like, “No, I’m not really Jewish.” Like a lot of Reform Jews, I practiced defensive Judaism growing up: I’ll have a Bat Mitzvah, I’ll go to Israel if it’s free, I’ll take off school if there’s a holiday, but there’s nothing proactive about my Jewish experience.
Six Points said the perimeters of the project were that it had to be about being Jewish and being in Los Angeles. So I decided that I wanted to make the project about the relationship of me to my Jewish identity, and what if I tried to construct my own Jewish identity, being a 25-year-old secular Jewish woman in today’s crazy world?
I’m a filmmaker, so I decided to make a series of webisodes called “Dude, Where’s My Chutzpah?” and the basic premise is that a young girl loses her Bubbe, who leaves her a bunch of money, but in order to get the money, she has to live “Jewish” for a year. Every episode is structured around this question of what it means to be Jewish. The project started out as how to be Jewish in LA, but it’s really quickly evolved into these deeper questions of why be Jewish? What do I have to give to Judaism, and what does it give to me? What does it mean to be Jewish? And how does Judaism manifest?
It sounds like this is inspired by your own experience of Judaism. How much of the web series is true?
It’s been a really fascinating experience because everything that I’ve done and all of my research has been completely self-motivated. If I think that going to hear Holocaust survivors sounds cool, then I’m going to go do that. But it’s structured around this narrative plot of this young girl. Art and life is kind of a fine line for me right now, but that’s my process. I can’t afford therapy, so I make film.
The trailer makes it look like you’re interacting with people in almost a Sacha Baron Cohen style, where you’re performing a character and everyone else is largely being himself or herself.
That’s a lovely comparison, but what I really want to make clear with this project is that the joke is always going to be on my character, playing off my character’s ignorance going into these situations, and hopefully inspiring other people who watch it. It’s okay to be vulnerable and go into situations where you don’t know. It’s okay to sit at a Shabbas table and have no idea what everyone else is saying and need to be told by a seven year-old what the right prayer is. That’s awesome. And if you can have that mindset of being willing to be vulnerable and make a fool of yourself, wow, look at the amazing experiences you can have!
What have been some of the most surprising or memorable moments of the project?
It’s funny; I’m in a cab on the way to go to Israel right now. The Jewish Federation has this thing called the Master Class, so I’m going to be studying at the Cinematheque for 10 days, and I thought, well, since I’m already over there, Ruby went to Hollywood, so Jessie should go to Tel Aviv. So I’m going to be shooting over there for three weeks, so you’re catching me at an interesting time, because at the end of it, I’m sure I’ll have a laundry list of stuff.
As far as my research, I would say everything from sitting down with Orthodox rabbis and talking to them about being a feminist to bris crashing to hanging out and going out dancing with Holocaust survivors—I am literally good friends with Holocaust survivors at this point—to Orthodox Zumba dancing. It’s been a crazy experience, but really, really interesting stuff. And it’s all in LA! It’s not like I’ve left the city. I haven’t gone to services. I haven’t done the routine stuff that people think that they have to do to be a “good” Jew, which I think is bull.
Have you come out of this experience with a greater sense of what it is to be Jewish?
That is kind of the big question. Much like my character, I started out a little bit apathetic, just, “Let’s do some bagel and shmear and matzo balls and be on our way.” Judaism has this way of hooking you. It demands of you to dig deeper and deeper and deeper and questions lead to more questions. I think just getting in that mindset has been really amazing. I love the idea of having an authentic Jewish identity, and how that’s totally up to the individual to decide. What I want to show in the series is that my experience is my experience, and everyone is entitled to have their own Jewish experience. It’s never too late to take ownership of that, and search for meaning in something that I think a lot of people my age think of as their grandparents’ religion.
You recently did a round of fundraising to make this Israel shoot happen. How is that going?
I’m really honored to be part of the Six Points Fellowship, but film is a super expensive medium. So I’ve been using the fundraising platform Jewcer, and it’s been really great. We’ve had a really good campaign so far, but it’s still going. It’s open until August, so I’m hoping that it will be successful.
How will people be able to see the show?
My trajectory is pretty much that we’ll be shooting it late summer, and then hopefully we’ll be broadcasting it, it’s a web series, so it will be an online deal. I’m looking into different distribution platforms right now, because I’d like it to live in more of a Hulu kind of world, because I want this to be for everyone, not just exclusive to Jews. So that will probably be early next year, realistically.
Who do you envision watching the series, and what do you think they will take away from it if they’re not Jewish?
Ideally, I’d like to connect as many people as possible, and have a variety of people like and appreciate it. All good media has something different for everyone. But specifically for the non-Jews, I want to educate and inform because I know I have a lot of non-Jewish friends that don’t know about Judaism, and even sadder, don’t feel comfortable asking about it because they see it as exclusive.
I want to show that everybody has a Bubbe. Everybody has that grandmother; everybody has these traditions. We live in a world that’s such a melting pot, so how do we take where we come from and forge that into where we’re going as a society, which is really just getting more colorful? How do we transform our traditions? I really don’t think that this is specific to the Jewish experience.
If the US is a place where Jewish identity is melding with the mainstream, Israel, by contrast, is a place where Judaism is the mainstream. Do you anticipate any challenges?
Of course! Have you ever talked to Israelis? They’re crazy! What I’m really excited about with this trip is that I’ve been exploring Judaism from the outside in; I’m looking in, poking around, going to all these different Jewish environments. But Israel is really about Judaism from the inside out.
First of all, I’m looking for chutzpah, so I think Israel is a good place to start. And second of all, in terms of where it’s going to fit into the web series, as an American Jew, I’m constantly being told how I need to feel about Israel, and that I need to have this relationship with Israel, and that I need to care. I’m ready to decide that for myself. I want to formulate my own opinions, rather than being told that I need to go make aliyah, or I need to give money, or Israel is going to die if I don’t care. I’m not going over there to make the PSA for Israel. I’m just going over there to honestly experience it.
How do you see the series ending? Is this something that could have a sense of closure, or is that impossible?
You know Judaism, obviously. We don’t do well with closure. Honestly, I’m super psyched to stay focused on this Los Angeles-based series right now. But obviously I see it going to different environments, because the story is not exclusive to Los Angeles. I think it’s happening everywhere. I’m always down to get down, get vulnerable, and make an idiot of myself, no matter what zip code it’s in. We’ll see.
Humor is such an amazing way to trick people into caring. I think Jews, by nature, are the biggest critics, but will take any opportunity to laugh. It’s a culture I’m really proud to be from.
Support Jessie’s project by making donations on her Jewcer page by August 6.