An Unusually Jewish Film Explores Secularism and Spirituality
by Elliot B. GertelIN WISH I WAS HERE, Aidan (Zach Braff) is a struggling actor who is determined to save his energy for the rare audition call. But he is no responsibility-free bachelor. He is married to Sarah (Kate Hudson) and they have two children. Sarah is the breadwinner for the family, enduring sexual harassment in the workplace, along with the tedium of feeding data into the computers of the Los Angeles Water Department, in order to keep food on the table and hold onto the dilapidated family home.
Writers Zach and Adam Braff pack a lot of characters and plot twists and themes into this film, but mainly, it raises questions about spirituality and religious authority. While it has received mixed reviews (I found it a worthy, well-acted effort), it does make some groundbreaking observations about secular Jews and religious authority.
Though gently mocked here, religious authority is treated as a compelling issue. Aidan is both fleeing from it and chasing it. He wants to be guided somewhere and toward something. Yet the Braffs are hard on authority figures: In one scene, the school’s elderly rabbi is caught laughing at cute YouTube kitten videos. Later, Sarah’s boss, who refuses to step in when she is harassed, is caught watching the same video. The implication seems to be that it is in the nature of authority figures of any age or kind, whether effective or not, to amuse themselves in trivial ways.
The writers suggest, however, that Aidan is susceptible to computer pornography precisely because he is not subject to the authority of a work structure or a religious regimen. He uses his leisure in an irresponsible and undignified manner while his wife struggles to maintain her dignity in a demoralizing workplace. Neglecting his yard and pool, which are overgrown with weeds, he smokes “weed” to amuse himself. In honor of Tu B'shvat (the New Year of Trees), one of the younger yeshiva rabbis brings a seedling to Aidan’s parked car, and catches him smoking marijuana. Of the seedling the rabbi sarcastically advises, “Just try not to smoke it.”
Indeed, rabbis in this film are, for the most part, effective with their words (except at one point when a funeral plan is foisted on Aidan in a very insensitive manner). The elder rabbi offers Aidan sage advice: “Thomas Jefferson cared about your happiness. God wants you to provide for your family.” This bearded sage will bump into walls while riding a Segway in a hospital corridor, but his words are powerful and hit the mark, despite Aidan’s derision at home of “Orthodox zombies.”
HUMBLED BY THE OLD RABBI'S WORDS, Aidan will later tell a young rabbi friend that he kept kosher until his bar mitsve, but as a newly minted “man” he wanted to exercise his option to try a double bacon cheeseburger. The young rabbi indulgently reassures him that he doesn’t have to talk about a God who wants him to keep kosher or to study Torah, and recommends that Aidan envision God as the “space man” about whom he obsesses in fantasies of childhood comic book heroes.
Although at one point Aidan calls his children “indoctrinated little matzoh balls,” he confesses to them that he admires and regards as lucky people who possess absolute certainty about what happens when one dies. Aidan adds that he finds spirituality in thinking about infinity and in looking into the sky. An old, historic synagogue figures prominently in his life and in his sci-fi fantasies. (Who says that no one cares any more about synagogue architecture?)
Aidan’s father, Gabe (Mandy Patinkin) makes Aidan’s ambivalence seem hereditary. Gabe cares enough about Jewish learning to pay the tuition for Aidan’s children at an Orthodox yeshiva (Aidan has gone along with the day-school option because of his neurotic fear of public schools), but once beset by cancer, Gabe decides to risk everything on an experimental cure and stops paying for the yeshiva, forcing Aidan to home-school his children. Patinkin, playing a baby-boomer grandfather, evokes a conflicted generation whose advocates for Jewish culture and learning do not even speak in their own voice, and whose efforts are undercut by their self-absorption. Previous generations would have thought twice about choosing unproved medical treatments over yeshiva tuition.
Distant, overbearing, and insulting, Gabe at one point refers to Aidan’s wife as “half Jewish,” although she wears a hamsa and is obviously identified as Jewish. His questioning of the Jewishness of others seems to come from his own ambivalence. He comes across as “Jewish” enough and has the guilt-wielding parental knack of walking in on Aidan whenever he behaves foolishly. Gabe gives his dog the unmistakably Jewish name, Kugel. In time for his younger son, he came up with the biblical Noah, but for the older son, Aidan, he bestowed an Irish-sounding name that echoes the Hebrew, “Eden.”
Tellingly, while Aidan’s father is an inconsistent presence, someone else is steadfast. Even when, in a comic book daydream, Aidan imagines the synagogue in ruins, an old rabbi shuckles over the Torah scroll. In the end, at Gabe’s funeral, the aged rabbi may nod off, but he is still a reliable presence, an authority.
Aidan’s daughter, Grace (Joey King, in a lovely performance), feels rooted in the yeshiva and in its Jewish faith. On her last day there, she leaves the woman’s gallery with obvious regret, despite her observation that “the boys get to do all the cool things to honor Hashem [God], but I don’t get to do anything.” It is clear, by the way, that Grace has received a sound education in math and grammar at the day school, to the extent that Dad will have to do a lot of brushing up in order to teach her.
Grace says that she had been looking forward to the day of her wedding when she will shave her hair and wear a modesty-wig (shaytl). When her mother innocently offers her “Disney Channel clothes,” as Grace calls them, the latter says, with true conviction: “I think that God is testing my faith right now, and I shouldn’t make any drastic changes.”
Ironically, both her day-school years and her new, deeper interactions with her father and grandfather (through the home schooling) prompt Grace to grapple creatively with religion and with secularism. Grace is forced to translate her religious experience into secular terminology. This is what makes her character so authentic and moving. With genuine, touching piety, she improvises spiritual exercises for her grandfather, and tells him that she davens a healing prayer for him three times a day. She tells her Uncle Noah that he must reconcile with his dying father: “I know that you don’t believe in God, but maybe you can believe in family.”
Like her dad, Grace is fascinated by religious authority, and, despite her dad’s jokes about it, she has thrived under its discipline in the day school. She shaves her head, forcing Aidan to deal with her — and his — interest in religious authority. Aidan comes up with a sweet solution for his daughter’s near-bald head. It is a solution that demands defiance on her part. Does he want her to defy the call to a traditional discipline from her day-school experience, or to defy social blandishments that would silence that call?
In the end, Aidan teaches Grace to swim so that she can attend a pool party with a nice gentile boy. Aidan therefore fulfills a Talmudic obligation on fathers to teach their sons (and daughters?) how to swim, but for a secularizing, even assimilationist purpose. Grace recites the Shema before jumping into the water for the first time. The writers seem to consciously contrast the genuine piety of their young character with the efforts of her father to separate her from the values and “indoctrination” of her previous education. Are they saying that Aidan is driving a wedge between her and the values of Jewish apartness, or that such choices are inevitable given his “secularism”?
Thankfully, the writers offer no easy answers, spiritually or intellectually. Aidan is interested in religious activities, even if he can’t bring himself to observe Jewish rituals or to prepare his children for a distinctive Jewish life. He even offers a non-religious nod to prayer, telling Grace that a poem is a prayer that you don’t expect anyone to answer. But there are no quick fixes here. The suggestion is made that there are no substitutes for Judaism, even when it is deliberately shelved. Aidan himself admits that an improvised New Age ritual in the Mojave Desert doesn’t work.
All in all, Wish I Was Here is a thoughtful meditation on religious authority and on a secular Jew who is attracted to it in spite of himself, and whose efforts to undermine it only strengthen its appeal to him. The Brothers Braff do a lot of nifty things with language in this film. There is an unmistakable authenticity of Jewish vocabulary in Gabe’s witticism, “Here I am, a shiva waiting to happen.” The Braffs also seem to be reaching for some kind of authority for better communication and for a purity in language (echoes of Henry Roth), whether grammatical, ethical, or aesthetic. That is, after all, one of the things religion has advocated best.
Early in the film Grace corrects her mother’s use of “who” instead of “whom,” even as she cites rabbis at the yeshiva while preaching to her father on the folly of his swearing. One gets the impression that Grace would re-title the film, "Wish I Were There” — and give that line to God. A sequel by the Braffs may well reconcile the different perspectives in a meaningful and creative way. But would that require some kind of retrospective renunciation of the swimming lesson scene?
Elliot B. Gertel is rabbi emeritus of Congregation Rodfei Zedek in Chicago. He has been a contributing editor of Conservative Judaism and Jewish Spectator magazines, and has contributed many essays and reviews to popular and scholarly publications in the fields of Jewish thought, Jewish literature and American Jewish history. Since 1979 he has been the media critic for the Jewish Post and Opinion. His recent books include Jewish Belief and Practice in Nineteenth Century America: Seminal Essays by Outstanding Pulpit Rabbis of the Era, What Jews Know About Salvation, and Over the Top Judaism.