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November 15, 2005
Reprinted with permission of The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles.
In the new movie Prime, Meryl Streep is wearing a lavender button-down shirt, a red shawl draped comfortably around her broad shoulders and a brown hairdo that manages to have bangs, wings and flips all going at the same time. But somehow it's the double strand of big red beads dangling around her neck like a loose noose that manages to convey the high state of suffering--boy does she suffa--of a guilt-ridden, guilt-giving Jewish mother.
That's right, 56-year-old actor extraordinaire Meryl Streep, of Out of Africa/Sophie's Choice/Kramer vs. Kramer/Postcards from the Edge/Angels in America/etc. and 13 Academy Award nominations fame has taken on the comi-tragic role of a Jewish mother.
And oy! What a Jewish mother she is. Streep plays Lisa Metzger, M.S., C.S.W., an Upper West Side therapist who loves too much: She loves patients like Rafi (Uma Thurman), her eldest son David (Bryan Greenberg), and her religion (Judaism). When Lisa discovers that her 37-year-old patient has been dating her 23-year-old son, she is beset by a professional concern that is the classic stuff of comedic conflict: Should she continue to treat this patient and how? But her character also is more deeply plagued by a concern that is tragedy for her: Her son is dating a woman who is not Jewish.
To be sure, interfaith dating is not the only theme or conflict in the film. Prime is a New York romantic riff on love and what happens when obstacles are placed in the way--obstacles like age, family, religion or the fact that your therapist is the mother of the man you're in love with (a situation that's probably less likely to happen in real life than in the movies).
But at its core Prime is also a movie about the not very cinematic subject of religion--and the threat of intermarriage.
"I thought it was really unusual to have a script that had as one of its central dilemmas the question of faith," Streep said. "That's just amazing. That's not edgy at all, but it's something people contend with."
It is a subject that writer/director Ben Younger contends with personally: he was raised Modern Orthodox in Brooklyn and Staten Island. The 33-year-old New Yorker, who began his career in politics before he became a filmmaker (his first film was Boiler Room in 2000), is no longer part of that community, but is still connected.
"I think it's important for all people to be open," Younger said. "It's that exclusionary nature of religion that I do have a problem with."
If it's true that artists make a statement in their work--consider Jewish artists like Chaim Potok, Philip Roth, Woody Allen--then perhaps Prime is Younger's way of sending a message in a bottle to the Jewish community.
Consider this heart-to-heart conversation between the characters David and his mother Lisa (Streep, at this point, is wearing a khaki-ish floral shirt and a thick rope of bead strands secured by olive stones).
Lisa: "So you're still planning on marrying someone Jewish."
David: "Ye-e-s. Sure. Okay?"
Lisa: "But then I don't understand why you need to go down this road. You may end up getting hurt for nothing, or worse--hurting her. Don't you value your culture and your history?"
David: "Mom, it's not one or the other, Mom."
David: "You're a therapist, you would never tell that to a patient."
Lisa: "Not true, not true, I encourage patients to have relationships within their respective faiths. It's easier. I encourage them to go to mosque or church or whatever. I think religion is paramount in a person's life."
David: "Okay, yes. But encouraging them is not discouraging them. And I know that you draw the line there. Would you tell your patient not to date someone that they don't think they're going to marry?"
Lisa: "Oh quit asking me what I tell my patients. They're not my children".
Therein lies the dilemma. Parents teach their children to love everyone equally, to not discriminate, to help the poor, heal the sick, defend the weak--but only date within the faith?
"We can have all sorts of rules in the world, but when it's our own children the rules go out the window," Streep said. "You know, what's objectively best is different from what's subjectively understood to be the best for your own kids."
In real life, of course, Streep is not Jewish, and she does not believe in marrying within the faith: "I believe in diversity. And mixing up the DNA--I think it's very good. I'm the bullworth. I believe in making a mess in life. And as for my daughter's husband I have one demand: He better be nice!"
Even so, Streep did not find it difficult to play Lisa.
"I wanted her to be kind of momish, roundish," Streep said. "We picked clothes that were a little bit too tight so that everything looks lumpische. She's nicely groomed and everything but she doesn't care about the style label and I'm sure she goes to Loehman's and tries to get a bargain. She spends a lot of money on her jewelry basically [because] they don't make clothes for women her age, her size, her style--that's not what fashion is about anymore, so you sort of compensate with interesting necklaces."
Streep said her character has a universality beyond Judaism: "At base we all feel the same things: You want to protect your kid. You want them to move out, but you want them to come around all the time--I mean you're very conflicted as a parent and it goes on ever." But Streep also understands her character's concern about intermarriage. "When you marry outside of your religion, you set up a whole different bunch of difficulties and challenges."
Although Prime is just a movie, and only one man's take on such a heavy topic, perhaps such pop-culture works are a better indicator of the cultural zeitgeist than proclamations from on high.
Younger believes that the Jewish community--the religious community--needs to be more open to the "other" in the world, when it comes to the arts and when it comes to dating as well.
"If Judaism is so wonderful--and it is--then why close yourself off?" said the tall, New York hipster. "Anyone who knows me knows it's so ingrained, I am Jewish through and throughout, and it's how I am, so why not share that with someone else?"
He could have been quoting the David character: "If it's as good as we say it is, why is it threatening to speak to someone who isn't Jewish?"
"It is a great religion; it is a great way of life. It touches on your daily life in a way that I haven't seen any other religion--so why this fear?" he said. "Why immediately close off someone from your world? Maybe they'll love it too."