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Finding Her Religion

What does it mean to be devout in the movies?

Joanna Smith Rakoff
June 12, 2008

Toward the end of Then She Found Me—Helen Hunt’s impressive directorial debut, which opened to largely positive reviews this spring—the preternaturally calm heroine, April Epner (Hunt), has what amounts to a spiritual crisis. As she waits in her gynecologist’s examination room to be implanted with eggs fertilized by a sperm donor, her biological mother, Bernice—the “she” of the title, played by Better Midler, in full diva mode—aggressively suggests that April say a prayer before the procedure. “No,” April intones, staring dolefully down at the front of her hospital gown. “You pray before you eat a bowl of spaghetti,” Bernice wheedles. “You’re about to do the most important thing of your life and suddenly you’re not interested!” Uncharacteristically, April gets furious and jumps up from the examining table. “I don’t want to give this wish to some higher power who’s supposed to be . . . loving,” she shouts, before collapsing in Bernice’s arms, sobbing, “I thought God was good.”

April is an observant Jew, a rarity on screens big or small (though, of course, Jews of the secular, self-mocking, Judd Apatow type abound). She does indeed pray before eating, as well as light Shabbat candles (bringing them to her ailing adoptive mother in the hospital), and generally goes about her days attempting to be kind, dutiful, and good. The film opens with her wedding, which involves a rabbi, a chuppah, her mother nagging her to put on a sweater, and multiple shots of yarmulke-topped old men, all set to the strains of klezmer. But until April’s breakdown in the doctor’s office, these scenes could be read simply as color, rather than indications of a deep, abiding, and defining faith, a faith so rare in the United States (particularly among the country’s most assimilated ethnicity) that it’s almost shocking to see portrayed onscreen. Do people really believe in this day and age, outside of cloistered fundamentalist communities? Not just practice, but actually believe? Especially a Brooklyn schoolteacher like April Epner, with her carefully highlighted hair and au courant empire waist dresses? Even one of my rabbi friends recently confessed that he takes a “liberal approach” to conceptualizing God, an admission I found both a relief and a disappointment—something akin to my response to April’s doubt.

All but one or two of the reviews of the film have described it as a romantic comedy, a categorization more inadequate than incorrect. Reviewers dutifully log April’s quick abandonment by her childish husband, Ben (Matthew Broderick), and even quicker romance with Frank (Colin Firth), the churlish father of one of her students, complicated by her discovery that she’s pregnant with Ben’s child. Largely omitted are any mentions of the heroine’s ethnic and religious identity, never mind that the film’s denouement consists of a moment of spiritual anguish, rather than, say, a montage of breakup scenes. The odd silence on these matters can perhaps be attributed to discomfort or bafflement that the blonde,

sharp-nosed Hunt is playing a devout Jew (though Hunt, like Broderick, is half-Jewish), but more likely it’s because narrative features about faith, particularly about Jewish faith, are so rare that critics don’t quite know what to make of them. The only recent antecedents of Then She Found Me—American features truly grappling with issues of belief—are Ed Norton’s underrated 2000 comedy Keeping the Faith, in which Ben Stiller and Norton play childhood friends who grow up to be, respectively, a rabbi and a priest, and Scott McGehee and David Siegel’s Bee Season, the uneven 2005 adaptation of Myla Goldberg’s 2000 bestseller about a little girl, Eliza Naumann, who becomes a spelling champion by mastering the techniques of thirteenth-century kabbalist Abraham Abulafia.

If Keeping the Faith lapses too far into intellectualizing the characters’ beliefs (it’s set on the Upper West Side, after all), Bee Season veers too far in the opposite direction, earnestly striving to capture the depth of Eliza’s religious ecstasies in perhaps a more extreme manner than does Goldberg, a writer of great reserve and restraint. But the Jewish characters in Keeping the Faith feel authentically Jewish in a way that those in Bee Season do not. Part of this is casting—Ben Stiller and Eli Wallach versus Richard Gere and Juliette Binoche—but it has more to do with the latter film’s approach to Jewishness: Bee Season seems to define it largely in religious terms. Stripped of any sense of Jewish culture or community—it’s telling that in the novel Eliza’s father is a cantor, while in the film he’s a religion professor—Eliza’s mystic turn lacks the terrifying poignancy that drives the novel.

Similarly, in Then She Found Me, Hunt (who wrote the screenplay with Alice Arlen and Victor Levin) has prioritized religion over culture, a sharp departure from Elinor Lipman’s 1990 novel, on which the film is based. In the novel, April’s adoptive parents, Trude and Julius, are refugees. “She was twenty-five, Viennese; he, twenty-nine, from Munich. Their fathers had both been furriers. He had a brother in Palestine, and she had no one she knew of. Neither had been married or religious. Belsen and Auschwitz.” They meet on a train to Boston, spend the afternoon together, “whispering in the German they hadn’t spoken aloud for . . . months,” and eat dinner at Woolworth’s, thrilled for a respite from the “dull kosher food” their American sponsors feed them. “Both ordered BLTs.”

Clearly, these are secular, assimilated Jews, as was the norm in Austria and Germany before the war. And they raise April—who teaches Latin at an exclusive school, and has degrees from Radcliffe and Wellesley—in a like manner, though they’re adamant about her marrying a Jew. So adamant that April gives up her one serious boyfriend, because Trude and Julius object to his Polish background. “They were worse than the Nazis,” Trude tells April. “They loved killing Jews. They’d point to Jews who passed as Gentiles to save their lives and say, ‘There’s one. Get her.’”

Hunt’s film has eliminated the Holocaust backstory, which is in a way the crux of the novel, the source of April’s discomfort with the world, her sense of herself as an outsider in the most extreme way (it’s no accident that she teaches a dead language, a vocation that baffles everyone she meets). It’s the nature of film to streamline the chronology and complicated character histories of its source material, to avoid tiresome flashbacks and expository speeches (“My mother was a refugee from Vienna”), but it’s also Hunt’s choice to make a film about faith, rather than culture. It’s an admirable choice, but it would be more admirable—or more acutely effective—if the film paid more attention to the particulars of that faith.

For April is a sort of Jew that doesn’t actually exist in this day and age—and perhaps never did. Her practice and lifestyle appear to be an odd amalgam of denominations. She’s assimilated and secular in appearance, and she doesn’t appear to keep kosher. Yet she prays loudly before diving into the bread basket in non-kosher restaurants (a sight that would certainly garner stares in the Upper East Side establishments she frequents with Bernice). And while she strictly observes the Sabbath—at least, the Friday night portion of it—she doesn’t appear to belong to a synagogue, or even to drop in on services, nor does she think twice about dating a non-Jew, or about being impregnated with sperm from a non-Jewish donor. Nor is there evidence of the sort of Jewish community to which someone of April’s faith would certainly belong: no Sisterhood officers coming by with brownies after Ben’s departure; no aunts and uncles crowing about her aging ovaries—no texture, in other words, of Jewish life in middle-class Brooklyn.

But Hunt, it seems, is less interested in the particulars of Jewish experience—religious or cultural—than in thorny questions of belief. Certainly, from a director’s standpoint, there are great dramatic possibilities in a character who, in this godless age, truly and deeply believes in a higher power, and is thrust into a torrent of pain and confusion when she begins to doubt. What’s most interesting, ultimately, about Then She Found Me is not its portrayal of a rich and vivid Jewish spiritual life—as striking and effective as this is, despite its inauthenticity. It’s that April begins to question her faith not because of the injustices that have been heaped upon her—Ben’s abandonment, her mother’s death, and other small tragedies that if mentioned would qualify as spoilers—but because of her own very human failures. Her continued and inexplicable attraction to Ben, which threatens to erode her relationship with Frank. Her lack, in certain instances, of compassion for her mother, for Frank, for Bernice. Her inability to forgive. Her ability to manipulate and betray. In other words, her realization that God is not good stems from her realization that she is not good. “Maybe God is complicated . . . difficult,” suggests Bernice, as April weeps. “Like me,” April acquiesces. It’s a decidedly modern take on God, and one that—as evidenced by strong box office sales, two months after the film’s opening—secular America, Jewish or otherwise, can certainly understand.

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