Thursday, January 25, 2007

Gabrielle Antosiewicz on Love, Judaism, and the Elusive Kosher Man

I started my interview with Director Gabrielle Antosiewicz by asking her out on a date, which she politely but firmly declined. She has had some practice…

In her witty documentary, Gabrielle Antosiewicz gets to know some promising suitors by inviting them to bake a challah. And while the dough is rising, viewers learn about the travails of Internet dating and the secrets hidden beneath an Orthodox woman’s wig.

What other projects have you worked on?
My training is as a social worker, and I’ve approached my films from there. My two previous films were about physically challenged people, one about a guy who became unsatisfied with Swiss healthcare and moved to Bali, and the other about children with cleft palates in India.

“Matchmaker” was in the theaters in Switzerland for five months, which forced me to talk a lot about Judaism. So that’s what I’ve been doing for more than a year. It kind of just focuses you, doing a movie like that. I’m a Jewish expert now!

Your film was very funny and subtle. Are Jews like that in Switzerland, funny and subtle?
My crew and I always found the film humorous, but we were pleasantly surprised to find the audiences have agreed. Jews can be very funny in Switzerland, or also very not funny.

And the different audiences take it differently. For instance, the Swiss audiences really find the gentleman who sells kosher cheese and chocolate to be great, and funny. The clichés really play well there, and it’s wonderful, an Orthodox Jew selling Swiss cheese and chocolate. It is a good to introduction to Judaism for Swiss audiences.

And your audiences here?
I really appreciated how people waited outside for me at Lincoln Center, all the love they showed for the film. And they tended to get more of the Jewish jokes.

Gabrielle, right, hears about a fan's appealing son

What is Jewish life like in Switzerland?
Switzerland is a great country, a great clean nice chocolate Army Knife clock country. And we have 18,000 Jews, which is not a lot. But one nice thing is the diversity of the Jewish community in Switzerland, which was not decimated during WWII as elsewhere, and which has everything from Lubavitch to Reform. The Jews need to stay together in cities like Zurich and Basel for practical reasons, like forming a Minion and finding kosher food. There is also a tiny community in Baden, where refugees from the camps came. But many Jews in Switzerland have been there for several generations.

How easy is it to be Swiss and Jewish?
We have a large amount of Jews who practice modern Judaism, and are very Swiss. They go to normal schools, and you don’t really know they are Jewish unless you see a kippah. Then you have people like me, the secular, who get their Jewish identity from youth groups, mostly.

In this country, you know every Jew from childhood, and then it is not interesting to date them with you get older. So I cannot find a kosher man. But, maybe I will do as the audiences have been telling me and move to America. I’ve spent the last four months in LA and I liked it.

Or you could date a non-Jew, right? But wasn’t that a problem for one of the families?
And then this Orthodox family got angry and wouldn’t attend the movie because I ended the film saying I might marry a non-kosher man. I told them “I am not judging your life in the film, so you shouldn’t judge mine.”

I’m happy to say I just heard that the gentleman (who sells kosher food) will be attending a talk on Christianity and Judaism I will be giving back home. And I see where he’s coming from, the pressures he faces from his own community, but for me, as a woman, I will be able to make Jewish children and to raise them Jewish, so it is less important to marry a Jewish man. It would be much easier if the husband were Jewish, too, and much more fun. And if he’s not, I will have some difficulties, I’m sure.

Like one of the car dealers in “Matchmaker?”
Yes, the wife converted and then they had children. In fact, the car dealer brothers are twins, and the non-Jewish wives both converted--they do everything together—but they sort of let it fall by the wayside. They turn 50 and the husband joins the Jewish choir and hangs out with Jewish friends. Then, the husband wants the children to marry Jewish spouses. I felt there was a disconnect they didn’t speak about. And then his wife asked him a really good question: “Why didn’t you marry a Jewish woman?” This was a great moment in the film. It was a heavy, serious question that I couldn’t allow myself.

What has the dating experience been like for your Jewish friends in Switzerland?
This is one of things that pushed me to make the movie: once my friends who had been dating non-Jews turned 30, they all started relationships with Jews and within a year all fell in love and got married. I said to myself this is all a bit funny. It never happens to me! What’s going on here?

So what did you do?
I met with my rabbi, which I left out of the film because I didn’t want to present just one sect of rabbi, who helped me calculate that there about 40 available men in my age range and level of observance in the country of Switzerland. I’ve probably met most of them, if not on my own then through the movie.

And how has the scene been treating you as of late?
I can tell you that the men who approached me after screenings were strange. It is interesting that sometimes strange people have more confidence in writing and making contact than the normal ones! Yes, at the screenings in Switzerland, strange men would approach me and tell me they were the one.

I was intimidated to interview you, I must admit. Because you get such good material from your subjects. Would you tell me how you interview?
Haha. I maintain neutrality, prepare carefully, and let things unfold. What I did in the movie was to portray people from different walks of life without judging them, without too much commentary, a really old documentary style, in a way. And even then I only made fun of myself, really. And I appeared in the movie, which I felt I needed to do if I was going to send the message I wanted to send.

At first I didn’t even want to narrate the film, but then it became clear it needed it. In the voiceover, I make comments that are neutral but playfully ironic, which took me ages to write. And as you remarked earlier, Jon, in one scene you can see my reflection in the glass, and I have my hand over my mouth. That is because I was very tired that day. Normally I am much more animated.

I try to be a good listener, and use silence to get people to say a little more, which often is very interesting. Plus, I always fall in love with my cast of characters, so I like to listen to them talk. And in the end, I show myself too, and I make friends from this. From each film I make at least three or four friends.

To what degree do you think the Jewish experience in Switzerland informs Jewish dating culture?
We do have JDate, and I tried this to cast the challah-bakers in “Matchmaker.” But after a while I found you end up writing too much, and the other person’s questions just get silly, like “what is your favorite food to cook?” I would rather meet the person for a cup of coffee. I mean, after a while, what should I tell you, “I’m working. I like to work. I’m sleeping, I’m eating.”? I get bored. Plus, as you saw in the film, my sense of humor is sarcastic. So after a while my emails get sarcastic and this doesn’t fly on JDate! The sarcasm comes from my genes (my dad), and it’s not mean.

Well, they say girls aren’t supposed to be sarcastic.
I know. I should be shy and nice and cooking. That’s why they kept asking me about my favorite dish. I mean, do you want love or someone to feed you?

I just read an article in the New York Times that surprised me. In America for the first time 51% of women live by themselves! And Zurich has one of the highest numbers of single-person households in Western Europe, if not the highest. With some women I know it does not make sense to marry: they make good money and are independent, and the men are unsure how to act, whether to be nice or macho. The gender roles are all blurry, and I think this will soon lead to a 51% figure of single women in Europe, too.

Well, your film screens at Makor. You might try their speed-dating service.
You know, a rabbi in L.A. invented speed dating. You see, I am a professional Jew! Back home this is what they call it when you’re always answering questions about Judaism. I think this period will end soon.

What are the typical questions you get asked?
Back home people always ask about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and they think this is one thing they know about. They confuse Judaism with the political policies of Israel, and so I end up spending a lot of time explaining the conflict from Israel’s point of view; otherwise they would never hear it. If they’re going to bomb something, it’s like I’m bombing them. I mean, I’m sitting in Zurich, so it’s not really true, I’m not bombing anyone. Right?

Yes, Gabrielle is having a latte with me. She is not bombing as of yet.
Thanks. And I also get a lot of appreciative comments regarding the plurality of Jews in “Matchmaker.” Walking the streets of Zurich, most of the Jews you see are Orthodox and they don’t say hello to anyone and don’t make eye-contact. So people think they are weird and unhealthy and have sex through the hole of a sheet, but after seeing my film, and meeting the two families, people realize there are reasons for how they choose to live, and some of the old stereotypes dissipate.

So you play the role of educator, too.
Oh, very much so. In fact I had this in mind as I approached “Matchmaker,” that it would educational and entertaining. All my movies are like that: I try to entertain and to inform. When I watch documentaries, it can get depressing. So I try to impart the information via entertainment. If you don’t have to cry and you’re allowed to laugh, I think it works best. That’s my own recipe.

And the topic is so global. It’s not just for Jews. It also resonates with a lot of minorities in Switzerland. I’ve had a lot of emails from Italians, Greeks, and Muslims saying they faced similar questions.

Where does this leave you in your search for a man?

It is a shame that things are so complicated. Ideally everyone would just mix and be friends and lovers, but that isn’t how it is. I’m not stressed out though, because I know I will meet someone who is comfortable by himself, too. And until then I’m waiting for that crazy feeling in your body when you fall in love.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The interview is a helpful addition to the movie. I saw it on a marathan evening during the JFF... just after The Longing and Naturalized and before What a Wonderful Place. It was so light and modern and playful. The Longing and What a Wonderful Place dealt with dramatic convergences of historic tragedy... I didn't mind at all watching Garbrielle teasing and chatting with her suitors in her well-appointed kitchen. Like a break from the over-whelming realities of Jewish life - any life - around the world. The elderly ladies in the washroom afterwards were hissing in outrage, "what's the point, what's the point"... maybe they were mad because she didn't Choose a Guy or Get Married. Didn't they get how huge our progress is from that old film clip of brides being dressed up in gauzy uniforms and shipped and crated to Amereeka in the early days of last century to be parceled out as Brides to Desperate single Jewish men? Didn't they see how liberated Gabrielle is... not having her life arranged by others... seeking her own destiny. And the final image of her leaping down the street in the huge white wedding gown, free as a bird, healthy & lithe and possibly en route to that 51% of Singleness embraced by American women... or accepted by us as the lesser of two intolerable situations. Thanks Gabrielle, for following your heart and having fun and giving us a break from the rest of it.