The three o’clock bell sounded the close of business day for most grade-schoolers. Not Scooter. While others were off in a field hitting balls with sticks or in the alley playing pinners, from ages nine to Bar Mitzvah, yours truly was in Hebrew School, tacking on two additional hours of daily study. Much of what I fought to repress of my time spent at the cheder returned in a Proustian (Jewstian?) rush while watching Isaac Cherem’s Leona, a refreshingly crisp and commonsense take on heritage, familial obligations, and the drawbacks of dating outside one’s faith.
As cinematic raisons d’etre go, personal identification ranks just slightly above “Movie theaters are a good place to text.” Fit me with a different pair of eyes for two hours, not a mirror. But it’s been ages since a film has worked this hard to stir up repressed memories, and it would be impossible not to share at least a few personal flashbacks as a means of illustration. Still, my final verdict on a film will always hinge on visual storytelling and logic, not sentimental connections. Nor will a lack of foreskin ever cloud my judgement. (Were it otherwise, Goodbye, Columbus would outclass Citizen Kane.)
Ariela (Naian González Norvind, who shares screenwriting credit with Cherem) is a 25-year-old woman eking out a living as an artist in Mexico City. A child of divorce, Ariela lives under her mother Estrella’s (Carolina Politi) roof. The daughter has a much healthier take on dating than does her jaded single mom. They get along alright, but Estrella’s the type of parent who chooses to adopt a passive-until-pushed approach rather than pave a path of unconditional love. Ariela is also feeling pressure from all sides to find the right mensch with whom to settle down. After all, when one’s bubbie was a bride at 15 and the mother of three at 18, there’s this familial obligation in need of honoring.
Any Jew who has ever partaken in an interfaith romance will find in Leona some of the freshest, most authentic first-date dialogue-exchanges ever committed to film. Believe it or don’t, there are a lot of folks out there who have never consciously conversed with a Jew. Over drinks, Ariela mentions to her gentile companion that members of the community helped boost her career. Iván (Christian Vazquez) interprets this to mean the Jewish community, not the community of professional muralists to which Ariela belongs.
My parent’s generation, and to a large degree their offspring, do not get the point of tattoos. (Sorry Popeye, but Hebrew law prohibits the burial of tattooed corpses, cartoon or otherwise, in Jewish cemeteries). My introduction to body art was the serial numbers inked across the forearms of the survivors who worked behind the counter at Tel-Aviv Kosher Bakery. When Ariela spies Iván’s tats, her first inclination is to ask, “Did your parents let you do it?” (Running it past the folks never crossed his mind.) Ariela paints murals for a living. Her career choice is enough to brand her a rebel in the eyes of her parents; a tat would place her in league with Al-Qaeda.
Like most of Ariela’s admirers, I was still living under my parent’s roof when mom’s sister Sylvia instilled in me this advice: “Never date a gentile, because one day they’ll turn around and call you ‘Jew!’” Years later, Aunt Syl came to live with us, around the same time my short-lived work as a 16mm film collector was at its peak. A local pirate made available his personal dupe copy of Powell & Pressburger’s Black Narcissus, the story of a group of sexually repressed nuns whose calling it is to convert a Himalayan brothel into a convent. Joining me for that evening’s presentation was a co-worker, a beguiling pug-nosed strawberry blond who didn’t have a kosher corpuscle in her body.
The dining room table was my projection booth, the front room window shade my screen. At around the second cue-mark, Syl’s bedroom door opened, and up to the table sidled my Talmudic Lilliputian of an aunt. Not knowing how to turn the projector off, she did the next best thing by yanking the cord from its socket. Flabbergasted, you ask? I was sizzling hotter than Judy Garland at the mention of Sid Luft’s name.
“Young lady,” Syl said in the direction of — but not making eye-contact with — my date, “you will have to leave.” Before knowing how the picture ends? That’ll be the day. It was the rare case of a child sending the adult to her room.
My family would never have disowned me for going goy, which is more than can be said of Estrella. Ashamed of her itinerant daughter, mom kicks Ariela to the curb. Upon learning of the boy’s Mexican heritage, her father, never at a loss for witty repartee, mutters, “At least he’s not named Jesús.” No, but the actor who plays him is named Christian. (In these woefully PC times, do I dare reference the night a yiddishe maidel friend brought her African-American suitor to meet the family? “I told you to marry a rich doctor,” her dad later joked, “not a witch doctor.”) A request to stay at her father’s place is met with a peck on the cheek followed by a, “No, sweetheart.” Ditto her plea to bunk at Bubbie’s.
With no place to go, she and Iván decide to move in together. Two weeks into their relationship and Ivan has already brought Ariela together with his family. Eight months later, Iván has yet to be invited over for Shabbas dinner. “Imagine I’m an orphan,” she suggests. He responds by putting into words his crabby disposition. They split, and we follow her on a round of cinematic speed-dating. (Who else but a Jew would order spaghetti carbonara and ask the waitress to hold the bacon?)
We open and close with head-to-toe shots of two naked women: fade-in on a young bride-to-be about to take a ritualistic plunge in the mikvah, fade-out on our heroine, the Leona (Spanish for lioness) alone and triumphant in her apartment. What comes between is the stuff an incomparable date-night movie is made of. But there’s a catch, one that will call for viewers to put a little effort into their art: as of this writing, a theatrical playdate has yet to be announced. Take advantage of your one chance to see it when it the Jewish Film Festival screens it on Thursday, May 30, at 7pm at the David and Dorothea Garfield Theatre in the Lawrence Family JCC. You were expecting maybe the parish hall at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church?