'My Coffee With Jewish Friends': Film Review

Courtesy of Streetwise Films and Grasshopper Film
Thought-provoking conversations filmed with minimal production value.

Manfred Kirchheimer's documentary is a series of dinner-table conversations about the many varieties of Jewish life in America.

New York City documentarian Manfred Kirchheimer, whose work has been championed lately by the Metrograph, BAMcinématek and other tastemaking institutions, turns the camera partly on himself in My Coffee With Jewish Friends, a bare-bones but intellectually expansive look at his generation of Jewish New Yorkers. Produced as modestly as its title suggests, it is necessarily a niche film in theatrical terms. But as one of the last movies to be booked at the beloved Lincoln Plaza Cinema (which will close at the end of January, and whose co-founder Dan Talbot died last month), it will play on very receptive turf: NYC's Upper West Side, home to many of the film's subjects.

Kirchheimer, who now identifies himself as a Jewish atheist, took a winding road to this position: During childhood, he bucked his parents' beliefs and became Orthodox in homage to his grandfather. Many of his friends have similarly complicated histories with their culture, and in many cases this seems like news to the director: The doc's first interviewee, a concert pianist who has been Kirchheimer's friend for a half-century, acknowledges the two have never previously talked about Judaism.

In one-on-one conversations (or one-on-two, with some couples) that are friendly but not overly casual, around two dozen friends discuss everything from the mysteries of Kabbalah to the Left Bank. One quickly comes to the conclusion that most of these senior citizens are motivated by something other than a faith in the literal truth of holy writings. "For the time I'm in the synagogue, I believe," one speaker admits; another says he continues to identify as a Jew "because I cannot betray my grandparents."

But being a Jew requires taking stands on many thorny issues. Though most of Kirchheimer's friends lean politically left (hardly a surprise, given where they live and that most are poets, writers and other arts types), we meet two or three who speak up for conservative positions. The director's dentist is insufferably condescending as he tries to set his tolerant interviewer straight about Middle East conflict: "You're kidding yourself, Manny — you don't understand the Arab mind." Another man, who says he's not at all religious but is "a big believer in Israel," refers to Palestinians as "those retards" — and that's before he stops short of what he wants to say, because he doesn't want his words filmed.

Some people here, like documentary cinematographer Tom Hurwitz, discarded religion in their youth only to return to it more fervently than before; others must play down the strength of their beliefs to keep the peace with their secular spouses. Whether they're believers or not, their interviews depict a generation for whom it seemed unthinkable to completely behind leave their heritage. If Kirchheimer's conversation with some underinformed Jewish twentysomethings is any indication, that may no longer be the case.

Director-producer-editor: Manfred Kirchheimer
Director of photography: Zachary Alspaugh
Composer: Hanns Eisler

96 minutes