The "It's a Wonderful Life" of Passover

This post was published on (4/14/22) and updated on (4/3/23).

If ever a holiday needed its own cinematic equivalent to "It's a Wonderful Life," then Passover is the likeliest recipient. Look no further because When Do We Eat? is that film. And it is not this writer's opinion but that of critics far and wide. So this Wednesday, ask yourself, what makes this movie different from all other movies? Well, it's a Passover movie to start. 

When Do We Eat? is definitely a memorable one that even draws comparisons to a little Greek farce that roiled our funny bone - or in this case, shank bone, some years ago. But don't get us started on the Greeks.

With the tagline, “My big fat Jewish Seder” the viewer has a sense of what’s on the table. And it’s hard to dispute whose review of the movie exalts it as, “History’s most hilarious Passover comedy.” That is only if Shalom Sesame: It's Passover, Grover! Is not as funny as it potentially sounds. 

That being said, Salvador Litvak's When Do We Eat? is well worth the watch if only to get a better sense of the “mishegas” (Yiddish for crazy) that can transpire when family gets together to celebrate the holidays; in this particular case, the antics around the Passover dinner table.

In fact, David Mamet, in an open letter lambasting a New York Times critic who clearly didn’t get the film, actually found it “raucously funny.” And if the writer of The Untouchables feels that way, then critics be warned: if you pull a knife, you know what Mamet’s gonna pull.

For edification, Passover is one of the most important holidays in the Jewish calendar – a one-week festival celebrated in the early spring, commemorating the emancipation of the Israelites from slavery in ancient Egypt. “Let my people go,” says Charlton Heston’s Moses in The Ten Commandments.

For the curious or uninitiated, Passover is marked by a special feast, the Seder, observed on the first nights and is chock full of ritual and prayer. Matzo (unleavened bread) is eaten in honor of the Israelites who left Egypt in such haste that the bread they baked for the journey did not have time to rise. Along with eating bitter herbs to memorialize the bitter slavery endured by the Israelites, drinking wine to celebrate their freedom upon that first Passover, and reciting the Haggadah, a book containing the story of the exodus from Egypt, Jews are biblically obligated to share the story of the Exodus with their kids on Passover evening.

And therein begins the When Do We Eat? magic of family obligation.

When the Stuckman family gathers for their all but traditional Seder with patriarch Ira, an old-fashioned man who pushes his sons as hard as his own father pushed him, chaos erupts when one of Ira's sons slip him some ecstasy. 

Says Mamet in reference to the film, “Most contemporary American Jews have experienced (some continually, some exclusively) the dysfunctional Seder. They have seen, at this most important of home-observed holidays, some or all of the following behaviors among the participants: tardiness, surliness, aggression, boredom, insults, and abrupt belligerent departure.” 

So what makes this dinner different from all other dinners you ask?  

Getting together with family is insanity but when you add in some wine, ancient tradition, and some ecstasy…it’s a recipe for disaster.

Mamet opines “that the Passover Seder awakens and provokes these behaviors.” He goes on to say, “Contemporary, American, Diaspora Jews – like myself – more than occasionally react to the simple demands of the Passover Seder as the Hebrew slaves reacted in bondage and in the desert: we rail, we resist, we doubt the word of God (here, as the Seder, manifested in the simple commandments of observation), and we progress (the Egyptian Jews toward the Land of Canaan, the American Jews toward the end of the Seder) kicking and screaming. The Haggadah (the “telling of the story”) moves, as the Rabbis tell us, from shame toward Glory.

That all unfolds in the movie in its own delicious way because ultimately, When Do We Eat? is the story of a dysfunctional family trying to get through dinner without a fight. It’s been years since they’ve been together and like so many families, reuniting can sometimes leave a lot to be desired. But as the night continues, and as they wind their way through the Seder “kicking and screaming,” the family hurls mishegas in every direction, until the chaos finally makes way for resolution and reconciliation. But certainly not before “surliness, aggression, boredom, insults, and abrupt belligerent departure” ensue.

Starring Lesley Ann Warren, Ben Feldman, Max Greenfield, Victoria Justice, Shiri Appleby, Meredith Scott Lynn, Jack Klugman, Mili Avital and Michael Lerner as the patriarch, Ira Stuckman, there is plenty of comedic chops in the aforementioned to help you get through the four questions. The only one that will remain is, and let's try the joke for a third time as the charm...“what makes this Passover comedy different from all others?” 

You’ll have to stream it to see if they ever get to the main course! But it's wonderful either way.

Happy Passover from TheArchive!



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