Jessie Kahnweiler Combines Dark Comedy With Judaism
Seldom have the words hummus and handjobs been uttered in the same sentence, especially by a nice Jewish girl. But Jessie Kahnweiler is not your typical nice Jewish girl. In less than two years, the 29-year-old filmmaker has become an online favorite of the Girls generation, with a series of autobiographical web shorts on topics ranging from Judaism to dating hipsters to sexual abuse. She’s quick-witted, unfiltered and endlessly quotable, with the kind of humor that would’ve made Joan Rivers laugh tears while clutching her QVC jewelry. Can we tawk?
On a blazing hot morning in Atwater Village, Kahnweiler points out the bed marks on her face and apologizes for oversleeping in a voice she later describes as “dude from Jersey.” Her head is a riot of curls. She’s wearing a Western shirt, shorts and unbuckled sandals that flap around as she walks.
En route to Bon Vivant restaurant, Kahnweiler tells me that we look like sisters (not really) and assumes I’m Jewish (nope). “That’s OK,” Kahnweiler says. “We’re all one big ball of brown hair.”
Kahnweiler’s satirical look at her Jewish identity is what put her on the viral map. After getting demerits and daydreaming away at an Atlanta private school, Kahnweiler went to the University of Redlands, where she took philosophy and mushrooms and found herself ... wanting to become a director. For her senior thesis, she followed truck drivers from San Bernardino to Portland, interviewing the men about their lives.
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“I asked all these questions and learned all things and how they related to my reality,” Kahnweiler says. “It was a very pivotal experience.”
Six years ago, Kahnweiler moved to L.A. and took on the usual struggling-artist day jobs: barista, caterer, production assistant (“You haven’t lived until you’ve been emotionally abused for getting the director’s order wrong”). She lugged around equipment 18 hours a day on the set of Vince Vaughn’s Couples Retreat. On another movie set in Malibu, she got poison oak. And while working on an untitled, never-released Gary Busey film, the famously eccentric actor kissed her out of the blue on the lips. When she complained to the director, he was smoking from a bong.
But not all of Kahnweiler’s early experiences in the entertainment business were bad. “It was like Andy Warhol’s Factory for film,” she recalls of her stint interning and working on J.J. Abrams’ production company, Bad Robot. “Then Judaism happened to me.”
At the urging of her friend and fellow director, Jill Soloway, Kahnweiler applied for and received a grant from the Six Points Fellowship, which funds Jewish artists working on Jewish-themed projects. Though she scored the cash, she realized she had no idea what to do with it.
After growing up Reform, Kahnweiler was indifferent about religion. Though she was Bat Mitzvah-ed, studied at Hebrew school, traveled to Israel and observed the high holy days, she saw Judaism as nothing more than a list of don’ts.
“When I think about seder, I think about my grandma’s bosom,” Kahnweiler says. “I don’t think about God. Judaism was like a mosquito bite — you itch it when you have to.”
That apathy inspired Kahnweiler’s first web series, Dude, Where’s My Chutzpah?, an 11-episode, part-scripted, part-real roots-finding journey, which she debuted last year at the Downtown Independent.
As the film’s premise goes, Kahnweiler’s bubbie bequeathes her a generous gift on the condition that she “commit to living Jewish for one year.” So Kahnweiler goes from Pico-Robertson to Israel searching for a spiritual awakening, and hilarity ensues.
In the West Bank, Kahnweiler stumbles upon a protest — complete with tear-gas explosion — and flirts with Israeli soldiers. In Amuka, she visits a holy site, which houses the tomb of a 2,000-year-old rabbi, and where desperate singles make pilgrimages to and pray for a spouse. Kneeling over the tomb, Kahnweiler defiantly (and hysterically) whispers: “I just wanna say for the record I don’t need you. I’m perfectly capable of fixing the garbage disposal by myself. I just got an awesome new vibrator and it’s definitely kosher.”
Kahnweiler returns to the U.S. without an “aha!” moment, still struggling to make an emotional connection with her culture — and the promised inheritance turns out to be a Loehmann’s gift card. But that’s all part of the journey, as her grandmother’s rabbi informs her. “You sound like Gandhi’s Twitter feed,” she replies.
For Kahnweiler, prepping for the film was no joke. Prior to shooting, she spent a year “embedding” herself in all things Jewish (“I felt like Carmen Sandiego”): she studied the Torah and Kabbalah, spoke to rabbis, attended Shabbat dinners with other families and took Zumba classes with Orthodox women. She frequented the Holocaust Museum and befriended survivors, a process she calls “Holocaust-survivor speed dating.”
“It was amazing to see behind the stereotypes, to really humanize it,” Kahnweiler remembers.
She even hung out with New York rapper Matisyahu, who lives in L.A., and had vegan dumplings with Mayim Biyalik. “She’s the biggest mensch ever,” Kahnweiler insists. “She really nurtured me and talked to me about how she balances Judaism and being a Hollywood star.”
Kahnweiler's follow-up short delved into a far more uncomfortable chapter of her life. In Meet My Rapist, her character runs into her rapist at a farmer’s market and spends the rest of day trying to exorcise him from her life. It’s a darkly satirical fantasy, inspired by the rape Kahnweiler suffered while studying abroad in Vietnam. Still, she manages to find humor in the trauma. “I know why you did it,” she jokes, facing her attacker. “I’m fuckin’ adorable.”
After the video aired, Kahnweiler says she received mostly positive feedback, especially from other sexual abuse survivors. Unfortunately, she says, it also meant she couldn’t get laid. In July, she performed a stage show called The Rape Girl, in which she bemoans how the video put a crimp in her dating life, turning her into the “Dutchess of Rapesville.” “I had created a rape monster,” she joked on stage.
Currently Kahnweiler is filming a new series, The Skinny, and even managed to snag Ileana Douglas to play her mom. It’s another dark comedy about a touchy issue: Kahnweiler’s decade-long battle with bulimia.
“Sometimes when I’m in crazy situations, I wanna scream,” Kahnweiler says. “To me, my comedy is that scream. It’s that perfect candy coating to trick people into a giving a shit. Nobody wants to watch a video about rape, but they will if it’s funny.”
In the mean time, Kahnweiler continues to look for her ecumenical Mr. Right and ways to document it. For BuzzFeed, she created a video in which she holds a casting call for actors who unknowingly audition to be her real-life boyfriend. She fell for one of the actors, only he was engaged. Recently, she appeared in a Jdate commercial — of course, those weren’t her real parents in the spot pestering her about meeting a man (“all we’re asking for is grandchildren, darling”).
Of her folks, Kahnweiler says, “They don’t give a shit about me marrying a Jewish guy. They just want me to be happy. And that’s a fuckin’ tall order.”
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