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When Israeli actress Mili Avital heard about the comedy When Do We Eat?, she knew she had to be in it. After all, it's not every day a film about Judaism hits the silver screens.
"My first thought was this is a movie I'm going to be in," Avital told The Jerusalem Post in a telephone interview from Los Angeles. "I think for a lot of Jewish actors not all movies make sense, this was obvious. I didn't know what role I'd play but I wanted to be in this movie."
When Do We Eat by Nina Davidovich and Salvador Litvak is the story of the world's fastest Passover seder that is anything but. The film focuses around the Stuckmans - an eclectic Jewish American family intent on finishing the ritual meal without much regard to traditions.
At the head of the table is Ira Stuckman (Michael Lerner), who owns a Christmas ornament business and brags about running the world's fastest seder. His wife, Peggy (Lesley Ann Warren), has erected a biblical style tent to appease their newly religious son Ethan (Max Greenfield) to join the family for the holiday. Their four other children are disastrously dysfunctional: Lionel (Adam Lamberg) has communication problems; Zeke (Ben Feldman) is a rebellious druggie; Jennifer (Meredith Scott Lynn) is a lesbian with ulterior motives; and Nikki (Shiri Appleby) is a sex surrogate.
Added into the mix is Rafi (Mark Ivanir), a mystifying one-eyed Israeli dinner guest, Holocaust survivor Artur (Jack Klugman), Ira's father, and Vanessa (Avital), the Stuckman's sexy cousin.
Things go awry when Ira is slipped a dose of Ecstasy by his wayward son, Zeke which turns the tough-love dad into a modern day Moses intent on leading his family to the land of forgiveness.
"For various reasons the Judaism has gone out of a lot of Jews around the world. This is the state of American Jewry," says Litvak, 40, of his debut movie. "When I grew up a seder really was 'when do we eat' for me."
The film is very American. But director Litvak sees that as a plus in terms of reaching a wider audience.
"I think it has a mass appeal," he tells the Post in a telephone interview. "For the same reason My Big Fat Greek Wedding had mass appeal, When Do We Eat does too. Tolstoy says every family is screwed up in its own way. Jewish dysfunction looks a lot like Italian, Polish or Greek dysfunction. When being specific, other people see themselves. They're just like us - their Christmas dinner is like our Passover seder."
And while Jewish jokes are plentiful in Hollywood, films about Judaism are rare.
"Judaism is unusual in that it isn't only a culture, it's also a religion," says Litvak. "And that aspect has been largely ignored in all the years of Jewish American comedy, stretching from the Borscht Belt to Seinfeld. There is no bigger taboo in Hollywood than religion. Yes it was a risk. Yet religion and humor can go together."
Davidovich and Litvak, who are married and the parents of two children, co-wrote the script. They planned a low budget film. Though producers were skeptical about helping them launch the project, the actors were eager to take part.
"I thought it was a great concept, and I thought I belonged," says Jerusalem-born Avital, who is currently taking part in Israeli filmmaker Ayelet Menahemi's Noodle. "In Hollywood, people don't think I look Jewish enough [to obtain Jewish roles]. My problem is that I'm never typecast though I'd love to be. I'd be really happy to share my Israeliness and Jewishness."
In fact, almost all the cast is Jewish. In addition to Avital, Mark Ivanir was the other Israeli on set.
"Director Francis Ford Coppola once said his mantra while making The Godfather was to smell the spaghetti.' We wanted an authentic Jewish family so you could say our mantra was 'smell the matzoh balls,'" says Litvak.
The film is an absurd comedy through and through. Though Peggy Stuckman tries to create the perfect seder, her children go out of their way to make the night an adventure.
Most of the film takes place around the table in the tent. The tent was inspired by an Artur Szyk illustration in a Haggadah given to Litvak as a child.
"The idea was to have no color in the family's world before they entered the tent. Then, when the seder begins, it's a little like Dorothy leaving Kansas and entering Oz," he says.
Though its official big screen release is April 7, When Do We Eat? has already been testing the waters on the festival circuit. "We were scared to death of the reaction when we took the movie to Oklahoma City, dead center America. But people responded positively," says Litvak, who left corporate law to pursue a film career. "It is first and foremost a comedy. Yes, it is American Jewish specific, but most people will find something to identify with."
Avital adds: "It is very Jewish. The reason it works is because it's not trying to appeal to anyone, it's as Jewish as it can be. Even though American Jewish culture is different, Israelis will be able to identify. Seeing ourselves up on screen is something fun for Jewish people and Israelis."
When Do We Eat? may sound familiar to those who remember the 2003 Hollywood film, It Runs in the Family. While the Douglas family bombed at the box office, Litvak and Davidovitch have faith in their script. "We love this movie," Chilean-born Litvak reiterates.
He sums up by saying that there are three things he'd like audience who have seen the film take with them: "Families can heal, miracles happen if you make them happen, and there's a place for spirituality in everyone's life."
(When Do We Eat is set for release on April 7.)
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