'American Birthright': A documentary on Jewish intermarriage

By telling a real story about real people, the film demonstrates that the choice to marry outside of one’s faith is far from inconsequential – especially for Jews.

 BECKY TAHEL: Raised as a cultural Jew.  (photo credit: Nathan Ben David)
BECKY TAHEL: Raised as a cultural Jew.
(photo credit: Nathan Ben David)

Filmmaker and actor Becky Tahel’s recent documentary, American Birthright, takes a close look into a subject that doesn’t usually make it to the big screen – intermarriage

“Not a sexy topic,” Tahel jokes, yet the film – her first full-length feature and first documentary – has been piling up awards as it makes its way through the film festival circuit. Since its spring 2021 premiere, the film has won laurels at Idyllwild International Festival of Cinema, the Seattle Jewish Film Festival, the Miami Jewish Film Festival, and more. 

It’s surprising that anyone is interested.

With the most recent Pew research data indicating that more than half of American Jews who’ve tied the knot after 2010 have done so with a non-Jewish spouse, for most Jews interfaith marriage has become a fact of life. Even in the Orthodox world, it’s rare for families to sit shiva or cut off contact with an intermarried relative.

Yet by telling a real story about real people, the film demonstrates that the choice to marry outside of one’s faith is far from inconsequential – especially for Jews.

 FILM STILLS: With mom. (credit: ‘American Birthright’/Becky Tahel) FILM STILLS: With mom. (credit: ‘American Birthright’/Becky Tahel)

Until American Birthright, Tahel’s oeuvre had been comedy. Her acting credits include roles in the iconic JDate matzo ball commercial, on the popular ABC sitcom Mixology, and costarring opposite Harry Lennix and Robert Patrick in the film Mr. Sophistication. She even auditioned for the role of Midge Maisel! What spurred her to this topic was her younger sister’s engagement to her non-Jewish boyfriend. 

Born in Haifa but brought to the US at age six by her Israeli parents, Tahel and her sister were raised as cultural rather than religious Jews, and yet her sister’s plans sparked deep confusion in Tahel and other relatives.

“It was our family’s first intermarriage, and it split us wide open,” she recalls.  

But why did it even matter? Tahel lived in a mixed society. Some of her best friends were non-Jews, and she had dated non-Jews herself. The rationale she’d imbibed from her parents and clung to, that marrying within the tribe was easier and more likely to succeed, no longer felt compelling. So why not marry out?

Joking with the Magazine about her expertise at being a nonexpert, Tahel says she sought expert advice. She started in Los Angeles by approaching well-known religious leaders, including Rabbi David Wolpe and Rabbi Susan Goldberg, and even religious expert and historian Reza Aslan and her former boss and the product of intermarriage comedian and actor Eric Andre, and she brought along a film crew to document her journey on celluloid. While everyone had an opinion, none of these opinions helped Tahel to clarify her own.

A conversation with a writer friend, Michael Borkow, the author of monster-hit shows, including Friends, Roseanne and Malcolm in the Middle, led Tahel to reframe her question. Borkow, who had become a ba’al teshuva, viewed Tahel’s search through a different lens. “He saw a movie that was about deeper Jewish identity.” But what did that look like?

Tahel had been raised with Jewish stories, songs and foods but not much more. “I didn’t know anything about the nuts and bolts of Judaism,” she admits.

Now her mission changed. Her goal was to “edJewcate” herself. 

“I need to treat myself like I’m converting,” says Tahel during the film. Armed with her “to Jew list” of goals, including such tasks as experiencing a halachic Shabbat, following a kosher diet and experimenting with modest dress, Tahel flew to Israel for four months. Based in Jerusalem, she attended Torah classes at Neve Yerushalayim seminary, visited Orthodox families for Shabbat meals and prayed in her dorm room and at the Western Wall. She also journeyed back to Haifa, her childhood home, capturing it all for the camera.

In one of the film’s most powerful moments, Tahel bursts into tears at the graves of her grandparents, both of them devout Jews, acknowledging the deep connection between them. 

The film’s dramatic denouement takes place in Safed, where a teacher, Chaya Leiter of the Ascent institute pushes her to make a commitment.

“She asked, What are you going to do about this? I was resisting making a personal decision, but at that moment it became surprisingly clear,” Tahel admits. After Leiter’s prodding, Tahel took the plunge. 

These days, she self-identifies as Torah observant. “I do all the things on the ‘to Jew list,’” she says. She’s also married to a religious man, filmmaker and musician Nathan Ben David, and the couple are expecting their second child – these changes she attributes to the documentary’s “mystical magical power.” 

“Documentary filmmaking is really a self-development journey disguised by the art of making a film,” she says. “I didn’t realize that I was producing a movie of my own life,” she says.

A passion project for Tahel, which meant that she continued to work other jobs during the filming, American Birthright took seven years to complete. With only a “micro micro budget,” the filming stopped whenever the money dried up and resumed again when it appeared.

Interestingly, Tahel resisted the temptation to seek organizational funding; she refused to tie her passion project to an outside group. “That would have removed the power of what this film was going to do,” she says.

In the end, she shot 150 hours of footage. A consummate craftswoman, Tahel assembled 10 different versions of the film until settling on the one that met her and her team’s standards. 

Though the film includes some raw moments, her family, including her sister and brother-in-law, has been supportive.

“They are happy that I am living out my purpose,” she says.

American Birthright won the Audience Choice Award from the Seattle Jewish Film Festival for best documentary in 2021. Tahel has been deluged with emails and texts from people telling her how the film moved them profoundly. Not long ago, she spent nine days at a Laemmle movie theater in Los Angeles, observing audiences as they watched her film. “I saw people crying and feeling moved,” she says. “To have people of all backgrounds inspired to consciously create their lives has been the best part of this crazy journey!” 

Tahel has no plans for a sequel. With a second child on the way, she’s focusing on her family and creating some new pieces of media as part of her initiative to explore under-explored Jewish narratives. Together with her husband, she owns and operates Mannafest Media, a mindful media company deeply committed to making cinematic and compelling content (film, TV, social media, and music) with the goal of highlighting important Jewish stories and painting a holistic picture of the Jewish world. 

American Birthright is currently available to rent at americanbirthrightfilm.com/rent