Fiddler on the mosque

A new British film explores what happens when an everyman Muslim wakes up to discover one day he was actually born Jewish.

infidel movie 311 (photo credit: .)
infidel movie 311
(photo credit: .)
Released this week in the UK is a timely and wholesome comedy that celebrates Jewish and Muslim culture in a way not often seen in cinema. It uses comedy to take a light-hearted look at religion.
The Infidel is about a Muslim who discovers that he adopted and is actually Jewish. Written by renowned Jewish comedian and author David Baddiel, the film is a timely reminder of the commonality between both religions and goes further than most ethnic comedies.
It champions the Jewish and Muslim everyman, celebrating and laughing at aspects that are both unique and common to both religions. The film is novel in that it shows a normal Muslim family, rarely seen in cinema with the tendency to portray Muslims as radicals. Other ethnic films tend to revolve around the idea of ethnic minority adapting to the dominant culture. This film doesn’t do that, it is about minority cultures.
“Most British ethnic films are about assimilation – Fiddler on the Roof, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, East Is East, Bend It Like Beckham – about how a minority culture situates itself at the table with the big white culture. This is not about that: It is about Muslims and Jews. It’s a genuinely multicultural film, about dialogue between two cultures and the majority culture barely appears,” Baddiel said.
He said the film was set around himself and the ethnic ambiguity he met while growing up with people not knowing his ethnicity. When he broke onto the scene in the 1990s, some people thought he was Pakistani, some thought he was Indian.
“I used to get fan mail telling me I was the best Pakistani comedian they had ever seen,” he said.
He said he was beaten up twice in his youth, once for being Jewish and once for being Pakistani. Recalling the latter, he said he thought at the time, should he tell them he’s not Pakistani but Jewish?
“I remember thinking while I was being attacked by someone calling me a Pakistani, should I tell him I was Jewish? Probably it wouldn’t have helped,” he said.
Baddiel was brought up in north London; he went to a Jewish primary school, where he wore a kippa and tzitzit and learned Hebrew and Bible and went to the Habonim youth group. His mother had fled with her family from Nazi Germany and his father was interned on the Isle of Wight during the war. This led Baddiel to write The Secret Purposes, about his father’s experience as a German Jewish refugee interned there. His father came from a haredi background and somewhere down the Baddiel family chain was Rabbi Dovid Baddiel, who was responsible for setting up the famous Gateshead Yeshiva in northeast England. Today he describes himself as an atheist but tremendously attached to the cultural and intellectual side of Judaism.
“Being Jewish is very important to me, I love being Jewish but it an attachment to the culture rather than allegiance to the tenets of the religion,” he said.
“For many Jews Woody Allen is as important as Moses. Many have little interest in the 613 mitzvot but identify themselves with Judaism. This is unusual compared to say Christianity, where you identify with it only by praying and going to church.”
BADDIEL IS one of the few well-known Jewish comedians in Britain who is open about his faith. We talk about how American Jewish comedy has become the default voice for Jewish comedy here. In the US there seems to be this clear unified comic lineage from Groucho Marx to Larry David who are open about their faith, unlike here.
“In Britain, few Jewish personalities talk openly about being Jewish. They don’t tend to be upfront about their religious convictions and are slightly less happy about being perceived as Jewish, visibly and culturally, than their American counterparts,” he said. “It’s that very British trait to not want to draw attention to oneself. Here we celebrate multiculturalism, compared to a genuinely immigrant culture in the US where everyone is proud to state their differences and pains that go along with stating that difference.”
This is interesting as parody has always been a great way to subvert the common misunderstandings and the stereotypes people harbor about Judaism. When a community is under threat, one way of dealing with it, or as a defense mechanism, has been through comedy. Jews have done this for years, and in much the same way, and in this film Muslims use comedy to deflect the negative sentiments and misunderstandings leveled against them in Britain.
The idea for the story came from the lead actor of the film. Baddiel said when comedian Omid Djalili came on the scene, he thought he was like him, and there was also some ethnic ambiguity around him. Baddiel thought Djalili could be Jewish (he is actually Iranian Baha’i) and when he wrote the film, he had Djalili in mind. When he pitched the story to him, Djalili said it was the best first script he had ever seen.
Djalili is noted for making jokes about religion. Asked if it is acceptable for people to make gags about other faiths and cultures, Baddiel said that he doesn’t believe that only Jews can do Jewish jokes.
“You can’t say that you can’t make jokes about other cultures and that non-Jews can’t do jokes about Jews. Of course you can. You just have to look at it on a joke-by-joke basis. There is no reason why you can’t do jokes about other cultures or ethnicity; you can as long as it doesn’t come from racist perspective,” he said.
The Infidel does do jokes about other cultures but comes from a place of warmth. It’s a film that celebrates multiculturalism and diversity; it’s a film that shows the humanist side of both religions and reaction from Jewish and Muslim audiences has been great.
“Well, nobody has tried to kill me yet,” Baddiel said.
Djalili plays Mahmud, who discovers he is really Solly Shimshillewitz after finding his birth certificate when clearing out his mother’s house. He must then live as a Jew to meet his birth father and it is left to Lenny Goldberg, a Jewish taxi driver – played by The West Wing’s Richard Schiff – to teach him about Judaism.
Djalili said: “My character, Mahmud, is an ordinary bloke, a sort of Muslim Homer Simpson, who through discovering his true identity realizes that Muslims and Jews have a lot more in common than he previously thought.”
The film was directed by British director and writer Josh Appignanesi,whose last film, Song of Songs, was shown at theJerusalem Film Festival, and starred Yigal Naor (Green Zone,Munich, Rendition) as a fanatical Muslim cleric. The film hasyet to find a distributor in Israel, even though it has been bought by62 countries, including Iran. The Infidel has its USpremiere at the Tribeca Film Festival on April 25.
Religious humor is difficult territory, but comedy can sometimes dealwith themes that more serious films would not touch. This film isclever, brave and certainly has the oi and the vey.