Shirel Peleg’s debut feature Kiss Me Kosher (also released as Kiss Me Before It Blows Up) is a comedy of oppositions: Jew and Gentile, Israeli and German, Palestine and Israel, young and old, experienced and naive, lesbian and straight. It’s very funny. It’s a sprawling family comedy that mostly doesn’t want to resolve any of these tensions, preferring instead to let its characters raise an issue and let it hang in the air awkwardly before laughing it off and moving on. It’s also structurally uneven, paced oddly, and more on-the-nose than it is subversive. And its politics are questionable, to say the least. I’m conflicted!
The main story revolves around an Israeli woman named Shira (Moran Rosenblatt) and her burgeoning relationship with a German woman called Maria (Luise Wolfram). They’ve only been together for three months but have decided to move in together, gleefully playing into the self-acknowledged stereotype that lesbians are quick to rush into relationships. When Maria fumbles her luggage, she accidentally drops a ring she’s brought to their new home; mistaking it for a proposal, Shira gladly accepts.
Also, Shira’s gay younger brother Liam (Eyal Shikratzi) has decided to make a documentary about the couple. Also also, Shira’s Holocaust-survivor grandmother (Rivka Michaeli) is secretly dating a Palestinian man (Salim Dau), keeping Shira’s Israeli mother (Irit Kaplan) and American father (John Carroll Lynch as a racist American Jew) in the dark. Also also also, Maria’s parents (Juliane Köhler and Bernhard Schütz) have invited themselves to Israel for a visit, unaware of precisely the intercultural minefield they’re walking into, yet carrying immense guilt about their heritage as Germans.
It’s… a lot.
Essentially, Peleg constructs her characters in Kiss Me Kosher as a bunch of spinning tops, all set loose on Israel and Palestine’s border to stagger around the map and crash into one another. As tops do when they come into contact with something, the characters wobble and then keep on spinning, losing a bit of momentum each time until they finally collapse as everything reaches its head.
The main opposition of the story, between Shira and Maria, is the strongest because the characters refuse to acknowledge that it exists. Everyone around them certainly sees it and feels free to comment on it. Despite only having been together three months, Shira and Maria are adamant that they are in love. Shira’s family constantly teases her about how many girlfriends she’s had. Indeed, she and Maria seem to run into one of Shira’s exes every time they leave the house; Maria, on the other hand, has never been in a relationship with a woman before this one.
Shira runs a bar called The Jewish Princess, and the alarm is faulty; she constantly has to enter the security code, sometimes minutes after she’s just punched it in. The running gag serves as an apt metaphor for her relationship: figurative alarm bells ring constantly, but Shira is content just to barrel ahead, momentarily fixing a problem instead of solving an underlying issue.
Still, though, despite all of the things they don’t have in common, Maria and Shira do genuinely seem to love one another. Despite everyone in the film (and in the world) telling them they don’t belong together, these two characters form a solid heart around which the rest of the movie orbits. Their moments alone, away from the constant commotion and consternation of Shira’s family, are genuinely intimate and lovely. Shira is outgoing and headstrong, whereas Maria is more reserved. In their physical touches, Moran Rosenblatt and Luise Wolfram do a fantastic job showing why such different characters can still find a way to connect.
Kiss Me Kosher… before the movie falls apart
For a while, the comedic potential of so much built-in conflict keeps the movie humming along nicely. The performances are finely tuned for maximum comedic timing. Each character seems like a real person with a sense of humor that they recognize in each other, rather than characters who exist simply to spout jokes. For example, eager to escape during a heated discussion, Maria asks the way to the restroom; instead of answering, everyone in the family points in unison. It’s a cute way to show the family’s ease with one another.
As the film progresses, however, the introduction of Maria’s parents in the second half of the film doesn’t heighten the comedic premise so much as prolong it. We’ve already heard a number of “Germans were Nazis” jokes before the Müllers show up; they don’t change once the parents arrive, just simply… continue to happen. Some conflicts (such as the fact that Maria didn’t mean to propose) are resolved at odd times in the film, structurally; other oppositions don’t get resolved at all, just tucked away until they can be brought up again at the end, only to have obstinate characters who have been stuck in their ways have a change of heart off-screen. In addition, I just can’t make sense of the choice to pull back from a climactic Queer kiss only to have a straight couple kiss in front of them, completely blocking the lesbian couple from the frame.
I will leave it to someone with more knowledge than me to pick apart the movie’s politics, which, to put it mildly, are occasionally uncomfortable; however, it would be irresponsible not to mention them at all. John Carroll Lynch’s character is an outspoken racist against Palestinians and Arabs. While we’re definitely not supposed to be on his side, his racism is treated like an “oh, let him be” character quirk rather than a flaw. Also, I do think we’re supposed to be on the side of the Israeli characters when they extol the necessity of mandated Israeli military service, and I quote, “so we can defend ourselves.” When Maria’s German mother tries to say something about a “two-state solution,” on the other hand, it’s made to seem like the perspective of an outsider overstepping her place, and she literally has a microphone taken away from her. The Israeli people are friends with a Palestinian; the film seems to say; isn’t that good enough?
In some ways, then, Kiss Me Kosher becomes a film about how interpersonal relationships can overcome the most hardline societal divisions. That’s a noble goal, but considering what happens there regularly, it feels naive at best and insidious at worst. Israeli/Palestinian relations are reduced to a friendly game of Monopoly or a simple meeting across a border fence. At the same time, little acknowledgment is given to what really goes on at the border. It ends up feeling like a clear-cut case of pinkwashing or using a seemingly progressive LGBTQ+ stance to distract from regressive, harmful politics elsewhere.
I understand not being able to put that all aside to enjoy the rest of what the film has to offer. I recognize that, as an American who is neither Jewish nor Palestinian-American, the fact that I did enjoy myself for much of the film’s runtime involves a certain level of privilege. There is a lot to like about the pleasantly amusing Kiss Me Kosher. Still, there is also a lot that deserves further discussion and scrutiny, and I look forward to reading more from other Queer, Jewish, and/or Palestinian voices.
How To Watch Kiss Me Kosher
Boston’s 37th Annual Wicked Queer Film Festival is virtual this year, accessible around the United States. The feature films available during their #GAYPRIL event are streaming from April 8-18th; tickets are available here.