Talking Pictures: Salvador Litvak from When Do We Eat
with Brad Balfour
If there ever was a movie that had been made out of personal motivation it’s director Salvador Litvak’s When Do We Eat? Detailing a raucous and outrageous Seder that includes a battling Israeli, a father on ecstasy (or so he thinks), a suddenly observant neo-Hassid son and a Lesbian daughter with her African-American lover, the film pokes fun at family and lavishes affection on it at the same time.
Born in Santiago, Chile, Litvak moved to New York at age five growing up as a gangly Jewtino redhead, who majored in English and graduated with honors from Harvard. Though he became a lawyer, his heart was in writing and filmmaking so he decided that When Do We Eat (reflecting his Jewish background and love of family) would make an ideal debut.
The L: How much of this was like a Seder at your house?
Salvador Litvak: It’s a composite of stories we’ve heard from our extended family and friends. Our own Seders are pretty functional.
The L: What inspired these characters — friends, rabbis, etc.? SL: The idea of dosing a tyrannical dad made us laugh. Ecstasy was actually developed in a clinical setting for just the kind of therapy dad ends up undergoing in the movie, a one-time deal. The other characters were originally developed as each missing one of the 13 attributes of G-d recited in the Yom Kippur service, i.e. one is not gracious, one is not present, one is not forgiving, etc. the idea is that by the end of the night, each has made progress in making tikkun/repair, and thus they can all share a holy moment. By the way we cut two characters from the script early on, thus leaving 11, so dad got three flaws.
The L: Of the characters in the film, who did you feel closest to? SL: There’s a bit of Ethan and Zeke in me.
The L: And who did you feel the most different from? SL: Well, I’m not much of a Jewish mother! But we were so pleased with the work Lesley Ann did. She’s Jewish, which most people don’t know, and she played just the kind of non-stereotypical Jewish mom we wanted.
The L: How is making comedy about this night different from any others set on another night? SL: The movie is edgy. We’ve taken a lot of heat for being racy in something that is overtly Jewish, and even more heat for addressing the Holocaust within a comedy. But my mother is a survivor — her father was killed. I grew up with these issues very near. Just as we break a glass at a wedding, and tell jokes at a funeral, I believe that comedy and tragedy not only can be juxtaposed, but also must be if the characters are to feel real. Yes, the family is extreme, but everything that happens comes from a real place.
The L: Or from my big fat Pesach dinner… SL: Or it’s a wonderful Seder. G-d willing, this movie will live on and on. It’s not for everyone, but there are large numbers of people that are already quite devoted to it. They get its sub layers. Nina (my wife and writing partner) and I put all of our heart, soul and resources into this, and for people who can laugh at themselves, and are open to the deep stuff, there is a lot to bite into.
The L: Do you like ensemble pieces? SL: Yes. Movies like Animal House and The Big Chill just to name two.
The L: How did your own family greet the film?
SL: My parents are still recovering from my decision to leave the security of a being a NY corporate lawyer to attend film school! It probably wasn’t until they saw this movie, which they loved, that they thought everything might turn out okay. It also helped that all their friends loved the movie.
The L: What is your religious knowledge and background?
SL: I grew up attending a big conservative shul and had a bar mitzvah and then ran away from Judaism because it all seemed like a chore. I did join youth group (NFTY) because it was a chance to party with my friends, but the only part I found moving were the song circles. So basically my Jewish practice from college on was high holidays (how many pages ‘til we’re done?) and Seders (when do we eat?). The funny thing is I was always a very spiritual person. I sought the G-d “experience” in transcendental meditation, eastern religions, martial arts and Grateful Dead shows. About nine years ago, after my grandmother died, I wandered back into a big conservative shul because that’s what I knew, but it was the first time I went because I wanted to. And I cried and cried. Totally inexplicable. It was the connection to the ancestors via the tradition. But it was also more.
I started searching for a shul that felt right. I ended up at Ohr Hatorah, and studying with our brilliant rabbi, Mordecai Finley. Now I daven every morning with tefillin, I wear tizzy and I read daf yomi (daily study of Talmud). I’m pretty observant but not exactly orthodox. I would call it reform Hasidic. I also daven at happy minyan on lesser holidays and the occasional Shabbat. Carlebach services are very tribal and that music gets into your heart like nothing else can, but I could never give up a teacher like rabbi Finley.
The L: Did some find the film sacrilegious--were you worried about the film being seen that way
SL: Some have, but it’s almost inevitably secular Jews who feel that way! Rabbis get that the family’s dysfunction is real (even it’s a rare family that has ALL the Stuckmans’ meshugas, every family has some of it) and the movie shows that when Jews behave badly we have a profound technology in our tradition, especially in Jewish mysticism, to help us make tikkun/repair.
The L: How did this get made in the first place?
SL: It was designed to be a small movie that we could make with our friends and a video camera if necessary. That gave momentum because we knew we were making it. And it’s no coincidence that at that point our angel investor showed up to ask what do you need to do it right?
The L: Tell me about your history—is there anything you want to highlight what about you as an outsider both as a Chilean among Jews and a Jew in general.
SL: Definitely I had the feeling of being an outsider. It’s fuel for an artist. Had I grown up in south Florida it would’ve been different — lots of Jewtinos there. But where I grew up and looking like I did, no one ever expected me to speak Spanish like a Latino. Family conversations in public would often turn heads. Then I had the big 70’s Jew fro. I was athletic but not in a ball sports way. I was smart, but didn’t hang out with the smart kids. I just never quite fit in anywhere, yet I always had a few very close friends and lots of adventures. I took chances. I’ve made lots of mistakes but I have no regrets because life is like Torah. You can’t stop at the surface meanings. Every event carries within it a message, a clue about which path to take next. Right now, I have to go to soul for 7th day Pesach. Hag sameach!