Daniel Jacobson reviews Shirel Peleg’s directorial debut, an Israel-set romantic comedy with a purposefully messy premise.
Kiss Me Kosher (2020), the new film by first-time Israeli director, Shirel Peleg, is best described as a balagan. This term is ubiquitous in Israel and can be applied fairly well to pretty much any facet of Israeli life. That’s because, whilst a perfect translation does not exist, the closest you can get to balagan in English is ‘a mess’.
The premise of Kiss Me Kosher is undeniably a mess. The film centres on an Israeli woman named Shira, whose girlfriend of three months Maria has decided to move to Israel from — of all places — Germany. Maria is described by Shira’s parents as the “Holy Trinity” — lesbian, gentile, German — which, as the cause of conflict for a film, may be considered enough of a balagan in itself. However, to focus on Shira and Maria is to sideline Shira’s father (an American settler in the West Bank), her disapproving Holocaust-survivor grandmother (who is in love with her Palestinian neighbour) and an impromptu visit from Maria’s anti-Israel parents, whose families’ involvement in World War II is an endless source of mystery and curiosity to Shira’s family.
Amidst all the film’s intertwining plots and countless political, religious, and ethical landmines, it may be one of the boldest films I’ve seen in a long time. However, to me at least, against all odds, it seems to work. This is because Kiss Me Kosher is not a mess, it’s a balagan.
A balagan might be the kind of mess created by someone who whines about how “drama just follows me everywhere”. It is the kind of mess that is driven by the strongly emotional Israeli mentality that is the mainstay of Israeli romantic comedies and, to outside audiences, is undeniably confusing. It’s the kind of mess that fractures and stresses, but imagine how banal and depressing life would be without it?
Admittedly, Kiss Me Kosher may be a film that doesn’t exist too far beyond its essential premise. The performances are forgettably fine. The script, whilst full of excellent one-liners on the part of every character, is noticeably overwritten (although this is forgivable as the script navigates English, Hebrew, German, and Arabic), and I didn’t realise that films with such aggressively saccharine endings were still being made.
Yet, I would argue that the premise is mined sensitively and intelligently. In some ways, the characters of Kiss Me Kosher represent the madly confusing demographics of Israel — where hardcore nationalism and religious zealotry are crammed into an area equivalent in size to Wales (more than half of which is desert), alongside an eclectically heterogeneous society including one of the world’s most vibrant LGBTQ+ communities. Israel, of course, is itself the ultimate balagan.
It was intriguing watching how these cultural clashes manifested. The Holocaust, unsurprisingly, features heavily throughout the film and it’s mainly applied almost humorously and in a self-deprecating way. When Maria asks why it keeps cropping up, Shira responds, “Where I’m from that’s all we talk about. And if we’re not analysing it or using it as an excuse for something we’re not supposed to be doing, we’re eating. And that’s connected to the Holocaust too.” Additionally, whilst Shira’s relationship with Maria is, maybe grudgingly, tolerated by her parents, the prospect of non-Jewish children is deemed too much to bear.
Fundamentally, Kiss Me Kosher tells an archetypal story of the power of love conquering all in the face of seemingly impossible adversity. I’m unsure of how the cultural sensitivities would be appreciated by a wider audience – after all, why should a Jew and a German not be together in 2021? However, from start to finish, I was grinning from cheek to cheek. Maybe it was because I’d had an exhausting day, or because I was drinking throughout, or maybe it was because I had just seen my Israeli grandparents for the first time in over two years. Regardless, Kiss Me Kosher, despite its shortcomings, is a film with its heart so firmly set in the right place that I couldn’t care less. In the words of Shira, “Here’s to the couples that shouldn’t fit, but somehow do.”
Watch the trailer for Kiss Me Kosher here: