When Becky Tahel learned her younger sister Gal was going to marry a non-Jewish man, she began to grapple with whether she should marry Jewish herself.
Her new documentary, “American Birthright,” catalogues her search for answers and a greater understanding of religion, love and identity.
“The more I learn about this, the more I recognize I know absolutely nothing,” she says during the film. “How do I, as a Jew, educate myself about what Judaism is?”
Throughout the film, Tahel travels across America and Israel to consult a diverse range of rabbis, educators, activists, interfaith couples and children of interfaith couples about why the question of interfaith marriage is so complicated, and how it might shape her future relationships.
Tahel was born in Israel to a Moroccan Jewish mother and an Ashkenazi Jewish father whose family members experienced the Holocaust. As a young child, her family immigrated to Philadelphia, where she grew up attending Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El. As an adult, she moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career in acting and filmmaking.
Part of the documentary is filmed in Philadelphia, where Tahel visits her grandmother, a Holocaust survivor, to talk about her sister’s decision. She also speaks with her childhood rabbi, Neil Cooper of Beth Hillel-Beth El, when she revisits the site of her bat mitzvah, and he talks to her about how intermarriage impacts the longevity of the Jewish tradition.
“We have to look at the critical mass of Jews in this country and wonder how many more generations we have,” he says.
When she travels to Grenada to visit her sister, who is attending medical school there, they discuss how Jewish identity factors into their lives and relationships.
“It’s not like I’m going to marry a non-Jew and abandon all of these things, those things are very, very important to me,” Gal says of her Judaism.
Baruch Rozmarin, a Grenada rabbi, disagrees.
“And what Gal is doing is she’s cutting this chain, and she’s doing it after thousands of years of her family being Jewish,” he says in the documentary.
Other rabbis have a more favorable outlook on intermarriage and emphasize the importance of an individual’s connection to Judaism and supportive relationships with partners.
After speaking with a head-spinning number of people and arranging for Gal and her fiance Justin to meet with an interfaith premarital counselor, Tahel realizes that her sister’s decision will never give her answers about the role she wants religion to play in her life, or about her relationship to Torah. So she decides to travel to Israel in search of answers to her questions, which have changed from variations of “Should I marry Jewish?” to “Why be Jewish?”
She enrolls in an Orthodox women’s seminary in Jerusalem, where she continues to interview Jewish leaders about topics like modesty, prayer and Torah. Even though Israel inspires her and she immerses herself in Jewish study, she still feels like she has more questions than answers.
Clarity doesn’t arrive until she visits Haifa and experiences emotional reunions with both sides of her family. The encounters make her realize she wants to commit to actively carrying on Jewish traditions, which her relatives sacrificed so much to pass on, and find a partner who feels the same way.
At the end of the film, Tahel marries a Jewish man. A little more than two years after filming, they have a 5-month-old child together.
In a separate interview, Tahel said her experiences making the documentary inspired her to embrace a more observant form of Judaism, and she now keeps kosher, observes Jewish holidays, and dresses more modestly than she did in her 20s.
“That’s definitely been an interesting thing to navigate as a producer in the entertainment industry,” she said. “There are many Jews in Hollywood, but there aren’t that many observant Jews.”
By including so many diverse voices and celebrating the decisions by both sisters, the documentary refrains from dogmatically pushing a single message about Jewish faith and intermarriage. Rather, audiences see the sisters’ unique personal journeys and are given questions to help them reflect on their own lives.
Tahel also wanted to make sure the film didn’t pressure anyone to be more observant.
“I did feel like this was the optimal choice for me as a Jew who wants Judaism in her life, and I felt like I wanted that choice to be loud and proud, but I didn’t want it to be at odds with celebrating my sister’s life,” Tahel said in a separate interview. “No one ever got closer to their faith or their family or themselves because they were judged.”
“American Birthright” garnered awards at several film festivals, including the Audience Choice Award at the Seattle Jewish Film Festival and the Indie Spirit Award at the Idyllwild International Festival of Cinema. It will screen virtually at the Miami Jewish Film Festival beginning on April 15.