At the end of My Coffee with Jewish Friends, director Manfred Kirchheimer quotes an old saying: “Where there are two Jews, there are three opinions.” By intercutting various conversations with dozens of longtime Jewish friends, as well as a group of college students and a female rabbi, Kirchheimer proves the maxim true as he gradually reveals the innumerable shades of the modern Jewish identity. Covering the full spectrum of Jewish people, from secular artists and leftist intellectuals, and ideological orientations from Zionist to Orthodox, the documentary is a low-key affair that spends its opening 40 minutes meandering from topic to topic without much connective tissue. This opening half covers topics as varied as Jewish cuisine, the many forms of anti-Semitism, and sexism in Orthodox Judaism, but most of these issues are touched on too briefly to ever achieve much depth or nuance.
Around its halfway point, though, My Coffee with Jewish Friends gains a sense of purpose, focusing as it does more explicitly on the Israeli-Palestine conflict and the various philosophical and theological distinctions between Orthodox, reformed, and non-practicing secular Judaism. Kirchheimer’s relaxed, conversational tone, while a bit too congenial early on, exudes a patience, tolerance, and curiosity that mitigates his own professed liberal atheism while allowing his subjects to open up and declare their more controversial beliefs and worldviews. The increasingly tighter editing also leads to more satisfying collisions of these varying ideologies and opinions as the film’s initially light-hearted tête-à-têtes begin to veer into a more gratifying form of dialectics.
Even when deeply rooted conflicts arise, such as when some of Kirchheimer’s friends take umbrage with his devil’s-advocate defense of Palestinians, the filmmaker balances the more argumentative outbursts with comic reprieves. Soon after one friend goes on a rant about wanting to get rid of all the Arabs in Israel, Kirchheimer cuts to a more humorous dialogue where another friend offers a playful two-state solution suggesting that “Jews get the West Bank and the Palestinians get the Upper West Side of Manhattan.”
Another striking moment occurs during a lengthy conversation with Walter Hess, a man whose commitment to Judaism is inextricably linked to his feeling of guilt over potentially betraying his grandparents and others killed during the Holocaust if he were to lapse in his religious practices. Late in the conversation, Kirchheimer brings out Walter’s wife, Hannah, who also escaped Nazi Germany but remains surprisingly resolute in her atheism, admitting to finding the notion of God absurd. Her comments initially cause Walter to tear up, but Kirchheimer lightens the mood by bringing the conversation back to the things which helped the couple stay together for over 60 years. It’s this deftness at probing his subjects to examine the array of contradictions they carry inside them, along with his commitment to remaining open to all perspectives while never hesitating to challenge any he finds problematic, that lends the film a humanistic bent that colors its prismatic view of the Jewish experience and allows the film to rise above its simple conceit.