Fress. Kvetch. Shtup.

Your life is a mess. You’re tired of the routine, you’re constantly craving more of what you’ve already attained, and you find true satisfaction in nothing and in no one. Well here’s the quick fix:
1. Plan an expensive get-away.
2. No, actually, scratch that—plan three expensive get-aways.
3. But it’s not just the location that’s getting to you. You’re also sick of your significant other. So dump the schlub, give no real reason for your decision to break-up, and then…
4. Swear with almost-compelling adamancy that you’re not looking to be in a relationship—
5. then sleep with a string of people who look nearly indistinguishable from your former sig-o. The key here is that they all must be young, virile, and totally whipped.
6. All the while, make sure not to deny yourself any culinary pleasure.
7. Gleefully declare your independence from weight concerns, as you claim to gourmandize your way around the world, eat more—while still fitting magically into your ever-expanding wardrobe of size 2 sartorial splendor.
8. Seek counsel from at least two oppressed Third World women who are visibly ‘ethnically Other.’
9. But in the end, make sure that it is you who gives them advice. After all, what are you if not the paragon of discipline, self-control, and loving-kindness?
10. Find yourself…in the arms of a ruggedly handsome Brazilian.

Summarized  (in case we’ve lost you already): Eat without gaining weight, pray without believing, and love without…well, loving. In case you have not sacrificed 133 minutes of your life watching the film adaptation of Elizabeth Gilbert’s best-selling Eat Pray Love (which I have not read), the 10 rules outlined above will help you attain enlightenment, according to the film’s impeccable logic. Writing a review of this film, pointing to its almost laughably offensive hypocrisy and disturbingly classist, racist, and sexist messages, is like shooting fish in a barrel, and many have beat me to this task already. Instead, I want to reflect on the larger trends that this film and the book upon which it is based represent and how we can use Judaism to deal with some of these cosmic issues that the EPL cult supposedly tackles and resolves.

In this month of Elul, leading up the earlier-than-usual battery of Jewish holidays this year, we are charged with the task of intensive cheshbon nefesh, a kind of introspective reflection on our actions over the past year.   In the current climate of crassly classist and gender-coded self-help quick-fixes, traditional Judaism offers us a much-needed antidote to the kind of ‘me first’ mentality of NSA new-agey spirituality that this film so strikinglyeat-pray-love-02 emblematizes. EPL has to be one of the least Jewish films  out there: despite the protagonist Liz’s insensitive and exploitative treatment of most of the other characters in the film, never once does our well-fed world-traveler express any genuine remorse for her cavalier treatment and attitude towards others.  Perhaps most notable in Liz’s string of careless actions towards others is her bizarrely under-explained, sudden, seemingly arbitrary abandonment of her spouse at the very outset of the film. While classically “Jewish guilt” can be stretched to unhealthy limits, at the very least it affirms that which is most essentially human about us—our ability to feel, our ability to be accountable to others.

In Avot d’Rabbi Natan, chapter 41, we are told that we should regard even the slightest wrong we commit against another with utmost seriousness; whereas we should not dwell on the good deeds we have performed for others.  This is a near 180 reversal of the EPL approach which dangerously conflates boundless personal enlightenment with boundless self-entitlement.  In the EPL film, protagonist Liz Gilbert’s single outward act of kindness to others –the scene in which she ‘selflessly’ emails her friends, appealing to them for donations to help a natural healer and her daughter build a house in Bali—is piously prefaced by Gilbert’s self-righteous declaration that this request comes in lieu of her annual birthday celebration. The dramatic montage that follows of her friends receiving the email appeal signals to us that this Liz’s ultimate moment of enlightenment; this is her defining moment of ‘giving,’ Beyond the obviously paternalistic quality of the rich-white-woman-saves-the-struggling-natives, this scene smacks of the kind of  crass, self-congratulatory armchair philanthropy that lulls people into self-righteous complacency:  ‘I’ve written the check; I am now absolved of further responsibility towards my fellow humans.’

Real loving-kindness involves a long-term investment in the sanctity of the Other.  And no, not just that supposedly ‘significant Other’—rather, the acknowledgement of all other people as significant, and the realization that we must invest in them not only materially, but also personally. The way to grow with others is to take responsibility by being present in their lives. What Liz lacks is a sense of rootedness, the sense of unity upon which community is based.  All of Gilbert’s globetrotting points to an inability and lack of desire to commit to other human beings and forge authentic relationships.
Again, it is entirely unclear what exactly propels Liz to leave her husband at the outset of the film—all we’re told is that ‘things can’t continue this way,’ although we see nothing particularly alarming onscreen. In fact, what we see is all fairly typical and benign; Liz and her adoring husband are engaging in light banter.  All we know is that Liz cannot handle her life as it is any longer. What present-day in-vogue spirituality misses is the point that one can actually discover boundless meaning in the routine of real, mundane life. Patience and forbearance might be considered passé, but it’s the real deal.

Case in point: even the National Geographic-quality cinematography, with its wide lens doting lovingly on EPL’s glamorously sun-soaked characters and sweeping, exotic landscapes and, bursting with exuberantly lush colour, still fails to make us love the film or the figures portrayed therein.  In this film, everything—and everyone—is relegated to the status of ambient scenery…a Potemkin village populated by poorly developed stereotypes. Despite a good chunk of the film taking place in India and Indonesia, we are basically spared any unpleasant and ‘unpalatable’ scenes of actual poverty and suffering.

It’s 133 minutes of tantalizing culinary, spiritual, and pseudo-sexual foreplay. Nothingeat-pray-love-03 ever really materializes, except for the sheer ubiquity of the material forces driving the ‘action’ (if you can even call it that). Set against only the most breathtaking of landscapes, we watch Robert’s character shamelessly indulging in an endless parade of epicurean delights, nearly interchangeable, conventionally attractive young men, and more generally, snorting up the cocaine of petty affirmation through the regurgitation of self-help platitudes.  EPL, with its ‘money and men can cure all’ approach is panglossian at best, and is inhumanely narcissistic at worst.  In this past week’s Parasha, Parashat Ki Tetse, we read towards the beginning of the portion of the sin of gluttony (Deut. 21:20-21); a gluttonous son technically qualifies for death by stoning. Indeed, death by stoning would have made the film considerably more interesting.

One of the more amusing points of the film, which is replete with instances of consoling consumption and too many delightful moments of conspicuous product-placement to mention, is when Liz seeks “whatever” (let’s just call it that, since her Self seems like a lost cause) at an Ashram, and is told she can purchase a “silence” tag at the bookstore. Even the choice to remain silent must be purchased!  Indeed, instead of appealing the Master of the Universe, we are advised to whip out our MasterCard.

Interestingly, God is never really mentioned in the film. Only at one point, when Liz first decides to “pray,” does she sort of address ‘God,’ but,  like everything else in the film, “God” here functions ornamentally, much in the same way as all of her beaus blend into the landscape as figures she uses instrumentally, solely for the purpose of her immediate personal edification and comfort.  Clearly, Liz’s ‘prayer’ is more a signifying act than a genuine appeal or promise for anything. Indeed, that very brief ‘prayer’ scene typifies today’s NSA spirituality.

According to an April 2010 article in USA Today, a whopping 72% of the members of generation Y in the U.S. self-identify as “more spiritual than religious”: a diffuse, general sense of “spirituality” seems to prevail among the younger generation. Exactly what such figures mean is an interesting question.  Perhaps young people, jaded by the perceived hypocrisy of societal institutions involved in questionable military adventures abroad and eat-pray-love-04failed economic and social policies at home, wish to avoid the stuffiness of institutional structure as they seek personal meaning.  This avoidance of established institutions, while perhaps explainable, is, nevertheless, regrettable.  While more structured and specifically religious forms of meaning-making can be stifling, this is not the time to abandon all forms of committed/practice-oriented devotion.  If anything, the young have the potential to infuse these older traditions with a new, updated kind of meaning and help build a form of worship and practice that is better attuned to the needs and desires of today’s meaning seeker.  But practice-based, community-oriented religion has received an unnecessarily bad rap these days.

Don’t get me wrong—spirituality is a beautiful thing in its genuine form. But every intention needs a structure—a calendar and a location—and most importantly, a community.  As social animals, even the seemingly solitary act of self-improvement relies heavily on our interaction with others.  Admittedly, at a certain point, it is difficult to draw a line separating ‘religion’ and spirituality.’ Ideally the two converge to create the ultimate meaningful devotional experience. In a way, the two share many of the same potential dangers: exploitative leadership, false promises, extortion of money, and so on. But in today’s cult of “take time for You,” these dangers seem to proliferate with the false comfort of ‘all you can eat’ spirituality that cuts you off from any real sense of empathy, participation and activism.

EAT PRAY LOVE
Is Javier Bardem holding a banana? Really??

Getting back to the film for a moment though: even in her supposedly most vulnerable moments in the film, there is something decidedly smug about Liz’s spiritual odyssey, which culminates in a neatly-resolved scene where she pursues a relationship with yet another attractive man.  Having found ‘love’ (or at least lust), Liz’s journey comes to a eminently photogenic close. As we move through the month of Elul, it is critical for us to keep in mind that true seeking never finishes in a Hollywood ending, but rather, is more challenging and also more beautiful and infinitely more subtle.

As we reflect on the past year and plan how we can create more genuine religious (or spiritual, if you like) experiences in the year to come, remember the words of André Gide who said, “”Believe those who are seeking the truth. Doubt those who find it.”

12 Responses to “Fress. Kvetch. Shtup.”

  1. Word.


    Danya · August 23rd, 2010 at 3:29 pm
  2. [...] Jewschool (blog) [...]


    Fress. Kvetch. Shtup. – Jewschool (blog) | Spiritual Minute · August 23rd, 2010 at 3:32 pm
  3. Consumerism! It’s the new Ba’al!


    shmuel · August 23rd, 2010 at 5:55 pm
  4. New?


    BZ · August 23rd, 2010 at 6:04 pm
  5. @SHmuel: Ba’al? Bali?


    KRG · August 23rd, 2010 at 7:29 pm
  6. I appreciate any post that demonstrates the offensive and ridiculous nature of Eat Pray Love. Between the outrageous Orientalism and the unthinking consumerism, my blood pressure while reading the book went up to, like, 800 over 790.

    Thanks, Raysh :)


    miri · August 24th, 2010 at 12:54 am
  7. Great review, Raysh. As an antidote I would suggest the Italian movie “I am Love.” Not necessarily an Elul movie, but disturbing because of its intense sensuality, eroticism and its confronting of the deep problematics of human relationships.


    Aryeh Cohen · August 24th, 2010 at 4:53 am
  8. [...] Who cares if the 42-year old Julia Roberts still manages to look like she’s thirty? Jewblogs across the internets (well, two of them, at least) have given two thumbs down to the self-absorbed story of a woman going on a culinary-spiritual dream tour around the world so she can find herself. This critique from Tablet is telling: “I would rather sit on a stoop in the rain than see ‘Eat Pray Love.’ In fact, I did just that.” [The Scroll] [Jewschool] [...]


    The Reading List: Jewblogs pan “Eat, Pray, Love” « New Voices · August 26th, 2010 at 1:49 am
  9. First of all, your “bashing review” was waaaaayyyyy toooooo looonnnggg! Second, she does express remorse, pretty much the whole India part of the story, HELLO! Third of all, like any book made into a movie, you are missing a very big slice of the storyline. And fourth, are you jealous? The “mass” consumption is much less in the book, other than the eating in Italy, but it’s food. And last time I checked, most people need that daily. And what’s wrong with a woman adding more curvature to her body? There aren’t any mega shopping sprees in this story. She walks or bikes places. Humble abodes in Italy (bathtub water?) & India (hello hot, stuffy roommate dorms!), & a good price in Bali because of the terrorists attacks. I was there right after these attacks, & the Balinese were really suffering economically then. This woman lost everything in leaving her marriage, & used all that was left to buy plane tickets & travel abroad. In the book, she is pretty much homeless returning to the States, & trying to figure out where to go. And the family she helped in Bali? I met this healer, in Ubud, way before the book ever came out, & SHE left her husband because he beat her nearly to death, more than once, in front of her daughter! And, she adopted two homeless, orphan girls that were destitute on the streets! Sadly, this woman & her girls, are major social outcasts. You don’t divorce in Indonesia. And the author raised $ for a family compound & shopfront for them, no small feat in Bali.
    And this is not a Jewish movie! Though the title does sound Jewish. There are Jewish teachings about travel to grow, work thru issues, or find oneself. I mean, what was 40 years in the desert all about! Perhaps all the dogma forced down everyone’s throats in “religion” has left such a bad taste, that “spirituality” seems softer, gentler & more feminine. After all, we women have got screwed, literally, by religions. And it’s still happening at the Kotel! WTF!!!
    So all you haters, go rag on some other travel, spiritual eye-candy movie! Nothings perfect. Or, make your own! And rock on Liz/Julia, for all the women who for thousands of years couldn’t do 1/100th of this story/movie!!!!!


    Lady Z · August 28th, 2010 at 10:33 pm
  10. This post is totally on target. What totally turned me off about the whole EPL “thing” is it typifies a common false belief that one can only know oneself when freed from real-world responsibilities toward other people. I think (sadly) that those who find so much “meaning” in EPL fantasize about shedding their own mundane responsibilities without consideration for the moral failures that result.


    Rachel Miller Solomin · August 29th, 2010 at 1:45 am
  11. I think one can find oneself, and our connection to God, in every place & situation. And that we each have our own paths to that. For this woman, she realized she had made a huge mistake, & was so blown away by it, that she felt she needed to put her “responsible” life on hold, & really figure out who she was. She craved knowing of herself, & without any spiritual belief system of her own, she took up the closest thing that moved her. This movie seems reflective of one raised without any religion or spirituality. Could that be the moral failure? Is it that she wasn’t born Jewish, raised Orthodox, stay married even when she felt suicidal about her marriage & living the rest of her life with her husband? Should she have been in counseling for 15yrs then could “bail”? Who are we to make that judgment call on her?

    I do not fantasize about shedding mundane responsibilities. I traveled to Bali with my husband, our two children, & my Rabbi, his wife, & some other friends from our Shul! The meaning I celebrate in this movie is the human journey of discovery, & that one CAN reconnect to God, the Divine, Spirituality, or whatever label you put on it. And that it can be done while doing the dishes, giving your kids a bath, or exploring a foreign country!

    I understand that this movie is not for everyone, and it doesn’t espouse mainstream, Orthodox Jewish values. But I don’t think it was as bad as everyone is painting it.


    Lady Z · August 31st, 2010 at 2:09 am
  12. [...] women seemed to love the book.  I’m not going to say much about it because this brilliant post from Jewschool a while back sums it up to a tee in three yiddish words that for me, highlight what I love about [...]


    a jewish perspective on eat pray love, hollywood orientalism + the bechdel test « jew on this · October 17th, 2010 at 9:06 am

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"I may attack a certain point of view which I consider false, but I will never attack a person who preaches it. I have always a high regard for the individual who is honest and moral, even when I am not in agreement with him. Such a relation is in accord with the concept of kavod habriyot, for beloved is man for he is created in the image of God." —Rav Joseph Soloveitchik