The Five Year Engagement: Jason Segel’s Interfaith Worldview

Plenty of movies depict interfaith couples: Exodus, Annie Hall, When Harry Met Sally. The new romantic comedy The Five Year Engagement chronicles the courtship of chef Tom (Jewish), and graduate student Violet (Christian). Actor Jason Segel, the leading man and script co-writer, happens to hail from an interfaith family himself. So I went to see the movie, searching for traces of Segel’s view on interfaith life.

Last year, Segel co-wrote and starred in The Muppets. The first time I heard “Man or Muppet,” the Grammy-nominated song from that movie, the song immediately struck me as a metaphor for the choices the world forces on interfaith children. I would love to find out whether Segel ever thought of the song in those terms.

Generally, I have to say I am not a fan of  the work of Judd Apatow, producer of The Five Year Engagement. Though I appreciate the sharp and witty dialogue, I prefer my romance without Apatow’s signature drunken vomiting, potty humor and crude guy talk, all of which appear in this film. The Five Year Engagement also runs too long, with a rambling chronology. On the other hand, the film centers on a real and bittersweet exploration of the dilemma for both partners over work, geography, and marriage.

Religious difference plays very little role in this film’s plot. Segel has said that some of the religion material ended up on the cutting-room floor. I like to imagine that by minimizing religion as a source of conflict, Segel, as an adult interfaith child, is making a positive statement about the possibilities of interfaith love.

We do get a glimpse of religious difference in each of the successive wedding plans, as the couple repeatedly approach and then back off from tying the knot. In the first wedding planning session with all four parents and a clergy member representing each side, the Jews announce that the men will wear yarmulkes, and the Christians counter with a plan to have communion at the wedding. Interfaith lesson #1: passive-aggression, willful religious ignorance and hardline negotiation are not effective interfaith communication skills. The wedding plan falls through.

In their next attempt, the couple approach a Chabad rabbi at the last minute, who asks if the bride is Jewish. The couple dissembles and the rabbi dances at the engagement party (in a barbecue joint specializing in pork!). But the wedding again falls through. Interfaith lesson #2: dishonesty about who we are and last-minute random religious choices are not helpful. The wedding plan falls through.

In the end (spoiler alert, though you will see it coming from a mile away), the couple succeed in getting married. Choosing between a Christian, an “extreme Christian” (who appears to be Eastern Orthodox), a Buddhist, a Rabbi, and a justice of the peace, Tom chooses the lay officiant. Cue the happily-ever-after credits. Interfaith lesson #3: the desire for a sense of balance often leads interfaith couples to choose a secular officiant. If both members of the couple are secular people, this works fine.

For those of us who want balance, but also care deeply about religion, finding clergy to co-officiate is the alternative to a justice of the peace. But this solution would have been too complex for the rushed wedding in this movie, and perhaps too much religion for the fictional couple in question.

In a recent interview with the Jewish Journal, Segel described his upbringing this way: “My dad’s Jewish, and my mom’s Christian, so I was raised with a little bit of everything.” Note that he introduces his own religious background with a description of balance, rather than choice. His lament is familiar to all of us who felt excluded growing up as patrilinial Jews: “I wasn’t considered Jewish at Hebrew school because my mother isn’t Jewish, and I wasn’t considered Christian at Christian school. What occurred to me is, ‘This is not God’.”

Segel had a Bar Mitzvah. But when asked if he considers himself a “cultural Jew” he replies: “Yes. But in terms of organized religion, again, I think the notion of ‘I know better than someone else’ is wildly arrogant.” Here, Segel sounds to me like a classic adult interfaith child. Having lived the experience of growing up in interfaith families, we tend to see the world from more than one viewpoint, and we tend to question the idea that only one religious tradition could be the true path. We are also likely to feel alienated from religious institutions that have rejected us.

Rather than bitterness, Segel’s fairytale ending expresses optimism that interfaith couples can achieve happiness. For those of us who grew up in functional interfaith families, interfaith love is not just a romantic fiction. We need to stand up and be counted, to let the world know that in spite of the obstacles our parents still love each other, that we are not confused, and that we draw creative power from our double-belonging.

5 Replies to “The Five Year Engagement: Jason Segel’s Interfaith Worldview”

  1. Now I want to see this movie. I had no idea it had an interfaith twist. I think that all couples, but especially interfaith couples need to have a few important conversations before they get married or even engaged at what their religious, or interfaith “identity” is going to be.

    Have you read Joel Crohn’s book “Mixed Matches”? He offers a framework of 5 possible identities that mixed couples can have: transcendent, secular, bi-cultural, modified bi-cultural, and assimilated.

    Transcendent means the couple adopts beliefs, traditions and rituals from multiple sources, including ones outside the cultures, races and religions of their origin.

    Secular means the couple takes a nonreligious approach to life and is minimally involved in the practice of cultural and religious beliefs, rituals and traditions.

    Bi-cultural couples try to balance the beliefs, traditions and rituals from each partner’s cultural, religious and racial backgrounds.

    Modified Bi-cultural means the couple adopts a single religion, either from one partner’s background or a mutually agreeable “compromised” religion and tries to honor the beliefs and traditions of both partners in a selective, but relatively balanced way.

    Lastly, assimilated means when one partner assimilates and converts to the beliefs, traditions and rituals of the other partner’s cultural, religious and racial background. This is the one where the person who converts sometimes has tension with his or her family.

    I found the book really helpful and recommend it to all my friends in interfaith relationships. After reading about the different identities, I found my relationship to be “transcendent” because we celebrate both Jewish and Hindu holidays, but the two of us really relate to Buddhist philosophy and have a large number of Muslim and Christian friends and go to all their holidays and like many things about their religions as well. By the title of your blog, I am assuming that your parents were either transcendent or bi-cultural? Does that sound right?

    I really enjoyed reading Jason Segel’s interview and thought he sounded very intelligent and insightful. Contrary to the character Marshall, who he portrays in How I Met Your Mother. It is sad to hear how he didn’t feel like he belonged in either Sunday School or Hebrew School. But it seems like that he has processed it and has come to a spiritual connection to a higher being, without strictly following an organized religion.

    Thank you for this post Susan. I enjoy posts like these where you connect popular culture and media with deeper interfaith issues.

  2. Hi Ladki–Thanks for your great comment! I agree Crohn’s sorting can be useful. It would be interesting to have others weigh in here on where they see their families in this system.

    My husband and I are raising our children as bi-cultural–that is the vision of our intentional interfaith community. Though we live in a very transcendent milieu–friends with practicing Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims. We have picked up practices from other cultures, but Judaism and Christianity remain the “lead religions” and have special emphasis because of extended family and the ancestral claims on us.

    The relationship of my parents lies somewhere between modified bi-cultural and assimilated. They chose Reform Judaism as the family practice and as the religious label for their children. My mother dropped all Christian practice, but never converted. We celebrated Christmas and Easter at the homes of Christian relatives. This is the strategy of many Jewish-identified interfaith families. Having grown up with this strategy, I would just say that it creates various tensions (each pathway has benefits and drawbacks). There is a tension between choosing one religious label, and the reality of a parent and extended family who bear a different label. And there is tension due to the disagreement among various Jewish movements (and between Israeli immigration law and Israeli religious law) over who is considered Jewish.

    For our own family, my husband and I intentionally chose to shift towards the balance of a bi-cultural practice. Although it may exacerbate the “are you Jewish or not?” issue in the eyes of religious institutions, it comes with the huge benefit of more comprehensive education in both religions and their historical and theological commonalities and differences. And it comes with the creative power of claiming a holistic identity that is inclusive rather than exclusive.

    My book (Beacon Press, 2013) will tell this story in depth, along with the stories of many others who have chosen intentional interfaith communities to support them in bi-cultural relationships.

  3. “When Harry Met Sally” depicts an interfaith relationship, presumably between a non-Jew and a Jew? Nowhere is this mentioned in the film, nor even hinted at, not even with their last names.

    By the same standard, Spartacus, The Other Boleyn Girl, Star Wars, and the recent Three Three Musketeers also depict interfaith relationships…

  4. Welcome follerals–You are right that religion is not mentioned, and thank you for bringing that up. So why did film critic Michael Fox include the film in his article on the ten best interfaith films (linked in my piece under “Plenty of movies…”). I admit I haven’t seen the film in ages, but I too had the impression that Crystal’s character was Jewish, Ryan’s was not. Why? In part because of the scene in Katz’s Deli, which is clearly an homage to the deli scene in Annie Hall. The San Francisco Examiner, in an article entitled “What is Jewish About the Film ‘When Harry Met Sally’,” ( quotes Media Studies professor Nathan Abrams: “…the eponymous gentile Sally (Meg Ryan) ordering a turkey sandwich on white bread with mayonnaise, while the overtly Jewish Harry (Billy Crystal) eats salt beef on rye. Harry visibly winces as she orders.” Of course, there is no way to prove the religious affiliation of fictional characters who do not mention their religious affiliations.

  5. I think there is a habit among certain movie critics (who come from a certain way of thinking…) to label movie characters “Jewish” because of this reason or that – reasons that have nothing to do with anything explicit (or implicit) in the film, much less anyone’s religious affiliation! Hence comments like “the overtly Jewish” Harry, which comes from nowhere most people can understand.

    For example, in a movie like the very good Forget Paris (1995), starring Billy Crystal and Debra Winger, I can imagine one of these critics calling the Crystal character “Jewish” but not the Winger character, even though nothing is explicit in the film and both actors are Jewish in real life.

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