Jessie Kahnweiler is a 28-year-old filmmaker from Atlanta best-known for her new web series, Dude Where’s my Chutzpah. The series follows Kahnweiler on her quest to find meaning in Judaism after her grandmother dies, leaving her a large sum of money with one caveat: she’ll only receive the money if she can reconnect with her Jewish soul.
Kahnweiler is candid and hilarious, and has a way of saying the things you want to say but don’t have enough ‘chutzpah’ to actually say. She was awarded a Six Points Fellowship in 2012, a grant that supports Jewish artistic endeavors, and has a YouTube channel filled with shorts and trailers. She’s at work on a new series, White Noise, in which she infiltrates different cultural communities and breaks down stereotypes.
With an unapologetically honest and fresh voice, Kahnweiler is definitely on our radar, and should be on yours, too.
Did you always want to tell stories?
I played dress up until I was like … I don’t know, yesterday. I’ve always been interested in the art of storytelling and using my experiences to tell stories and process my own life and relationships. Since I was a kid I’ve created imaginary worlds in my head and talked to myself. In college we didn’t have a film department but I went to a hippy dippy school where you could design your own major. I took a film class and then just started making documentaries. I drove around the country with truck drivers for my thesis film, because I wanted to learn about truck drivers—I didn’t tell my mom about it until afterwards. It all just all feels like a natural progression.
What was going on before you got the Six Points Fellowship?
That’s the cool thing about this project, it really just found me. I know that sounds super cheesy, but it’s true. After college I moved to LA and started working on bigger Hollywood movie sets like Couples Retreat and Green Hornet, and I would make shorts on the side.
Then I was working for Bad Robot, J.J. Abrams’ production company, and one of my mentors told me to apply to the Six Points Fellowship. I was like, ‘Whatever, I’m not Jewy, I’m the last person to ever be able to make a Jewish film. What am I gonna write about, Rivka and having 20 kids?’ But then I just applied and wound up getting the grant. I left the production company and threw myself into this project for the past year and a half.
Did your grandmother really pass away and leave you a sum of money or was that fictional?
My grandmother actually ended up passing away during the making of the series, so it’s very weird how art imitated life. But, no, it was just inspired by real life. I was raised super reform and I dated more non-Jewish guys then I care to comment on. I look at the grant as a metaphor for how it really was. Like I got the grant and was like ok I’m going to make a film about being Jewish. That kind of parallels the actual film, you know what I mean?
Completely. What’s the Jewish culture like down in Atlanta?
Jesus! I don’t even know—lobster waffles? There’s definitely a Jewish community there but it’s not big. I was really good at playing soccer so I played with all the goys. I had a bat mitzvah and did what I was supposed to do but it always felt like an inconvenience—like, ‘Oh, I have to go to temple.’ I equated it with going to the dentist: I’m going to go, but I’m not going to like it.
I read that you pictured God as a man, and I feel like a lot of people visualize this big man in the sky running the show. Has going to Israel and getting more in touch with your roots changed your view on spirituality?
Wow, how much time do you have? No, I think you’re absolutely speaking to the point. I do look at God as a man because God, spirituality, and everything I learned was always an instruction, to believe ‘This is what you should eat, or this is what God is.’ I think we’re given the answers a lot growing up, and it’s so unfortunate, because when you look at the history of Judaism it reveals the complete opposite. Judaism is all about questioning and playing in the gray and being comfortable in the gray.
Doing the project and being in Israel has made religion and spirituality much more of a conversation for me. It’s opened me up in so many ways—last night I went to a Buddhist meditation meeting. In the past I would make fun of myself for doing something like that but now I am much more open.
So now you welcome all spiritual possibilities with open arms?
Totally. Not to sound like a hallmark card, but it’s a lot like when you think about love. I mean, words can’t even do it justice, so when you ask me about God or spirituality, there’s no symbol or word or place to describe it, because it’s not of this world. To even know that, though, is leaps and bounds from where I was a year ago, when I thought, ‘God’s a dick’—if God is so great then what the fuck is the Holocaust?
I know what you mean. What did you enjoy the most about Israel?
I went on Birthright and they show you all the places, but you don’t really get a lot of time to explore, so to be on a mission as a filmmaker and writer was totally different. For me, it was all about the people. All the energy and what it means to interact with Israelis and just really putting yourself out there.
Going to the West bank was a total mind fuck; it was really scary, but truly life changing. Dressing up as a boy and going to the Kotel, that was crazy too. Also stuff that we didn’t film, like meeting a cute guy on the bus and doing my laundry with him. Everyday is a movie there.
It really is. Falafel or shawarma?
Oh, I don’t know—that’s why you have two hands. One of each.
You’ve been compared to Lena Dunham, another funny Jewish girl. Do you welcome that comparison?
If you’re young and you’re a woman, people need someone to compare you to in order to understand you—so I totally see the comparison and translation of it. I think she has huge balls as a woman and really puts herself out there and has crafted this way to be an auteur and the captain of her own ship. I really admire that and obviously I like to work like that too. We’re different, but I welcome it. Honestly, I think I’m more similar to Penelope Cruz.
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