Passover is a TV holiday.
Seder means order—not just the sequence of the ceremonial meal, but also a sequence of plot points unfolding—a story arc, an episode. The most famous depictions of Passover seders (after, of course, da Vinci’s “The Last Supper”) appear in televised events for children: “A Rugrats Passover,” Gossip Girl’s “Seder Anything,” Sesame Street’s “It’s Passover, Grover!” Such plots tend to mimic the holiday itself: Tommy Pickles parts the seas, the Jews are freed, exodus into the credits. These are one-off ethnic adventures, performed for the enrichment of a broader audience. (In other words, Manischewitz bottle episodes.) The Jews are nice. The rituals are quaint. They rarely leave a mark once the seder has concluded.
In Uncut Gems, the seder is different. The holiday meal is first introduced not as a time for ritual retelling, but instead as a last looming moment to play nice, after which parents Howard and Dinah have agreed to tell the kids about their upcoming divorce. This is the seder as it really appears in the lives of most traditional-but-not-religious Jews; another mundane reason to haul out the bridge tables, schlep the kids over to the machatunim’s house, and draw out existing family dynamics over a slightly different cuisine. Passing his side-piece Julia on the way out of the office, Howard wields the family obligation as a weapon: “I gotta get to my father-in-law’s!”
Celery is dipped in the tears of Jewish slaves and the crunches sound sharp in rapid succession, like the clack of so many square-tipped acrylic nails.
The seder begins in a dining room arrayed with Jewish ritual artifacts—religious (candlesticks, yarmulkes), but also cultural (diamond tennis bracelets). The prayers begin baruch atah in an unknown cousin’s Tri-State accent. Celery is dipped in the tears of Jewish slaves and the crunches sound sharp in rapid succession, like the clack of so many square-tipped acrylic nails. Here, a certain ethnic Jewishness is left unvarnished. The father-in-law’s apartment is a testament to a bygone era of statement décor: vertical blinds and mirrored walls with matching mirrored light switch covers, most likely purchased on credit in the eighties and preserved as a time capsule of stagnant striving. Howard reads the plagues aloud in English—blood, boils, locusts, the slaying of the first born. In another movie, these might have been paired with their modern analogs. (Marital discord? Hubris? Greed?) Alas, everyone in the room is too distracted, texting at the table, biding time until the meal.
Why is this night different from all other nights? After they eat, the men gather in the den to not just smoke, but to smoke indoors. They fill up the span of a sectional sofa, watching an NBA game unfold. “I’ll have you know the first two points scored in the NBA were by a Jew,” says Howard earlier in the movie. Now, shoulder-to-shoulder upon the L-shaped couch, a more complex game of identity begins. The father-in-law makes a gesture towards Arno, his gentile creditor son-in-law. “You know what he says to me? He comes over and says to me, ‘Happy holidays!’ Like it’s Christmas! It’s like having an intruder in your own home.” Arno, unknowing, comes to sit down and the trio embark in a kind of pissing contest, based on their proximity to blackness and cash. “That fucking guy tried to steal an opal from me,” says Howard, pointing to Kevin Garnett on the screen. “What do you think it’s worth?” the room asks. He multiplies carats and thousands out loud. The cousins rush in to look for the afikomen and Howard’s youngest son finds it underneath the couch. “That’s my boy!” Howard shouts—a small win.
And then at last the camera winds up inside the bedroom. Dinah stands in a cluster of flat-ironed heads, zipped into her old bat mitzvah dress. Howard parts the sea of women. “You look gorgeous,” he tells her. “Oh gawd,” she says. (That nasal A—baruch atah addony.) Howard starts to plead that they should take another shot, try to make the marriage work, but this ritual—like many others in the night—is play-acted, empty, a mere obligation. Dinah won’t even deign to send a plague. He begs her to punch him; she throws a weak feint. “I don’t even want to touch you,” she laughs.
And so, the night concludes like many other Jewish nights in America—the women in clusters talking too long, the husband on a long walk to pull the car around. Mah nishtanah halailah hazeh mikol haleilot: Why is this night different from all other nights? Here, the answer is that it’s not. The seder, instead of a ritual glance backwards, becomes an occasion to reveal the status quo. Banal family dynamics are drawn out and crystallized, in some cases for the very last time.