The Zion King Returns Home with Jewtah
Growing up in Utah is a slightly different experience for each of us, and we each have our own story. Jeremy Rishe grew up in Utah in the ’80s and ’90s, raised in Mormon-centric culture, as a practicing Jew. Though he moved to New York decades ago, he learned that while you can take the Jew out of the desert, you can’t take the desert out of the Jew. Jewtah, Rishe’s whimsical and satirical comedy loosely inspired by his life experiences, is finally returning to Zion in the Mountain West for a special screening on August 4.
“A lot of people in New York are not from New York,” Rishe says, explaining that fellow actors and writers would frequently inquire about where he grew up. “I’d say ‘Utah,’ and they’d go ‘ Oh, are you Mormon?’ That was always the question. I’d say no, I’m Jewish, they’d be like oh, really? That’s so interesting. What was it like being Jewish in Utah?” Rishe, a graduate of the Actor Training Program at the University of Utah and who had his Bar Mitzvah and confirmation with the Congregation Kol Ami, found that the question always hung over him. While Rishe was in graduate school at New York University, he met a fellow student, Danai Gurira, who would go on to play lead roles in The Walking Dead and Black Panther, as well as earn a Tony Nomination for writing the play Eclipsed.
“We said, ‘What if we did the $20,000 version of this movie? What would that look like?’”
Gurira was the first person to tell Rishe that he should write about growing up in Utah, though the suggestion popped up again years later. “I was on Law & Order, and one of the series regulars said ‘Oh, you should write something about being Jewish in Utah,’” Rishe says. “And so I did. I started doing that in 2007, and the script went through all these various iterations.” It was in 2015 that Rishe and Cameron Bossert, a writer/director, decided that it was time to stop talking about the project and actually make it. When the creative duo broke down the script alongside a script supervisor and discovered that their ambitious vision of the project would cost three quarters of $1 million to produce, it was time to start rethinking that vision. “We said, ‘What if we did the $20,000 version of this movie? What would that look like?’” Rishe explains, and the film was reimagined on a smaller scale, with Bossert directing and Rishe starring in the script that they wrote together.
Jewtah tells the story of Pincus (Rishe), a Jewish man in his ’30s who suffers from severe anxiety and has been holed up in the basement of his grandparents home for many years, hiding from the world—especially the Mormon neighbors. When Pincus’ grandmother decides to sell the home, Pincus is forced to confront his fears, with the help of supernatural guidance coming in the form of an ancient Jewish Muse (Amy Lynn Stewart, I Know This Much Is True, Monsterland) and a visitation from LDS Church founder Joseph Smith (Robert Scott Smith, Babysitter Must Die).
“So, this thing that in some ways I had moved on from suddenly got a second wind,” Rishe says. “And I’m glad, because 90 percent of the people who made the movie are in Utah, and we always wanted to screen it for them.”
The film finished shooting in 2018, and Rishe and Bossert were well on their way to securing a deal with a company that specializes in Jewish-themed films. The plan was for Jewtah to play in film festivals and in screenings at libraries and Jewish Community Centers across the United States, followed by a video on demand release. It was just as everything looked as if it would come together that, like the biblical figure Job, the duo who had worked their way past many obstacles in getting Jewtah made found that their series of trials would include a plague. COVID-19 halted all screening efforts, and its economic effect on the film industry left them without a distributor. Emotionally exhausted by the experience, Rishe and Bossert finally chose to make Jewtah available for rent on Vimeo, though the cast and crew in Utah were still hopeful that a local premiere screening was on the horizon. It was actor Joel Stanley Huff, who plays Randy, a Mormon neighbor who used to bully Pincus in their school days, who set things in motion to screen Jewtah at the library downtown. “So, this thing that in some ways I had moved on from suddenly got a second wind,” Rishe says. “And I’m glad, because 90 percent of the people who made the movie are in Utah, and we always wanted to screen it for them.”
Jewtah will screen at 7:00 p.m. on Thursday, August 4, at the Salt Lake City Library in the Tessman Auditorium (210 East 400 South). Admission is free to the public, and much of the cast and crew will be in attendance, including Rishe and his parents, Harvey and Sharon Rishe, who served as executive producers and play Pincus’ grandparents, Phil and Filene. It’s a homecoming, both for the film and for Jeremy Rishe, who is pleased at long last to fulfill a long-awaited prophecy, gathering his filmmaking tribe together in Zion for this long-awaited moment.