Writer-director Jill Soloway has quite the reputation for writing about Jews and sex. As co-executive producer on HBO’s hit mortuary drama “Six Feet Under,” she created a Reform rabbi character whose congregant’s boyfriend accidentally hangs himself during autoerotic asphyxiation. The series’ creator, Alan Ball, hired Soloway after reading her comic short story, “Courteney Cox’s A——.”
Then there’s Soloway’s 2005 memoir, “Tiny Ladies in Shiny Pants,” which dedicates a section to “why people think Jewish girls are whores” and recounts, among other adventures, how she lost her virginity at 17 to an older man who “looked like a more Jewish George Hamilton” and wore a 14K gold chai dangling on a chain around his neck.
Soloway’s short film, “Una Hora Por Favora,” which was well received at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, details a rendezvous between a Jewish woman and a Latino day laborer.
And now her debut feature film, “Afternoon Delight,” spotlights a bored Jewish Silver Lake housewife, Rachel (Kathryn Hahn), who drops a bomb into her marriage when she takes in a stripper named McKenna (Juno Temple), after receiving a mind-blowing lap dance from the sex worker.
Soloway (“The United States of Tara,” “How to Make It in America”) was both erudite and irreverent during a recent interview; she said she first began envisioning the film after experiencing several lap dances at venues like Cheetahs Hollywood and Jumbo’s Clown Room. “It was sort of a hipster thing to do,” she said, explaining that trendy couples of late have been known to check out a strip club after dinner and a movie.
As it turned out, she found, the experience was about much more than being turned on. “I had always assumed that the transaction within the closed curtain of a private dance was fully sexual, and I was so surprised to see that it was actually an emotional transaction,” she said. “They really make you feel like they love you; it’s like they’re imitating the feeling of being known and seen. I was like, ‘Oh my God, she loves me; she needs me; I have to come back to [rescue] her the next day.’ I had so many unspoken questions: ‘Could I be you?’ ‘Are we like each other?’ ‘Are we different?’ ‘Do we have to secretly hate each other?’ ”
The result, at first, was a screenplay titled “Father’s Day,” about two women who hire a call girl for their husbands from an ad in the back of the Chicago Reader. “But I could never get past page 30,” she said of that script. It languished on her computer until she attended the Sundance festival a couple of years ago and “saw a number of movies that weren’t that great, where people were just giving themselves permission to do anything,” Soloway said. “I was so angry; I would just go back to my condo and hate-write the second act.”
The film eventually evolved into “Afternoon Delight,” a comedy-drama in which Rachel, who has been sexually languishing since the birth of her toddler, tries to spice up her marriage by visiting an adult club with hubby in tow. “I wanted Rachel to leave the lap dance in a state of confusion,” Soloway said. “When she goes back to quote-unquote rescue McKenna, she’s really going back to rescue the lost sexual part of herself. The film is really about repairing the divided feminine. It’s the arc of the heroine’s journey — the mythic meeting of the Madonna and the whore, and how both women need to integrate both [of these figures].
“Most dramas routinely sacrifice sex workers to murder or rape, because the cultural trope is that they don’t deserve to have full lives,” Soloway added. “But I didn’t want to throw McKenna under the bus. I wanted to subvert that and to explore what it means for a sex worker not only to get out alive, but to be loved.”
Soloway — a co-founder of East Side Jews, a group that seeks to reinvent Jewish rituals and traditions in both cheeky and serious fashion — set Rachel’s son’s preschool at the Silverlake Independent Jewish Community Center, which now counts East Side Jews as one of its programs. And she created a scene in which Rachel and her husband light Shabbat candles as they attempt to rekindle their relationship: “The moment the flame comes up is an intentional nod to the Divine spark,” she said.
Her own childhood in Chicago was distinctly secular. “[There was] no attempt to fill the hole created by the lack of spirituality — just the knowledge that horrible s— happens for no good reason, and it happens even worse to the Jews,” she wrote in her memoir.
Then, in the sixth grade, Soloway transferred for a year to the Akiba-Schechter Jewish Day School, where “it seemed the students knew they had a place in the world, which I was really jealous of,” she said in the interview.
Soloway found that same sense of safety when she was looking for a preschool for her oldest son, Isaac, now 16, and walked into Temple Israel of Hollywood. Previously, she said, “I was the kind of Jew who’d be in a bar, somebody would say it’s Yom Kippur, and I’d go, ‘Really?’ ” Yet once her son was ensconced at the temple, Soloway said she began occasionally lighting Sabbath candles with the handmade candleholders he’d bring home from school art projects.
The biggest change came in 2005, however, when Soloway attended a summit sponsored by Reboot, a national nonprofit dedicated to helping American Jews adapt tradition for their modern lives. Soloway said she was especially taken with a moving and hilarious Havdalah service that educator Amichai Lau-Lavie led in drag. “At one point he said, ‘God is a big black woman,’ ” she said. “I just wanted to follow him around everywhere.”
Later, while hiking by herself, Soloway suddenly realized that she wanted to celebrate Shabbat by turning off her computer for 24 hours every week. “I just really got what it meant to separate one day from the other six days, and what that would mean for my dignity as a human being,” she said.
Back in Los Angeles, Soloway also drew on Reboot concepts to co-found East Side Jews, where 300 to 400 participants now attend the events, including a monthly Shabbat dinner at restaurants around town and an annual tashlich service on the banks of the Los Angeles River. “I noticed that people were craving a way of reinterpreting tradition, and of being Jewish without joining a synagogue,” she said.
Other programs have included a Rosh
Chodesh happening called “Once in a Jew Moon” and a Tu b’Av singles event, where Soloway and six other matchmakers wearing babushkas hooked couples up in the courtyard of Wilshire Boulevard Temple.
These days, the writer is creating a new television series for Amazon, titled “Transparent,” which will star Jeffrey Tambor as the transgender patriarch of a Jewish clan in Los Angeles — and will involve another Soloway foray into the realm of Jews and sex.
“I like to say it’s about family, boundaries, secrets, food — and flesh,” she said.
“Afternoon Delight” hits theaters on Aug. 30.