Zoe Lister-Jones with Williams Cole
Zoe Lister-Jones is a star of the new film Arranged, the story of the friendship of two women, one an Orthodox Jew and the other a Muslim. Directed by Diane Crespo and Stefan Schaefer, the film is set in contemporary Brooklyn. Opening at the Quad Cinemas on December 14th, the film premiered at South by Southwest and went on to win the Best Narrative Feature prize at the Brooklyn Film Festival. Lister-Jones, a Brooklyn native, has appeared on Broadway in The Little Dog Laughed, has had a one woman show at P.S. 122, and is the youngest actor to ever appear on all four Law and Order TV series. She was also featured in Guy Richards Smit’s art video Nausea II (2004). The Rail’s Williams Cole sat down with Lister-Jones and talked about her experiences growing up in Kings County, playing an Orthodox Jew, wearing snoods and showing skin.
Williams Cole (Rail): Tell us about the plot of Arranged.
Zoe Lister-Jones: Arranged is the story of a young Orthodox Jewish woman and a young Muslim woman who are both teaching at a Brooklyn public school and connect because they’re both outsiders sticking to what most people think of as antiquated traditions. As they get to know each other they find out they’re also both going through the process of arranged marriages. I think it’s a wonderful story to tell, especially because it’s so Brooklyn-centric. What’s amazing about Brooklyn is that you have neighborhoods where it’s literally the Jewish block next to the Muslim block and while the communities are so weirdly segregated from each other, they’re so head-to-head that they’re much more aware of each other than more spread-out communities, where I think it’s easier to be ignorant. And in both the Muslim community and the Orthodox Jewish community there are political ties abroad and, at this time especially, that clearly has an impact on their relationship here.
Rail: You grew up in Brooklyn. What was your perspective on the Orthodox Jewish communities?
Lister-Jones: Growing up my perception was fairly negative, because I was raised by artists who had a very distinct connection to their own Judaism and spirituality. So it wasn’t just like “Oh, that’s some Jewish nonsense.” We were very identified as Jews, but the Orthodox seemed like Evangelists to us. I remember that some Orthodox rented a space underneath us in our synagogue and that they were very judgmental. And I didn’t like their judgment. It was really uncomfortable. And I also remember my mom teaching me that when the Hassids would come up to you and ask “Are you Jewish?” on the street, that I should say “Yes, but I don’t believe in your brand of Judaism!” which is really a funny thing to teach a kid to say. But because I don’t have balls like my Mom does, I would just say “Uh, no.” But she was like “don’t say no! You are! You are Jewish! You just take a stand!” I think she was always questioning their line of thinking because, as Jews, you are ultimately sharing the same beliefs. For her, it was about questioning why those communities do what they do and asking: Why do they have to be so based on tradition?
Rail: Arranged is loosely based on an Orthodox Jewish woman from Brooklyn who is actually the executive producer of the film, right?
Lister-Jones: Yes, her name is Yuta Silverman and she’s a totally interesting character. I wanted to meet her before I started working on the film because I was struggling with inhabiting this woman whose community I judged pretty heavily. So my mom and I went to meet her in Borough Park, which is an Orthodox hub. And it was really funny because my Mom and I knew that area of Brooklyn pretty well because we’d go and get our hallah there. My mom and I keep kosher, so there’s an aspect that we share with that community. But Yuta was surprised and asked, “How do you know about this place?” It was like we were coming in from Mars. We would say, “We’re from Brooklyn, of course we know about this place.” Then we got into this really interesting discussion where I asked her what she thought about feminism and she said, “I don’t like the ‘Feminist Group.’ I don’t believe in the feminist group. You know who I like? Rush Limbaugh.” And I was like, “Oh no! Here we go, my mom’s gonna have a fit!” But my mom then said, “Well do you think it’s fair that women teachers don’t get the same salary as male teachers?” She said no. “Do you think it’s fair that a man can divorce his wife but a woman can’t divorce her husband?” And she said, well, no. So it was about kind of taking away the stigma of the so-called feminist group and actually asking her questions that she could relate to specifically.
Rail: How does the Orthodox community look at what she’s doing?
Lister-Jones: What’s so fascinating about Yuta is that she’s an executive producer of a film—something that, in that community, to my knowledge, is pretty unheard of, especially as a female. I think she’s totally revolutionary in her actions but has no idea she is. But that’s what’s so cool about her. She’s in a community that seems misogynistic and really old school, and still, within it, she’s pushing certain boundaries with no real self-awareness. That’s what I could relate to in her character. She’s just like a really ballsy tall chick with flaming red hair—she kind of looks like an Orthodox Molly Ringwald. Most interesting characters are the ones that don’t wear things on their sleeves and have a certain mystery. I was fascinated with playing her character but I guess I didn’t know how to play it without judging her. I was actually judging the community as a whole rather than seeing there are really cool things going on in that community which I don’t think get a lot of press. There are women who are actually trying to push the envelope. Just the fact that Yuta isn’t married and has found a life where she loves to be independent of a mate is something really subversive in that community. She’s also started to make her own all-women films that are shown only to women! And it’s so funny to see a young woman who says, “I don’t believe in the feminist group” to essentially become a feminist filmmaker—and she does it all on her own. Also, one thing most people don’t understand about these communities is the different levels. For example, there’s modern Orthodox and regular Orthodox and, of course, that’s very different from the Hasidic communities. A lot of the time you can tell the differences in dress. I actually became obsessed with dress during shooting because sometimes I’d see a woman, say, showing elbow!
Rail: Clothes seem like the most obvious thing people outside these various communities notice. What did you start to see while inside the community?
Lister-Jones: While filming we were constantly surrounded by Orthodox women and I was noticing the details of how they dressed and sometimes how they differed from the regular Orthodox costume I had to wear to be authentic. Sometimes I was like “she’s showing her elbow, why can’t I show elbow?” And someone would say, “She’s modern Orthodox and that’s allowed.” And I would notice that their skirts were shorter. You cannot have anything even close to the knee as a regular Orthodox. And I would see women wearing skirts a little above the knees, or like mid-knee. And I got jealous because I wanted a mid-knee skirt so I could show some leg. But no—those were modern Orthodox, not who I was playing. There was also the thing with hair: I think the modern Orthodox women are allowed to show hair sometimes after marriage, whereas in traditional Orthodox you have to wear wigs or this lovely piece called a snood. It’s a really weird name but they go so far as to bedazzle them and things like that. There are whole snood stores where you can get just about anything you can dream of on the snood.
Rail: So there are all these requirements of dress but there’s still the tendency to push the limits within those restrictions?
Lister-Jones: Oh yeah totally. There’s this thing about being chic. When Yuta’s friends would come over, they were super-chic: all black, relatively tight-fitting clothes, and a lot of Espadrille shoes—kind of like ballet slipper high shoes exposing the ankle, which is super-sexy. But you can’t show toe. The Orthodox women are always have their toes covered with a stocking. But they were working it where they could and they were good at it. Also there were hot young Orthodox guys! I saw them at this café in Borough Park where I guess the young folks go. And, comparatively, I was showing it all. I mean, when we were filming out in Borough Park, we were coming from the West Village, Williamsburg, places like that. It was also in the middle of a heat wave in August and so we were wearing short-shorts and such. We looked like hookers and nobody was covering up so we were getting a lot of stares. But when I was near these hot Orthodox guys they weren’t even interested! They were looking for head-covered, Espadrille wearing, toe-covered ladies! I guess one would expect that you fetishize what you can. When someone’s completely covered, a little elbow is going to get pretty sexy.
Rail: Speaking of skin, weren’t you in one of Guy Richards Smit’s videos?
Lister-Jones: Guy Richards Smit and I start working together when I was in high school, and I joined his band Maxi Geil & Playcolt. And then I was in Nausea II, and now he’s doing a comic book that I am in. It was pretty erotic, performance stuff. Some of it was really fucked-up. It’s like a glam-rock art band—fashionista stuff—with a lot of skin showing. So it was totally the opposite of my character in Arranged. But since Arranged, I have played, in one year, three Orthodox Jews. So it’s become a strange niche for me. Before that it was strictly like junkies and rape victims…weird. It’s been an interesting turn for me.
Rail: So what’s the most important thing you take away from this turn?
Lister-Jones: My experience has led me to be very protective of the authenticity in representing the Orthodox community. It was an actor’s dream in terms of character and community study, that kind of immersion. But once I was outside of the community and all these people kind of wanted to make fun of it, I was testy. I feel it’s a really interesting community to explore and I like to question what’s happening in there without dismissing it as nonsense. I also feel afraid of this moment in the world to portray Jews poorly, because I think it’s too easy, and too provocative in terms of growing anti-Semitism. But I’m torn, because I feel very protective over my own Jewish community but I still have strong opinions about the Orthodox community. I do think that it’s important for a community like that to learn to question its traditions at a certain point, without throwing them all away.