October 13, 2005
The Secret Lives of Religious People
Something strange is going on.
Only a few minutes have passed in the Israeli film, "Ushpizin," named after the holy guests invited into the sukkah, and there's something wrong with this feature about an ultra-Orthodox Israeli couple.
Everything looks so real.
The payos, those long sidelocks that Chasidim sport, don't look like they're taped on; they don't look like they've been twirled with a curling iron, either. The Yiddish pronunciations are flawless, as is the devoted praying and the avid hand gestures. Most interestingly, the married couple -- Moshe and Malli Bellanga -- don't touch, but manage to convey an intimacy rarely seen onscreen.
It's like being transported inside Sha'arei Hessed, the ultra-Orthodox Jerusalem neighborhood where the film takes place.
That's because Shuli Rand, the writer and star, is himself Charedi -- a Breslau Chasid who lives in Jerusalem -- and his onscreen wife is his real-life spouse, and all the religious characters and extras in the film are religious in real life. Many of them are former actors who gave it up when they became Orthodox, like Rand.
In other words, "Ushpizin" is not merely art imitating life: It's art that captures a usually hidden world.
The movie begins on erev Sukkot, the day before the Tabernacles holiday, in this white-stoned, crowded neighborhood of apartments and courtyards, and everyone is frantically running around to finish holiday errands, from finding the perfect etrog (the rare citrus fruit required for the holiday) to erecting and decorating sukkahs (the four-walled structures meant to mimic the temporary dwellings of the Children of Israel when they wandered in the desert).
But the Bellangas, a childless older couple who have been married only five years, are not part of this joyous bustling because they have no money: not enough to buy a simple etrog or afford a sukkah or even cook a decent meal. Moshe, who spends his days learning in Kollel yeshiva, like most of the men in his neighborhood, is berated by his shrewish but loving wife who insists he must pray harder for a miracle.
The story of "Ushpizin" is what happens after the miracle occurs: The Bellangas get their money, a sukkah and an etrog, but they also get some unsavory guests from Moshe's secular past who test Malli and Moshe's faith -- in each other, in humanity and in God. In the end, "Ushpizin" becomes a sort of meditation on faith, even as it offers a peek into a beautiful world that is usually closed to outsiders.
Plenty of filmmakers have tried to portray the religious lifestyle in fictional films, from Israeli auteur Amos Gitai in "Kadosh" to America's Sidney Lumet in "A Stranger Among Us," starring Melanie Griffith. But these films are from the outside looking in. The results vary, including words that are inaccurate ("Yentl") or agenda-driven: In "Time of Favor" and "Campfire," Israeli American writer-director Joseph Cedar portrays the Israeli Nationalist-Zionist world in which he grew up in an authentic, but critical way.
"Most movies I know are from the outsider's perspective," said director Gidi Dar, a secular Israeli who knew Rand when Rand was a secular theater actor. The two worked together in Tel Aviv, but stopped after Rand left the business to become religious in 1996.
"It's not a challenge to show the audience what they already know, what they believe anyhow -- that the religious society is a patriarchic society, because they already know that," Dar said.
The increasing polarization in America between the religious and secular is nothing new for Israelis. Practically since the founding of the state, the two groups harbored antipathy toward one another: The secular are wary of religious ambitions to convert them; the religious hope to safeguard the state's religious character. In other words, getting secular Israelis to watch a sympathetic movie about the ultra-Orthodox would be like asking a bunch of Democrats here to watch a heartwarming story of the Bushes.
"One of the ambitions I had as a filmmaker was to take the secular people I know who normally despise Charedim on a trip and into a world they don't know," said Dar. "I force them to identify for an hour and a half with a point of view they don't share."
One man came up to him and said, "Thank you for letting me love these people for an hour and a half."
And love them you do, especially Malli and Moshe, for their unswerving and pure faith in the Almighty -- as their low-life guests gorge, get drunk, smoke and even stage a horrendously loud barbecue with blaring Middle-Eastern disco in the middle of the holiday -- which brings out the worst of the cluckish neighbors of this close-knit community. Even then, it's clear the antagonists are the criminals and the Chassidim are acting well within their rights by calling the police. And the Bellangas withstand even this approbation, as well as the tests to their marriage, because they believe in God, and this is one of God's many tests.
The real test -- the nonfictional one -- was in making the film. It all came about because Dar was complaining to his old friend how it wasn't fair they couldn't work together anymore. Rand by this time was an ultra-Orthodox married father of six.
"Shuli laughed and told me he has so many restrictions now it would never work out -- that he could not be part of any movie that was against his chosen way of life, that he couldn't work on the Sabbath, etc.," Dar said. "So I suggested that we do a film on his terms, one that would honor his limitations."
Aside from coming up with a script that would portray religious people in a positive light, that also meant no filming on Shabbat -- or screening the film in Israel on Shabbat -- and getting the approval of Rand's rabbi on the script, the production and any potential conflicts. He also had to allow Rand's real-life wife, nonactress Michal Bat Sheva Rand, to costar, because he could not play opposite any other woman.
Why did Dar, a secular Israeli who grew up in Haifa agree to these conditions?
"As an artist and filmmaker, for many years, I've been very interested in creating contact with my own tradition," Dar said. "We have a big problem in Israel: We have a complete disconnect -- a rupture between us and our culture.... The result is ignorance, and the result of ignorance is hatred and polarity, and that's what we actually have in Israel."
Dar admits that it was strange for him to work with an ultra-Orthodox crew, under the hasgacha -- supervision -- of a rabbi. But he wasn't interested in making a PR propaganda film either. He wanted to make a real film, with real characters and real conflicts.
"I'm not a hired gun. I only doing something I want to do. I always told Shuli, 'You know, we'll come from two different directions: You work on it from the perspective of the believer, and I'll work from the psychologist perspective."
For Dar the project became an investigation into understanding faith. "I got so curious; I was like Alice in Wonderland. It's like a world of legend. So I developed a lot of love for those people. I developed a lot of love for the innocence that they have or want to have," Dar said.
Did working on the film change Dar's opinion about the religious? Did it make him want to be religious?
"I say these people are crazy and we are all crazy -- including me. We know nothing about our reality. Nothing gives us solutions, because we don't know the answer to the riddle of our lives," Dar said. "What we have is what we believe, whether we believe in it or not."
Join The Jewish Journal on Sunday, Oct. 16, at 5 p.m. for a free screening of "Ushpizin" at the Lammele Fairfax, 7907 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles. Seating is limited. R.S.V.P. to firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information on the film, visit www.ushpizin.com.