Jewish Journal

Live at Sundance:  Jesse Eisenberg as a Hasidic drug mule

by Larry Mark

January 27, 2010 | 5:39 pm

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Monday was like Rosh Hashana at the Sundance Film Festival.  Two of the most highly anticipated Jewish films had their world premieres to sold out audiences and standing ovations.  “Holy Rollers,” which spotlights Brooklyn Hasids who smuggle drugs from Amsterdam—loosely inspired by real events from the 1990s—premiered to 1,400 attendees in the afternoon – including Harvey Weinstein.  And Monday night introduced the documentary “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work,” about the eponymous, provocative comedienne (more on Joan later).

“Holy Rollers,” by first-time feature auteur, Kevin Tyler Asch, stars Jesse Eisenberg (“Adventureland,” “Zombieland”), as Sam Gold, who is disgruntled by strictures of his religious community and the grind of working in his father’s fabric store on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.  His neighbor, Yosef (Justin Bartha), meanwhile, wears a Rolex and seems happy, and Sam becomes enamored of his exciting, extravagant lifestyle.  He doesn’t initially realize that Yosef’s loot is funded by an Ecstasy smuggling operation, run by an Israeli and staffed by Hasidic drug mules.  Before September 11, who would think of searching an observant Jew at the airport?

When Sam first signs on to the operation, he believes he is simply transporting medicine from Europe—but then finds he is good at his job and has a “kopf” for the business.  He gets the praise he seeks from his new friends, something he had found lacking at home and in his other endeavors.

“Holy Rollers,” is a double entendre, since “rolling” is a term used by users of Ecstasy to describe the drug’s high. “I really dig the title,” Asch said in an interview.  “The story is lively.  There were ideas for other titles.  But I wanted it to be accessible, and I did not want it to sound like a somber film.”

Sam’s father, Mendel, (Mark Ivanir) values happy customers more than gelt and profits; Leon (Jason Fuchs) is Sam’s best friend and next door neighbor; Leon’s older brother, Yosef, is the lapsed Hasid, who also enjoys watching porn on cable; Jackie Solomon (Danny A. Abeckaser), like a Jewish Al Pacino, is an Israeli-born drug smuggler, though he calls his mother in Israel every Shabbat; and Rachel (Ari Graynor) is a Hebrew school dropout and Jackie’s main squeeze.

Asked if any of his cast members were Jewish, Asch said with a laugh, “Much of the cast is, but I did not go into their specific [beliefs]...It is not as if I counted out people who were not Jewish, but it was important to me. [The story] is based in reality so it was important to find people who fit these roles, and being Jewish, I think, we had a deeper curiosity about ultra-Orthodox culture.”

If some viewers characterize the film as a Hasidic “Goodfellas”—sans the violence—or a Jewish “Mean Streets” or “Trainspotting,” Asch begs to differ. “It is actually a story about a young man’s struggle with faith and blind faith,” he said.

At the beginning of the movie, Sam hopes for an arranged match with a lovely Hasidic woman from a respected family, but the outcome of his initial meeting with her helps to push him down an alternate path, to isolation, and to a sense of alienation, which makes him vulnerable when he first visits nightclubs and is introduced to the drug subculture.

At first, Sam follows the practice of “niddah” (avoiding touching or mixing of genders), but not for long.  Astute observers will note that the Torah portions discussed in the synagogue scenes concern God asking Adam “where he is” in the Garden of Eden, and two of Aaron’s sons offering up a “strange fire” and perishing as a result.

The genesis for the movie, which at first glance may cause some Jewish community members to think its topic is a “Shandeh for the Goyim,” was actor Danny A. Abeckaser’s interest in the Israeli-Hasidic drug mule operation of the late 1990s.  U.S.  Customs officers usually ignored men and women in Hasidic garb at airports.  The actor thought the role of the Israeli drug smuggler would be a great challenge, and approached Asch with the idea for the film, who in turn hired Latino Mormon writer Antonio Macia to pen the script. “I did a lot of research on my own, [then] took the perspective of the character, Sam, and his journey, and how he takes these small little steps of compromise.”

New York actor Jesse Eisenberg was so enamored of the script two years ago that he drove to Brooklyn, explored the Hasidic community, discussed the project with his mother, then called his agent to sign on.

Research for the entire cast and crew included visiting Hasidic families; viewing the controversial Melanie Griffith film “A Life Apart;” reading “The Unchosen,” which profiles ultra-Orthodox Jews who left their communities; and a Hasidic extras casting professional who also served as a technical advisor on the film.

During rehearsals at his mother’s apartment in midtown Manhattan during Hanukkah, Asch said, “A Chabad ‘Mitzvah Tank’ was parked across the street. Ari, Jesse and I spent an hour in the Tank with the young Hasids who manned it, and we incorporated some of that experience into the script. Like when Ari went to shake their hands and they jumped back since she is a woman.  It was like a cop drama ride along by actors, but with tefillin instead of guns and arrests.”

While Eisenberg is currently working on the role of Facebook.com founder Mark Zuckerberg in “The Social Network,” Asch is already developing his next two films: “Great Neck” will be about growing up in a materialistic world in Great Neck, Long Island; and “Kings Highway” will focus on the rise of the Israeli Mafia in New York City.  Both are set in the late 1980’s.  A shanda?  No, Asch insists.  He is just writing interesting stories about interesting lives.

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