Long-time readers will remember that Toby Katz loved loved Ushpizin, which depicts an Israeli couple who adopted Orthodoxy (becoming Breslover Chassidim) and who have a pair of criminals — one of whom is an old friend of the husband — as guests (Ushpizin) for Sukkos.
I first saw the movie at a Shabbaton (Shabbos retreat), and then had the chance to view it a second time before writing up my reflections. It’s a good thing, too — because I watched it again in order to reflect further upon why I found it problematic. While watching a second time, I changed my mind.
No one can question that its depiction of Orthodox Jews is head and shoulders above most anything else published for general distribution. Wendy Shalit, in a column in the NY Times Book Review earlier this year, demonstrated that works allegedly depicting the observant community are all-too-often guilty of presenting a distorted, negative view. Fictional works which market themselves as portraying the world of Orthodox Judaism routinely offer characters with all the depth and sincerity of a cardboard cut-out, depriving the audience of the very thing that supposedly makes the works desireable.
The Orthodox of Ushpizin, on the other hand, are the real deal. And with good reason — not only is the writer and lead actor, Shuli Rand, himself an Israeli who adopted Orthodoxy, but the others portraying Orthodox Jews are observant as well. In fact, as you’ll find in the “making of the film” section on the DVD, they dressed in accordance with their regular dress, whether they were Sephardic, Lithuanian, Chassidic or Yerushalmi. You see the breadth of charedi life, with none of the string payos and glued-on beards which are so often representative of the caricature of observant life portrayed by the actors behind them.
This, however, would not be enough to recommend the film, especially as there are certain stereotypes that might be reinforced. The husband has no job and studies in yeshiva all day, so you might wonder why he doesn’t pray less and try to work more. In at least one case their prayer seems a more than a bit “over-the-top” (as they pray for a miracle), and there is an ugly confrontation between the religious residents and the secular guests because the latter play secular music (not even singing!) too loud.
As a matter of fact, the husband isn’t paid by the yeshiva because he wasn’t there enough. Is it too much to imagine that he was out looking for work? And as for the confrontation scene, if that were realistic I think it would have been hard to film that scene in the very neighborhood in which the confrontation allegedly happens.
But if we are willing to set those aside, the characters are very human and believable, and the depiction of Orthodoxy has much to recommend it. The writer said that he wrote this story to inspire dialogue between the Orthodox and the secular, and I think he succeeded. Here are a few of the positive themes:
1) Several secular viewers commented that they noticed the palpable connection between husband and wife, although they never touch each other. Given what they normally experience from Hollywood (or wherever they do this stuff in Israel), this was something of a surprise. And in addition, the closeness and mutual respect clearly run counter to the stereotypical depictions of Orthodox family relationships.
2) Their faith and trust in G-d — this is where, at first blush, you might wonder how non-Orthodox Jews would react. “Will they think people with such emunah are wacko?” But you see people showing a real, powerful connection with their G-d. They may speak with “Tatti” or “Abba” more than most observant Jews, but I don’t see that as a problem, both because of the problems they were having and because perhaps we should. There’s one scene where you will clearly imagine the Mrs. is talking to her husband… and then you see she is praying. In another, Moshe the host goes on about how wonderful it is to daven (and the character is drunk, so he’s supposedly spilling out what he really feels, unvarnished). It’s very powerful. Even the hardened secular guest who was “Moshe’s” friend from his “old days” eventually realizes Moshe is truly sincere.
3) The value placed upon having guests — many non-observant people are surprised to recognize how important it is to us to have guests. And Moshe’s Rabbi expresses delight at the fact that the guests are not observant. All those stereotypes about the Orthodox who close themselves off, who want no contact, who consider non-Orthodox Jews not to be Jewish — they all get tossed out the window.
4) Finally, the writer does an excellent job of conveying that Baalei Teshuvah, those who have adopted Orthodoxy, remain human beings. They are profoundly influenced by the religious life that they have adopted, but they are still the same people. As the (secular) director himself said, you learn to look behind the beard & payos and see the human being.
It’s for those reasons that I think the movie is very positive. Especially if you keep in mind that most Orthodox people don’t identify with “extreme praying,” that the confrontation in Meah Shearim is also exaggerated — but the attitude towards guests and G-d is not, the non-observant viewer will, for once, get a fairly accurate depiction of what observant life is like.