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.

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4 Responses

  1. menachem petrushka says:

    Dear Rabbi Menken

    I hope you saw the film at a retreat In Israel or in a theater. The producers of the film claim that any viewing of the film in the United States outside of the theaters that liscensed to show it violates US and Jewish Law. I am not sure if they are correct but I think it is someting to look into.

    Here is a copy of a letter they sent to me as a member of am OU mail list.

    An Important Note from the Filmmaker and Distributor of Ushpizin
    The Creators of the Award winning movie Ushpizin call for your assistance. Please support the filmmakers and enjoy Ushpizin in movie theaters, and avoid illegal screenings. The movie is still in theaters in the USA and any DVDs of Ushpizin are unauthorized. Piracy is against both civil and Jewish law.

    Ushpizin is now playing in theaters in select cities throughout the country, and opens in many additional cities on Wednesday, November 23rd. Click here for a list of local dates to find out when Ushipizin will be in a theater near you. For group sales, please call 1-866-311-4040.

    You can also enter your zip code here for showtimes and to buy tickets online.

  2. Yaakov Menken says:

    Menachem, their announcement may hint to this, but saying that there’s piracy going on is more than a bit disingenuous.

    They are selling the DVD in Israel. As far as I know, it’s not against any law to transport a purchased DVD from Israel to the United States. All the standard rules about private showings still apply — e.g. you can’t charge admission, it has to be for a private group, etc., but those are standard for any use of a legally purchased or rented tape or DVD. University clubs have to deal with this all the time.

    UPDATE: OK. I think the distributors hurt themselves by attempting to insinuate that all copies are “pirated.” They should have pointed out that copyright law allows any DVD to be shown in a private home but not in a group setting outside a home. It is true that University clubs have to deal with this all the time… and as a result many of them have stopped showing movies! There were a few recent news stories about people showing Ushpizin for money and that was clearly a mistake, and they paid the distributor, but to my knowledge they didn’t go collect from those who showed it for free.

    There’s a Talmudic saying that “you can’t grab too much.” By implying that all the copies are pirated they get those with legal copies to say, oh, ok, ours is legal, we can show it. But that’s apparently not true. A friend sent me the following:

    Someone who showed it on a college campus recently was called from NY and told that if they show it again they need to pay the producers. They found out about the showing (outside of NY) from the internet.

    Netanel, I thought about the fact that I’m not a Breslover and not very familiar with how they pray; at first I thought it an unrealistic element of the film since it’s so foreign, but considered the possibility that I’m not sufficiently familiar with Breslov. So here’s another example of how the film can teach about the broad tapestry of Jewish observance…

  3. Netanel Livni says:

    What you describe as “extreme praying” is actually one of the central teachings of Breslev Chassidus. I commented to my wife that this scene will not go over well with the American public since they tend to be much more emotionally reserved.

  4. Jessica Rosner says:

    As a distributor who often has to deal with same issues that the owners of USHPIZIN, a few comments. It is perfectly legal for someone to bring to the United States a copy of a DVD purchased in Israel however many pirated ( dubbed ) copies where being sold on the internet. It is also a violation of their rights for anyone to sell the film on the web to or from the United States but that is an issue for the distributor to handle directly.

    However there seems to be a common misconception that DVDs can be shown if a group is non- profit and not charging admission. As per above ANY time a film is being shown to an audience you must clear this with the rights holder and in the majority of cases there will be a fee. You can not imagine how frustrating is it for a distributor who has spend tens of thousands or perhaps hundreds of thousands ( studios of course in the millions) to find that some orginization is showing their film to an audience. It is a struggle to distribute small Jewish themed and Israeli films in the United States and if we don’t get paid for showings we won’t be able to distribute them at all. Also be very, very careful when purchasing something on the web which is not available from standard places ( Amazon, Netflix etc) this is usually a sign that it IS an illegal copy such as the many copies of the film GLOOMY SUNDAY that have been on the web.


    Jessica Rosner
    Kino International

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