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Ushpizin

November 2005

The Israeli film Ushpizin can heighten appreciation, on the part of Jews and non‑Jews alike, for the spiritual treasures of Judaism—from a short Hasidic story to the majestic joy of the Sukkot Festival, from an etrog in a box to the beauty of Sacred Scriptures, including the sayings of Rabbi Nachman of Bratislav.  Ushpizin achieves in the filmic medium what Sh. Y. Agnon achieved in the genre of the novel.

For modern audiences, no other film or television episode, novel or history or exposition on Jewish piety, no other medium or teaching device, can communicate as effectively, as movingly and as vividly, the practices and beliefs, the values and concerns, of Judaism.  This film is sheer perfection in writing, acting, and in communicating a faith and a culture.

Moshe Bellanga and his wife Malli (Malkah) struggle to make ends meet in an ultra-orthodox neighborhood of Jerusalem.  The Festival of Sukkot is coming, and they have no money.  They can hardly count on one meal, let alone lulav and etrog (the “Four Species” of willow, myrtle and palm branches and a well-formed citron) or sukkah (booth or hut in which to dwell and thus re-enact the Exodus).  Malli is despondent not only because of their poverty but because she has not become pregnant over five years of marriage, in a community in which barrenness could be grounds for divorce.  She urges her husband to pray harder for everything, and follows her own advice.  As in an Agnon work, there are references, both cited and subtle, to Scriptural characters and to aspects of Talmudic law and lore.  The entire film, for example, is a gentle and humorous but respectful commentary on the laws and traditions of the Sukkot (Feast of Booths) Festival.  It reflects Talmudic concerns that the religious not succumb to peer pressure to build a sukkah and to procure lulav and etrog to the extent of stealing them!

Indeed, the film deals boldly with the need to strike a balance between doing everything in concert with the community (as in the scenes in which every household recites Kiddush in the sukkah at the same time) and being able, within one’s own space, to do outreach and to come to terms with one’s past no matter what anybody else thinks.  Though the community is in a confined space, and Moshe and Malli live in a home not much larger than a sukkah, there is a sense of cosmic significance in the prayers and concerns of the neighborhood.  The film goes so far as to say that even, or especially, in an ultra-Orthodox community, husband and wife need to be able to work things out with dignity and privacy, and that wise rabbis can—and do—help in such matters.

We soon learn that Moshe is a baal teshuvah, a once irreligious person who now observes the mitzvot or commandments, and that two Israeli prison escapees, one of whom had once egged Moshe on to violent and criminal acts, become guests in Moshe’s sukkah.  While ordinarily sukkah guests are esteemed by the tradition, especially the biblical guests believed to visit each sukkah (the Aramaic term ushipizin refers to these “holy guests”), Moshe soon suspects that his visitors are more trouble than blessing.  Or are they?  Does Moshe show signs of reverting to his wild and mendacious past because of these visitors?  Why do Moshe and Malkah come to see them as salvation not all that in disguise?  Such are the questions of which classic Yiddish stories and Agnon novels were made.

Ushpizin made me appreciate all the more the classic Jewish folktales by Peretz and others.  The film actually improves upon the Yiddish folk tale, which is at best two‑dimensional, by giving full life and dimension to the characters.  The story line is simple, but it makes a lasting impression.  It tickles the belly and drains the tear ducts, not by pushing buttons because it knows which buttons to push, but by engaging the emotions with a marvelous simplicity of plot, six or seven likable but very human characters, and with authentic religious questioning.  This film rivals Martin Buber’s volumes in making Hasidism challenging to moderns.

This movie has quite a real life story behind it.  Actor Shuli Rand, like Moshe, whom he portrays in this film, is himself a baal teshuvah, a once secular Jew who has become religious.  He was the star of popular Israeli films and then left acting to join the Bratislaver (Breslau) Hasidim.  His former director and longtime friend, Giddi Dar, wanted to do a film about Hasidic life, and Rand had parallel thoughts.  Rand wrote the marvelous screenplay and laid the ground rules as to how the film could be produced according to rigorous religious standards.  The deal breaker might have been the need for a leading lady.  Orthodox laws regulating modesty and contact between the sexes (tz’ni‑yut and negi’a) would prohibit Rand from acting with a woman who is not his wife.  Fortunately, Rands’s real‑life spouse, Michal Bat‑Sheva Rand, consented to play Malkah; her expressiveness, vivaciousness and charm, along with her husband’s brilliant acting and the chemistry between them, render their performances unforgettable.

Particularly noteworthy is the treatment of Malkah.  She is anything but a shrinking violet.  Whatever she urges Moshe to do, she does herself, including big‑time praying.  She is comfortable with psalms and rituals and is as conversant with God as any yeshiva student.  She exercises her right to be angry and knows how to be defiant with grace and, sometimes, with a cigarette.  The rabbi in the community reminds his students that they must make their wives happy.

For Jews and non-Jews who are unfamiliar with Orthodox Jewish life, this movie will be a revelation.  It makes the point that joy and dancing are mandated, especially in Hasidic life.  It is all right to drink a lot in order to fulfill the commandment of rejoicing on the Festivals, but not, as Moshe says, “too much.”  We learn about contemporary Hasidic pop music which constantly lifts Malkah’s spirits.  We are also shown that, unfortunately, Hasidim have adopted smoking (an old custom, in fact)—a bad habit that threatens the health of the community.  There are even fixes of irreverence here for the hardened secular viewer.  Within the religious community, there is awareness of how difficult and draining the Yom Kippur Fast is.  “Smile,” one Hasid tells another, “Yom Kippur is over.”  The secularists get their good lines, as well.  One of the escaped criminals refers to Jerusalem as “a pile of stones.”

The power and blessing of Ushpizin is that it communicates, demonstrates, and inculcates teachings and practices of Judaism without being preachy or self-consciously didactic.  It relates Jewish concepts of forgiveness (mechilah), hospitality (hachnasat orchim), and charity (zedakah, better translated “sharing in a just way”) to the extent that audiences appreciate these aspects of the religious life in ways that they had not appreciated them before.  (Indeed, the film gives us a sense that Sukkot concludes the High Holy Day season and is therefore a serious and necessary Festival, though a joyous one.)  While there is a lot of talk about miracles in the movie, the overarching point is made that miracles grow out of mechilah, hachnasat orchim, and zedakah; the greatest miracle is that these values nourish and sustain a living community.

One comes to understand the importance in classical Jewish piety of prayer, personal relationship with God, reverence and love of God, love of one’s fellow human being, respect and love for sacred literature, faith, and anticipation of the World to Come.  I especially liked Moshe’s explanation that “God wants us to dwell in the sukkah because this world is temporary.”  Where else do we get such affirmation of the Jewish belief in the afterlife?  We gave such belief to other religions.  This film reminds us that it is authentic to our religious experience, as well.

I would quibble only with some of the choices in the subtitles for this film.  “Baruch Dayan Ha‑emet” (“Blessed be the true Judge”), the traditional response to news of a death, loses much when translated as “May he rest in peace,” which corresponds to another Hebrew expression, “alav ha‑shalom.”  “Tizku l’mitzvot” is translated as “May you (plural) be rewarded.”  The literal translation, “May you merit to [perform more of the] commandments” conveys the sentiment better.  The words in the Festival Kiddush, “viromamtanu mikol lashon” (“Who has [chosen us from all peoples] and exalted us over all tongues”) is mistranslated as, “Who has given us a holy tongue.”  When Moshe refers to Malkah as “haneshamah sheli” (“my soul”), his heartfelt tribute to her is all too prosaically translated as “my love.”  The expression “kol ha‑kavod” (“all honor to you”) is translated as “That’s nice.”  Better to translate it, “More power to you.”  Most of the other subtitles are fine; the aforementioned disappointed to the degree of eliciting comment.

Even with these few corrections, I must give Ushpizin the rating of “perfect” and declare it to be in a category unto itself.  It is simply the best depiction of classical Jewish beliefs and practices ever represented on film.  It is more of a classic in this regard than many of the most celebrated Jewish novels and short stories of the past three or four centuries.  It is best described by the biblical word, “tamim,” which means “complete,” “wholesome,” “unimpaired” or “unblemished,” “with integrity” or “upright,” “perfect.”  It’s all these things and more. I hope—and pray—that Rand and Dar will team up to do sequel films of similar quality on other Jewish holidays and observances—such as Shabbat, Pesach (Passover), Shavuot (Pentecost), bar mitzvah, etc.

The only film that would be as perfect, and that, alas, seems light years away, would be a similarly artful depiction of the piety of a Modern Orthodox, Conservative, or Reform Jew in America or in Israel, a saga of loyalty to Judaism and its practices in the maelstrom of modern culture.

—Rabbi Elliot B. Gertel, published in The National Jewish Post and Opinion (Indianapolis), November 23, 2005

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