It’s Sukkot, the holiday that requires observant Jews to feel the fragility of our existence by eating in the sukkah – the fragile temporary outdoor booth, exposed to the elements of early fall. I wrote this film review two years ago. If you have the opportunity, you should consider the delights of this unusual film.
“Ushpizin” resembles an Isaac Bashevis Singer tale in its rendering of totally sincere (or naive) characters immersed in religious observances, a belief in miracles, and a personal relationship with the Almighty.
The world of Jerusalem’s Hasidim is largely a ghetto in its isolation from the rest of modern Israel, but not quite. Two convicts, evading the law, show up at the doorstep of our hero, Moshe Bellanga, and his good wife Malli, on erev Sukkot. It turns out that one criminal was a friend from Moshe’s wayward days in Eilat before he became a Baal Tshuva [a newly observant Jew] as a Breslover Hasid. The Bellangas are overjoyed that the two can be their ushpizin – Aramaic for “holy guests” – for the holiday, as traditional lore enjoins. But there is nothing holy in how their low-life guests behave.
That the virtually destitute Bellangas have a sukkah and the money to celebrate the festival at all are “miracles.” Actually, they are the result of perfectly explainable events, but the pious couple understands their dramatic change of fortune as divine intervention, as an answer to their devotion and a part of their ongoing dialogue with Hashem. Similarly, when bad fortune strikes, they are rendered bereft not only by the event itself, but also by the notion that they have done something displeasing in the eyes of God or, even more painfully, that their suffering has meaning they cannot fathom in the sacred scheme of things. Their fervor and the scenes of their acute questioning of God’s purpose make this more than a comedy.
The authenticity of the convictions conveyed by the characters goes beyond roles portrayed by actors, for the Bellangas are played by an actual Hasidic couple, and the movie is anchored in a story that the scriptwriter knows to be true. Shuli Rand is both the writer and the star of this film, a real Baal Tshuva, who had left his career in acting eight years before to find a new ultra-Orthodox way of life with his wife. Now, to play a man with his wife, he had to enlist his spouse, Michal Bat-Sheva Rand– not an actress– as a co-star. She performs credibly and sweetly; their mutual love and high regard radiates even as their interactions are filmed entirely without physical contact.
That Mrs. Rand is decidedly on the round side, yet nonetheless the genuine object of Mr. Rand/Bellanga’s romantic affection, is a refreshing reminder of how non-Hollywood this film is. The secular Israeli filmmaker, Gidi Dar, cast and directed “Ushpizin” with the advice and consent of Shuli Rand’s Breslover community rabbi.
An outside observer might wonder, however, how members of such a close-knit group would be so impoverished that they had virtually no money for food and none for the most basic requirements of observing Sukkot – no sukkah, no lulav, no etrog – except for “miraculous” events at the eleventh hour. Would not such upright members of the community have been taken care of at least with invitations to share meals in the sukkahs of others? But maybe these realistic questions undermine the “magical” quality of this tale that is part of its charm.
And the sweet and humane resolution of a real-life misunderstanding, which Shuli Rand expands upon in writing the screenplay, is a lesson that the world would do well to emulate. When a Hasid (or any profoundly observant Jew) realizes that he has inadvertently wronged another, he meets the wronged person face to face, asking his forgiveness. The wronged party is more or less obligated to absolve the wrongdoer of malicious intent. The confrontation is truly successful if the wronged one’s anger is transformed into good will and may even end with an embrace.
So what is the lure of this way of life to outsiders? It is not that the questions and the struggles of everyday existence disappear, but that they are framed within a coherent worldview and, more importantly, buffered by rituals and a supportive community. One can also see the narrowness that drives many away – perhaps as many or more than there are newcomers – but that is the subject of other films.
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