Tag Archives: Hasidism

Ushpizin

200px-UshpizinUshpizin (2004) is a holiday story of faith and human foibles.  The production of the film involved an unusual partnership of ultra-Orthodox and secular filmmakers, making it an Israeli cinematic milestone.  It is a story about an impoverished couple in the Breslov Haredi community  in Jerusalem, who do not have even the money to celebrate Sukkot:  no sukkah, no money for food, no money even to pay their rent.  They take to heart Rabbi Nachman‘s saying that difficulties are a test of faith, so when things become difficult, they pray.

Abruptly, their fortunes change:  an abandoned sukkah becomes available, money arrives unexpectedly in an envelope under the door, and the husband spends a large amount of the money on a beautiful etrog (citron) which is a requirement for the holiday.  The more beautiful etrogim, he believes, make the conception of a child more likely.  Then, when all seems perfect, the ushpizin, the visitors, arrive.

Commentary

This film offers a rare visit inside the ultra-Orthodox world of the Breslov Haredim.  Critics point out that it is also a very uncritical look at that community, but there is something to be said for seeing people first on their own terms.  The story is worthy of Rabbi Nachman himself, revolving around the Jewish value of hospitality and the power of prayer.

The main character in the film, Moshe, (played by Shuli Rand) is a ba’al teshuva, a former secular Jew who has made a commitment to strict observance.  When his old life comes to visit, he is both tempted by the memories and horrified by the reality. His wife, Mali, (played by Michal Bat Sheva Rand) is determined to pass the test of heaven.  One of the more subtle aspects of the film is its examination of the delicate balances in a marriage:  how the couple support one another, and how they can also be thrown off balance by one another.

Questions

How far need one go to observe the mitzvah of hospitality?

Moshe learns that he should have asked more questions about the sukkah, yet the source of the money under the door is never questioned.  How are the two different, or are they different?

Mali is furious when she finds out where the visitors are from, and that Moshe accepted them anyway, trusting them to be alone with her.  Were you worried for Mali?  Do you think the visitors were truly dangerous?

Does God send tests?  Why?

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The Chosen

chosenThe Chosen (1981) is an excellent film adaptation of the Chaim Potok novel of the same name.  It is an account of two Jewish boys growing up in New York during WWII up to the founding of the State of Israel.  It stars Maximilian SchnellRod Steiger, Robby Benson, and Barry Miller.  It won awards at both the Montreal and Paris Film Festivals.

Commentary

The Chosen is a quiet little film that explores some key tensions in Jewish life in America.  It addresses the tension between the expressions of Judaism that seek absolute fidelity to the past and the expressions of Judaism that seek to remain Jewish while engaging with modernity.  It explores the tension between generations of a family, and the meanings that tension has for each generation.  The film is deeply rooted in time and place:  it was shot in Brooklyn, and it explores a particular moment in Jewish history.

I have seen comments to the effect that The Chosen is not a completely accurate picture of Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) orthodoxy.  I find that it is a less sensational picture than many other more recent films have depicted.  The viewer might want to keep in mind that the film was made almost 30 years ago, and that both the communities shown in the film and the broader Jewish world have changed since then.   So don’t watch it and think it’s all there is to know about Haredi life.  On the other hand, the tensions portrayed are accurate and as vital today as they were then.

Unfortunately, at this writing, The Chosen is out of print in DVD, but it is available for rental from many sources.  A must-see!