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Ushpizin

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The current “hot favorite” Israeli film is called Ushpizin. Ushpizin is an Aramaic word for “guest” and the verb means “to host”. The film is made and acted by two formerly secular actors, now married and converted to religion in a very serious way. The plot is about a childless couple of “returnees” to religion who have adopted the Bratslav version of Chassidic Orthodoxy that was founded by the early nineteenth century Chassidic master Rebbi Nachman of Bratslav.

He is the known for his stories and aphorisms. Amongst them are, “It is obligatory to be in a state of spiritual joy all day long,” and, “This world is like a very narrow bridge and the most important thing is not to be afraid.” After he died in his late thirties, they never appointed another rebbe. As a result the Bratslaver Chassidim were known as the “Toiter Chassidim”, the “Dead Chassidim”.

In truth, they were always the very opposite of “dead” and represented the ecstatic, charismatic wing of Chassidism. Over the years they have split into two streams. The old guard of families descended from the original followers are still ecstatic and highly spiritual, steeped in learning and tradition. But in addition, there is now a new rapidly-expanding group of religious hippies throwing caution to the winds, gathering up every weird and wonderful misfit and offering them a new life or religious rebirth which revolves around annual mass pilgrimages to Uman in the Ukraine where Reb Nachman came from. They also cavort around the place like Jewish Hare Krishnas, chanting their own mantra of, “Na Na Na Na Nach Nachma Nachman MeUman”(with variations of course). In the main they are a lovable lot (unless you happen to be closeted on a plane to the Ukraine with a herd of them).

They have something in common with Lubavitch Chabad Chassidim in that large quantities of alcohol and other stimulants seem necessary to induce a state of “religious” ecstasy. And now, of course, they share the belief that a dead rebbe can still work miracles and will soon reappear, and that the recital of certain sequences of Psalms will achieve all sorts or miracles. They have not yet achieved Lubavitch’s ubiquity, or its wider communal involvement. Neither have they yet adopted its remarkably successful system of franchises!

All this is by way of introduction to the Bratslaver characters in Ushpizin. Poor as field mice, childless, jobless, foodless, behind in the rent, the couple, deeply in love with each other, are unfailingly loyal and happily pious, constantly appealing to God, reciting Psalms and prayers, falling prostrate and weeping for salvation.

Miracles happen. In a rush to close up shop before the Festival of Succot, a charity official randomly selects them to receive an envelope with thousands of dollars and a friend discovers an “abandoned” Succah, so that everything is working out just fine (except for wanting a child) until two escaped convicts who remember the hero from his gangster days, turn up unannounced.

The saintly couple welcome them in. The two obnoxious slobs take full advantage. They use and abuse them, but the saintly couple put up with everything in the belief that if they humbly submit to the trial the Almighty is subjecting them to, they will be rewarded with a child. Things get so bad that they rupture the marriage. The wife flees the tension and chaos. The rabbi intervenes and mirabile dictu everything ends happily, including a child soon to be born who will be called Nachman.

The film has been welcomed by the Orthodox world as the first example of an Israeli film that portrays the Ultra-Orthodox sympathetically.

But I really disliked it. Not just because the story line was weak. Most Hollywood story lines are clichés. Neither because of its sugary unreality, but because the religion it portrays is excessively naïve and credulous and the characters simply unbelievable. But what offended me more was that any secular Israeli or Jew seeing the film could be forgiven for dismissing religious Judaism as a tissue of naïve superstition with religiously induced indolence. If religious people hang around doing sweet damn all to rise from their state of genteel poverty, except cry and pray for miracles, then we’d all be in a sorry state. This manifestation of religion is both otherworldly and redolent of mendicant orders of monks, nuns and fakirs. You might think it quaint and rather impressive, so long as others are doing it!

There is a fashion of thinking that if you dress up in black Eastern European garb and look like an exotic nebbish you must be authentic and doing a great job keeping Judaism alive. Sadly, too many of these characters are social welfare cases who fortunately contribute to Jewish survival by producing lots of kids and thereby raking in the child support. But as a paradigm of spirituality are as remote from genuine Jewish values as the hordes of fighting Satmarer Chassidim who rioted in New York on Simchat Torah and had to be separated by police, and whose antics were blazed across the New York non-Jewish press.

Such Jews have brought ridicule to our noble tradition. If this is Judaism then it is the greatest desecration of God’s name imaginable. And according to Maimonides that is the greatest of sins and far outweighs such religious obligations such as eating only Chassidish glatt kosher steaks or spending $4,000 for the finest fur shtreimelach to parade around in summer’s heat to prove how much closer they are to God than ordinary Jews.

When I explained why I disliked Ushpizin to some friends they replied, “But this is what Orthodoxy has become nowadays–superstitious, miracle working, mezuzah checking, ketubah rewriting, blessing-receiving and holy water from wonder rabbis, alive and dead.” And it’s true! That is what now characterizes huge swathes of Ultra-Orthodoxy. Thank goodness Judaism, like history, has always gone in cycles, and tides turn!

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4 thoughts on “Ushpizin

  1. Dear Rabbi,

    You completely missed the point of the film and even more so you’re completely wrong if you think that the couple are rewarded with a child because of their prayers.

    They’ve prayed for years and it didn’t work, what changed this time? According to Judaism, a man is measured by his pocket, glass and anger (Kiso, Koso Ve-Ke’aso) and these are exactly the three tests the couple go through in order to achieve the blessing of a child.

    When they receive the money, the first thing they do is pay their debts back and give 10% to charity, and by that passing the first test, the Pocket – i.e generosity.

    The second test – Koso (i.e. hospitality), is the way you welcome and treat guests. They start well, then they fail, realize it, and when the two prisoners come back they go out of their way and do whatever they can to treat them right, as if they were VIP’s.

    Then the last test, and the hardest for Moshe, is the Ka’as – anger. We learn that Moshe was famous in his previous secular way of life for his anger. Every one was scared of it and the consequences that normally followed. Elyahu, his old friend, doesn’t believe that Moshe has really changed and truthfully became religious, and therefore sets out to prove it. He then does a few things that are meant to spark that old famous anger in Moshe, notably play loud House music in this religious neighborhood while doing a barbecue. When the police arrive, Moshe hides them, they’re grateful for that but his wife leaves him. Then when he is at his lowest, he finds out that Elyahu and Yosef used the expensive Etrog for the salad (not intentionally), and this is the last straw for him. You can see how he wants to explode, but he manages to sustain his anger within, and therefore passes the last test – the anger, which also deserves the title of a true hero according to Judaism (Eizehoo Gibor? Hakovesh et Yitsro).

    Not only this not a bad film, it is probably one of the better Jewish / Israeli films ever made, and a lesson in how to write a script that combines the classic three act structure with Jewish tradition – Biblical (the similarities with Sarah and Chana) and Talmudic (as outlined above).

    Kind regards,
    Yonatan Perets.

  2. Interesting comments, rather similar to my brother-in-law who also thinks I got it wrong.

    Perhaps I should have put my piece in context. The context I wrote it in was a great deal of publicity and several reviews that described the film as the first example of Orthodox Judaism portrayed on film sympthetically. It was that that I objected and object to because the film describes one very unusual and limited example of Orthodoxy. After all, even in Bratslav itself there is a very clear delineation between the ‘Old’ Bratslavers and the ‘New’.

    I suppose it is as if suggesting that Lubavitch IS Orthodoxy.

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