TEL AVIV – In what is considered a breakthrough in Israel’s film industry, director Gidi Dar has managed to create a major motion picture depicting the haredi lifestyle in the Meah Shearim district of Jerusalem.
It is the first film made in Israel with the stipulation that it not be shown on Shabbat – a severe constraint because the most important time of the week for showing films with respect to their economic potential is Saturday.
Dar says this is a “real historical precedent.” No one, he says, has ever been allowed to make a film – or even tried to – about the ultra-Orthodox that is at all sympathetic to their lifestyle. To ensure their cooperation, Dar promised to adhere to certain religious principles – including the ban on Shabbat viewing.
“Ushpizin” (“guests” in Aramaic) tells the story of a newly religious ultra-Orthodox couple (played by real-life religious actor Shuli Rand, who co-wrote the script, and his wife, Michal Batsheva Rand) who are visited by two figures from the husband’s criminal past during the Succot holiday.
When the film was first screened a month ago at the Jerusalem Cinemateque, the auditorium looked more like a synagogue in Mea Shearim than a theater in the midst of a secular film festival.
Star Shuli Rand, 42, was born in Bnei Brak to national religious parents. He studied in national religious schools until he was 18 and then entered the army.
After his army service he abandoned religion, enrolled in drama school and became one of the major actors in Israel. He would perform at Israel’s national theatre Habima and in Tel Aviv’s municipal theatre Kamari. He was awarded the “Actor of the Year” prize many times both in cinema and live plays.
Ten years ago he and his wife decided to return to their roots and became baalei teshuva and are now associated with the Braslever chasidim.
When asked what made him become religious again, he says “G-d had mercy on me.” The couple has six children and reside in the Beis Yisrael neighborhood of Jerusalem adjacent to Meah Shearim.
In a short interview with The Jewish Press, Rand said, “I think this can be considered a breakthrough in the Israeli movie industry. It is the first time that a film shows you what goes on in the haredi world on the inside and not from the outside.
“I wanted to tell the world about my world and what I feel as a person who returned to my roots and became religious. Parts of the movie are things that happened with me personally.”
Since according to Jewish law a woman cannot be alone with a man other than her husband, nor can a man touch any woman other than his wife, Rand’s wife had to play his screen wife.
Gidi Dar, the director of the film, has received numerous Israeli and international prizes for a series of films and TV shows he directed. He told The Jewish Press that the response and reviews by non-religious journalists were all positive and favorable. Both religious and non-religious Israelis who have so far seen the film are overwhelmed and say they were extremely moved by it, he says.
Dar, by his own admission, is a thoroughly modern, liberal and secular Israeli. “For someone who is not religious like me, this film was definitely a challenge. But one of the reasons behind this film is to relieve the tension and schism that exists between the religious and non-religious groups in Israel. The hate that exists today between these two groups borders on anti-Semitism. Neither one wants to look or care for the other,” he told The Jewish Press.
“One of the things this movie does is to take the secular Israeli for an hour and a half walk to show him what transpires in the religious world, allowing him to discover that these people whom he considers “strange object” are as human as himself.”
Both Dar and Rand say the film could never have been possible if not for Rabbi Shalom Arush, Rand’s rabbi.
“He is a very brave man,” says Dar, who stuck his neck out to secure filming. Arush had given his blessing for the film to be made in Jerusalem’s haredi neighborhoods, and encouraged many locals to act in it.
“He was aware of the fact that the biggest problem that faces Israeli society today is the alienation within it. He was convinced that I was speaking the truth, that I intend to respect his world and to depict it with love. Now the film is out, he could be in big trouble, but I hope not,” Dar said.
Dar and Rand met about 10 years ago, when the director was looking for an actor for his short film “The Poet,” which began as his final project for his studies in the film department at Beit Zvi; his friend Eitan Bloom suggested that he meet with Rand.
“The moment I went into his apartment and met him, I knew that he would act in the film,” says Dar. Rand also acted in “Eddie King,” Dar’s first full-length film, which made its debut in 1992 and won the Bronze Leopard at the Locarno Film Festival.
Rand’s process of becoming religiously observant was gradual, says Dar, and they naturally drifted apart. “I nearly gave up on him as an actor,” he said, but in the end, he didn’t.
He relates that Rand once asked him why they couldn’t do something together again. That question gave birth to “Ushpizin,” Dar’s second full-length feature film, in Hebrew with English subtitles.
Michal Batsheva Rand, who is not an actress, evinces considerable comic ability in the film.
“She is a strong and courageous woman,” relates Dar, “who, like her husband, was involved the whole time in writing the screenplay and in shaping the character she plays.
“It’s all a matter of trust and faith because she has strong faith in herself and strong faith in God. The moment she had faith in me and had faith in the film, she became completely free and did her work devotedly and faithfully. And this is no simple matter for someone who is the mother of six small children.”
Dar says that one of the things that characterize ultra-Orthodox society is that everyone in it believes in God.
“You know that this is the case, yet it still manages to surprise you when you come from a secular society in which everyone is in a kind of constant search for something in which to believe.
“The need for faith among the ultra-Orthodox is terribly deep, terribly extreme, and it derives entirely from choice. My hope is that watching the film will arouse among the viewers the question of what they believe in. The cooperation I was granted by the ultra-Orthodox society stemmed from the fact that they formed the impression that I really intended what I said.
“We are living today in a reality of extremes, in which you are either one of us or you are not, in which if you hold a certain political opinion, you don’t even try to understand or to identify with an opposing opinion, and to my mind this is very dangerous.
“I think secular society’s fear of ultra-Orthodox society stems from the sense that it holds a certain truth and that if we let go for only a moment of our defense, we will fall into it. In “Ushpizin” I wanted to enable viewers to give up those defenses and at the same time to remain in the place from which they are able to look at this world from a certain distance, to understand it and even to love it.”