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Fade to black hats: Chasidism on film

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06/21/2011

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As early as 1923, the movie East and West depicted the stereotypes Chasidic and more modernized Jews had toward each other. In her earliest known film role, Yiddish acting legend Molly Picon portrays an assimilated American teen visiting her family in the Old World. Cultures collide and hilarity ensues, but it’s only funny until Molly’s prank “marriage” turns out to be a bit too legit for her to quit. One side seems not to take Judaism seriously enough… but then, those Chasidim just can’t take a joke.

Fast-forward to 1979. In one of his most under-appreciated roles, Gene Wilder plays an innocent, bumbling rabbi in the Wild West comedy The Frisco Kid. As our rabbi is forced to travel over land from New York to his shiduch in San Francisco, Harrison Ford’s Indy-like desperado takes pity on him and escorts him to his destination. Along the way, this bandit discovers his soul, and the rabbi finds tremendous inner strength due to his unshakeable faith. Captured by a tribe of Native Americans, he explains his relationship with God to them: “He gives us strength when we’re suffering. He gives us compassion when all that we feel is hatred. He gives us courage when we’re searching around blindly like little mice in the darkness... but He does not make rain!” (And, on cue: a thunderclap and downpour). “Of course, sometimes, just like that, He’ll change His mind,” the rabbi concludes. Despite the injustices he faces, he acts with dignity and within the bounds of the Torah. Still, we only see him alone, apart from the Chasidic world.

Not all Chasidic fathers choose to give their sons the silent treatment like the one in 1981’s The Chosen does. In this case, the dad ends up driving his potential-rabbi teenage son into a career of psychology (no kidding). The strictures of the ardently religious do not sit well with the freedom-loving youth/Americans/Hollywood. Sadly, this portrait of Chasidic life has unfairly colored the public’s view of Chasidism for decades.

Chasidic men fare a bit better in Yentl. While he cannot permit her certain freedoms, Yentl’s rabbi father does care about his daughter’s intellectual and spiritual development. And the man she falls for, Avigdor, is a decent, loving guy. But “rules is rules,” and Yentl can only embrace her driving intellectual curiosity about Jewish text if she escapes her Jewish context. She loves it so much she must leave it, and the Chasidic community loses a potential Nechama Leibowitz.

A more nuanced view of Chasidic families comes in an otherwise substandard film, A Stranger Among Us (1992). Melanie Griffith’s acting job— as a streetwise cop!— is nowhere near her Born Yesterday heights, and the murder mystery she has to solve is far less compelling than anything on the average cop show these days. But at least the Chasidic community is shown to be welcoming, multi-faceted, and if strict, at least not hypocritical. Also, even if it’s still not an entirely accurate rendition, the Kabbalah is explained here much better than in most places.

But A Price Above Rubies (1998) is an entirely vicious attack on Chasidism as being replete with men who are either ineffectual nudniks or predatory schmucks. And who suffers? The women. Poor Renee Zellwegger doesn’t get to pursue her dream of being a jeweler until she leaves their serpentine embraces for those of a decent, hardworking, non-Jewish man.

Kadosh (1999), an Israeli film, is even worse. A Chasidic couple is torn by their infertility (in an era in which medical intervention is available), and both the woman and her sister are victimized by the crushing patriarchy of their society. While A Price Above Rubies at least implies that maybe some Chasidic men, somewhere, may be redeemable, Kadosh insists that the very nature of Chasidic culture makes all of its men overlords and all its women servants.

The hero of 1998’s Pi is calculating, on a supercomputer he built, the last digit of that slippery number. He is being harassed by mathematicians and stockbrokers for inside info that will grant them fame and/or fortune, but also by Chasidic kabbalists, whose desperation to reveal the nature of God drive them to dog our poor hero into madness. They beg him to turn the Torah into an algorithm, believing that its pattern of letters, once decoded, will be the combination that unlocks the door to the Other World. Or something. Anyway, they are relentless and clearly care more for personal enlightenment than treating another human being with compassion or even decency.

The very premise of the Israeli film The Holy Land (2001) would be laughable if it were not so offensive. Faced with a yeshiva student distracted from his studies by a surplus of horniness hormones, a rabbi instructs him to find a prostitute and get it over with already. Yes, really, that is the premise of the movie. Avatar was more realistic.

Luckily, Israel would produce, only three years later, the luminous film Ushpizin. Here is another Chasidic couple beset by infertility, but rather than turn on each other, they seek comfort in their faith and friends. They are further tested by the return of unsavory types from the man’s past. But the overall depiction is of a loving marriage in a caring community, in which hardships are willingly shared and mistakes easily forgiven. It’s easily the kindest depiction of the Chasidic community ever put on film, and should replace The Chosen as the go-to movie about Chasidism.

There is a Chasidic character in the 2005 stoned-Seder movie When Do We Eat? but that movie was as willing to make fun of everything as Blazing Saddles was, so to complain that this character was unrealistic is beside the point… or, perhaps, the point.

The under-known 2007 film Arranged has two women bound by, yes, arranged marriages; they meet each other as teachers in a public school. But one is Jewish… and the other, Muslim. If this film implies that forms of Judaism can unfairly control women, at least it makes the same accusations of other faiths, arguing that not Judaism itself but certain attitudes that span across cultures and countries are to blame.

The 2009 Belgian film Rondo is the Chasidic version of the classic “precocious child melts heart of grumpy old man” motif (seen from Shirley Temple films through Up). Thrown together in refugee camps during WWII, an assimilated youngster and his religious, crotchety grandfather slowly learn that the Holocaust has destroyed everyone in their family except each other. Then they learn how to be a family of two.

The movie that sparked this look into portrayals of Chasidim on film is the new release Holy Rollers. It is based on a true story about yeshiva students who became unwitting, then willing, drug mules. But which is the sadder part? That these kids were raised in such an insular environment that they had no clue they were committing a crime? Or that once they knew, they loathed their boring, restrictive yeshiva life so much that they kept going, just so they could have an adventure and a sense of accomplishment?

Coming in 2011 is the goofball comedy Curly Oxide and Vic Thrill. This time, it is not sex or drugs but rock ’n’ roll that gets the yeshiva boy to leave his smothering community and find himself in the big wide world. Evidently, the filmmakers knew nothing of the thriving world of Chasidic music, which has for decades supported dozens of successful rock and pop acts who also maintain their Orthodox lifestyle, from Piamenta to Matisyahu.

When looking for a plot involving a character shaking off a confining cocoon to emerge as a beautiful butterfly, a Chasidic setting seems to almost too handily suggest itself. In most films about it, Chasidic life is something to flee.

But where are the on-screen stories of the thousands of ba’al-teshuvahs who flee secular life for the Chasidic world? Who find the secular world empty, and the Chasidic one fulfilling?

Where are the stories of people who are born into Chasidic life and happily live in it? Where are the stories of Chasidic women who love their husbands and children, their communities and practices? Where are the Chasidic male characters who treasure their wives and treat women fairly?

And why do so many movies pit Chasidism against secularism, as if those are the only two options—what about other denominations of Judaism? Or within Chasidism?

Movies that unfairly depict Chasidism are still, after all, attacking a form of Judaism in the public arena, and this should concern us. Movies that mock Chasidic Jews are still denigrating Jews, and that should bother us as Jews.

What we still need is a good, mainstream, English-language movie that shows Chasidic Jewry fairly. Warts-and-all, fine… but more of the “all,” and not only the “warts.” Chasidim don’t need to be shown as perfect, just not perfectly imperfect.

Somewhere in between, like the rest of us. You know… human.

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