Ushpizin: One Face of Torah Down, Sixty-nine to Go

Earlier this week, I was discussing with my father a recent controversy being heatedly debated throughout the Orthodox Jewish world. While my concerned interest was, at first, predicated upon an attempt to understand how my, and subsequent, generations will be altered by this latest machloket, dispute, as the conversation progressed and I began to see the magnitude of the philosophical battleground, my fears took on a new form. I interact with the secular world regularly in my daily life and I intend to interact with it even more in my future professional life; furthermore, as a “light unto the nations” I feel we must always consider what our community’s actions teach the world around us, about ourselves and the Torah we represent. What would the rest of the world make of our latest divisive skirmish? I turned to my father and asked him of the likelihood that the outside world would find out. Or at least, that’s what I meant to ask. Maybe it’s because I had just seen Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire the day before; maybe it’s because I never liked the word “goyim” and rarely use it; maybe it’s just because the parallel has been percolating in my head since I was first introduced to J.K. Rowling’s fantastical world. Whatever the reason, in the midst of an intensely serious conversation about the future of Orthodox Judaism and, more importantly, its present, I turned to my father and asked what the likelihood was that our latest internal struggle would be discovered by the Muggles.

Harry Potter and the wizarding world he inhabits are very lucky. Their magic provides them with a ready tool to prevent the outside world from discovering their unusual, and often perplexing, goings-on; that which makes them definitively different than the Muggles, non-magic people, puts them in a unique position to protect themselves from misperceptions. Unfortunately, the Orthodox Jewish world does not possess the same power. And, furthermore, try as we might to hide, for a global religious minority (and we’re talking serious minority when you look at the numbers) we just can’t seem to stay out of the limelight.

How we are perceived by the outside world ranges from the sympathetic view – which, post-Holocaust, forgives us our strange rituals out of compassion for our habit of being scapegoats – to the angry view – which wonders why we cannot move on and join the rest of modern society. We have been featured in the media as both bloodthirsty religious fanatics and precious antiquated saints. I, personally, take offence to either extreme, not simply because any stereotype is offensive but because both images reveal how little the outside world really knows about us. Better if they didn’t know us at all. And we’re back to envying fictional wizards.

Still, while we’re huddled in a corner wistfully wondering why the world doesn’t understand us, we may turn our attention to the recently released Israeli film Ushpizin. If ever there were an ambrosial balm for the mistreated Orthodox Jewish archetype, we would expect to find it in a film produced by an Orthodox Jew. If we don’t see us in all our multi-faceted glory, who will? On some level, Ushpizin definitely delivers. Part of me loved the film for its rich aroma of folkloric pride. It reminded me of all the simple Chassidic stories of my childhood; my Jewish fairytales where the poor, devout Jew is blessed by God or the pious, childless eishes chayal, woman of valour, ends up with a healthy baby boy. The rule of thumb in such stories is explicitly stated in the movie itself: if you pray hard enough and you are good enough (where good equals selfless, kind and God-fearing) then you will get all that you desire. Implicit in this rule is the fact that the kind of Jew who could cash in on such a deal would only desire Torah-approved things like children or money for Shabbos, holy books and ritual objects, like, for example, a sukkah.

It sounds beautiful and the movie was, in a somewhat cryptic way, beautiful. However, there is one small problem: “Ain Somchin Al Ha’Neis” – a Jew is forbidden to rely upon a miracle. And, when you remove the fairy dust, that is exactly what the main character, Moshe Belanga – played with passion and talent by the movie’s author, Shuli Rand – does. Instead of going off to find a job so he can afford to buy a sukkah, he goes to a park bench and prays. Instead of consulting doctors to discover the cause of his and his wife’s difficulty conceiving, they pray. Instead of looking for this-worldly solutions to his, admittedly, exorbitant number of problems, Belanga, like everyone else in his world, dons tallis and lifts his arms upward in search of an other-worldly answer. To Jews like this character, his wife (exquisitely played by Shuli Rand’s real wife, Michal Bat-Sheva Rand), their rabbi, and neighbours, the story told in Ushpizin is the perfect story; it fulfills the very formula by which they live their lives and, according to them, Moshe Belanga is the epitome of what a Jew should be, not perfect but faithful. To see a nation’s hero is to see something essential about the heart of that nation. Let the non-Jewish world meet this man and, thereby, begin to see what it is to be an Orthodox Jew, as each one aspires to be.

Except, I don’t aspire to be a Jew like Moshe Belanga. Not only that but I do not admire Jews like Moshe Belanga as my heroes. I respect their consistent adherence to their interpretation of Orthodoxy, just as I hope they respect my attempt at consistent adherence to the interpretation of Orthodoxy that I follow. As a film critic, I can appreciate Ushpizin for its groundbreaking role as a film by an Orthodox Jew just as much as I appreciated Osama for its role as the first post-Taliban film to come out of Afghanistan. However, as an Orthodox Jew, I feel slighted by Ushpizin, not because the film claims that its characters represent all Orthodox Jews – it does not (it specifies that the characters are Chassidic, specifically Breslov) – but because it implicitly claims to represent the tenets of ideal Orthodox Judaism. To me, the movie was a fairy tale, as unlikely as Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, and I would imagine that every secular critic to review Ushpizin got that same “maybe Santa Claus is real” glow when they saw it. I would also venture that any Orthodox Jew who believes in the values professed in the film would never deem to classify this film as fantasy; for many of my brethren this is real life. I believe in the power of prayer and the power of God but Ushpizin will never be, to me, a description of real – or ideal – life. 

From my perspective, real life is that Orthodox Judaism, while instilling in its people a strong sense of faith in God, commands us not to rely upon a miracle for physical or spiritual deliverance. Real life is the rift between the secular and the religious in Israel, a rift that is tearing a country apart. Real life is the obscene poverty rate among Orthodox Jews due in no small part to an inadequate Kollel system that has no standard and spotty financial support. Real life is that we need Torah scholars and that, while every Jew should learn Torah, not every Jew is capable of being, or meant to be, a Torah scholar. Real life is that a person is meant to live by Torah, not die by it and that not every Jew has the luxury to be a host; some Jews must be guests. Real life is that God gave us the Torah in a physical world governed by laws of nature and that we are meant to follow His laws within the boundaries of this universe. Real life is the fact that everything I just said, my definition of Orthodox Judaism, can and is challenged by other Orthodox Jews, who are no less or more “frum” than me. One such challenger made a movie called Ushpizin. It is a story of two Orthodox Jews and they are nothing like me even though we share a religion. I understand that and I’m learning to live with the complexity of eilu v’eilu (Halachic tolerance), the conflict it fosters and the controversies that ensue. I understand the essential philosophical distinction between me and Moshe Belanga so I can sit back in a darkened theatre and immerse myself in Ushpizin, fully aware of its specific part in the rich tapestry that is my nation and religion. I can do this because I am an Orthodox Jew but not every person who has seen and will see this film is an Orthodox Jew. So, I ask again, how do we tell the Muggles?

Dodi-Lee Hecht

2005 NISHMA