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In Israel, a film's twists of faith

'Ushpizin' wins wide praise for eschewing a stereotyped view of the ultra-Orthodox.

October 09, 2005|Ken Ellingwood | Times Staff Writer

Tel Aviv — AN hour's drive lies between this footloose beach city where director Gidi Dar lives and the enclave of black-clad Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem that is the focus of his latest movie. To many Israelis, the distance feels bigger -- say, a century or two.

In a land crisscrossed by fault lines of faith and identity, one of the most pronounced is the rift separating Israel's secular majority from the devout Jews typically referred to in this nation of 7 million as ultra-Orthodox, or haredim.

These believers, with their side locks, black coats and hats, occupy an insular society that adheres to Old World ways and mostly avoids mainstream Israeli society out of fear of its corrupting influences. Many secular Israelis glare at the haredim as alien and resent them for avoiding compulsory military service and jobs in favor of religious study, often supported by public aid or charity.

It is this pious slice of Israel that Dar, a 41-year-old former jazz musician, explores in "Ushpizin," a fable-like holiday comedy that has won praise on all sides for making its Orthodox subjects accessible -- even lovable -- to a wider Israeli audience.

"Ushpizin," an Aramaic word meaning "guests," met with critical approval when it first ran here last year. It ended up as one of the country's top box-office draws. The movie was picked up by Picturehouse for distribution, and will open in Los Angeles and New York on Oct. 19.

Dar said he hopes the film, which follows the sometimes-comic tribulations of a beleaguered but committed religious newcomer named Moshe, can help dissolve some of the mutual suspicion dividing the haredim from secular Israel. The director lists it as the deepest of the nation's schisms.

"The Jews hate the Arabs. The religious hate the secular. The Ashkenazis hate the Sephardim," Dar said, relaxing in jeans, an untucked white shirt and bare feet on his sunsplashed back terrace. "It's like a football game. The problem is, it's not a football game. It's real life."

The "real issue," he said, "is between the ultra-Orthodox and the seculars." Dar said that tension centers on built-in contradictions of the Jewish state, with the haredim seeking a more religious orientation and most secular Israelis wanting to be like any other modern Western nation.

"Ushpizin" was among a crop of award-winning Israeli feature films last year that helped move the nation's cinema further from a drab uniformity of the past, when story lines seldom veered from a Zionist message. Among the recent films, "Or" told the story of a teenager and her prostitute mother, "Attash" focused on an Arab family and its tyrannical patriarch, and "The Syrian Bride" centered on a young Druze woman whose family has arranged a marriage that will force her to leave them for Syria.

Along with "Ushpizin," the movies share a focus on segments traditionally left on the margins of Israeli cinema or cast only in stereotype. They also reflect an evolving recognition that the Israeli reality is woven of many strands, if not always neatly, said Uri Klein, film critic for the daily Haaretz newspaper.

"Suddenly Israeli society was shown on the screen in all its diversity: Orthodox, secular, Jews, Arabs, men and women," Klein said.

Dar directed a 1992 film called "Eddie King," about an out-of-work actor caught up in a criminal plot, and has made shorter works, documentaries and a children's television series. He may seem an unlikely candidate to delve into the lives of devout Jews -- not only is he secular, he says he doesn't believe in God and describes himself in political terms as an anarchist.

But with a stylized, fairy-tale quality, "Ushpizin" delivered a version of Israel that at once looked realistic and not, and resonated well with secular moviegoers, Klein said. "There's a huge curiosity among secular society about what's going on in the Orthodox society -- a very touching but almost hopeless need to get closer to it," he said.

Religiously observant viewers said they too found the film a refreshing departure.

"There's no condescension in the way secularists in the movie relate to the haredim," said David Zilberschlag, who runs a haredi newspaper. "Generally speaking, there's a demonizing of the haredim in Israeli movies. Haredim are portrayed in an almost anti-Semitic way."

A seeming test from God

DAR said the movie, though meant to be lighthearted, was a way to explore the psychology of believers -- what he views as a continuous balance between praying for miracles on one side and having one's faith tested on the other.

Moshe, a penniless Hasidic Jew, cannot afford preparations for the weeklong Sukkot celebration and is forced to pray for last-minute help. Making matters worse, he and his wife have been unable to produce a child -- an obvious source of deep disappointment.

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