Over coffee one day with Shuli Rand, a friend who had given up acting for a life of prayer and study among Israel’s strictly Orthodox Hasidim, the director Gidi Dar, a secular Israeli Jew, was struck by a way to close the widening gap between them.
“What if I do a movie on your turf, with your rules, in your world?” Mr. Dar recalled asking Mr. Rand.
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That moment of clarity eventually resulted in the film “Ushpizin,” a rare drama set in Jerusalem’s Orthodox community (and released by Picturehouse in New York and Los Angeles last Wednesday).
The experience gave Mr. Dar a needed challenge, while it answered his need to connect with a lost, pre-Zionist past. “One of the problems Israel has is that there is this huge cut, a disconnect, from its past,” he said during a conversation at a hotel overlooking the beach here. “Everyone is very polarized. Everyone is against everyone: Arab against Jew, Sephardic against Ashkenazic, left against right. But the deepest polarity is the secular against the Hasidic. It’s a deep hatred.”
“Ushpizin” is a love story rooted in faith and set in a society famously closed to outsiders. It tells the story of an impoverished and childless couple, Moshe and Malli, who wait for a miracle during Sukkot, a weeklong harvest festival when observant Jews eat outside in huts. (The movie opened in time for this year’s festival.) When a pair of career criminals show up on their doorstep, the couple take in the freeloaders as welcome guests – the ancient Aramaic word is “ushpizin” – and view them as a test of their faith by God.
” ‘Ushpizin’ isn’t what I think about Hasidic people,” Mr. Dar, 41, said in fluent English. “It’s what I see. It’s what you can show.”
Like most secular Israelis, Mr. Dar grew up feeling something close to contempt toward the very Orthodox world. In a young Zionist country, the fur hats and side curls of the Hasidim undermined the strong, pioneering image the Zionists sought to create. Over the decades, the mutual hostility between the groups has only grown, with issues like army service – most Hasidim do not serve – a constant tension.
But when Mr. Rand, one of Mr. Dar’s longtime collaborators, had a religious awakening, the director saw an opportunity to bridge a gap. And while Mr. Rand had given up acting, it turned out that he had an idea for a screenplay, about a couple who end up with unwanted guests for the Sukkot holiday.
There was a problem finding an actress. Hasidim are not permitted to look directly at women who are not their wives, and certainly not allowed to engage them with their eyes. Who would play the wife? Mr. Dar turned to Mr. Rand’s wife, Michal Bat Sheva Rand, also a newcomer to Hasidism. She had no acting experience.
“She freaked out, she refused,” Mr. Dar recalled. “But later I told her, ‘If you don’t do it, Shuli can’t do it.’ ” So she agreed.
The supporting characters in the Hasidic community were all former actors who had become religious. Only the actors who played the two career criminals, Shaul Mizrahi and Ilan Ganani, were professionals.
The film has been a hit in Israel, where it won Mr. Rand the country’s top acting award, and has so far garnered strong reviews in this country.
Mr. Rand initially worried that it might be too religious, too uncritical. But Mr. Dar disagreed; he wanted to go deep, and not to judge. “I said, ‘No. We can go as far as we want,’ ” Mr. Dar recalled. ” ‘Your perspective is the perspective of a believer. You believe in the world of God, in prayers being answered by miracles. The world I’m looking at follows the mind of a believer.’ “
Mr. Dar himself comes from a pioneering Zionist family. His father, Avraham Dar, was a famous spy in the pre-Mossad years. The younger Mr. Dar fought as a paratrooper in the Lebanon war in the 1980’s. After his army service, he set out to become a jazz musician but eventually turned to film. Even then, Mr. Dar was unsure about his path; he made one successful film in 1992, “Eddie King,” about a local criminal, in which Mr. Rand acted. But he felt uneasy, puzzled at how much his secular background, which largely ignored the hundreds of years of Jewish history before Zionism, kept him from grounding his characters in an authentic world.
Mr. Dar gave up filmmaking for six years, dabbling in making commercials and writing screenplays, and tried to figure out his future. When he married and had a child, he decided to make a television series for children; three documentaries followed. “Ushpizin” is his first feature film in more than a decade, and it answered some of his own questions about the roots of his culture.
Indeed, somewhere along the way, Mr. Dar said, he realized that his own views about the religious were shifting. “I decided I’m not going to talk about them, but be them,” he said. “And the most interesting artistic – and political – achievement would be to take my audience on a trip to a point of view they don’t know, and to force them, with the power of cinema, to identify with something they normally hate, or are alienated from.”