“If something is lacking, either it wasn’t prayed for, or wasn’t prayed for hard enough.”
This quote from a rabbinical sage may sound incredibly condescending to secular ears—perhaps akin to recent statements made by Mitt Romney who implied that if one is poor it is because he or she is lazy or deficient of character, the secular version of saying you are poor because you don’t pray well—but to the ears of the ultra-Orthodox, it is an important message about the role of faith and prayer in one’s life.
It is quoted near the beginning of the 2004 Israeli movie “Ushpizin” by the main character, Moshe Bellanga, a poor Hassidic Jew trying his hardest, in vain, to support his wife in their Jerusalem neighborhood of Mea Shearim. This statement of faith sets the stage for all that is to come in the film because, in the context of the movie, God hears prayer and answers them, but He may also test you to see if you are worthy of his divine assistance.
It’s Erev Sukkot, the eve of the Feast of Tabernacles (which, by the way, begins today), and Moshe has no sukkah, no lulav, no etrog. But he and his wife, Malli, pray to God. And God answers. He sends them a sukkah that appears to have been abandoned, and He has the local yeshiva discover an extra $1000 which they decide to give to Moshe and Malli.
But it doesn’t end there; God sends them two Ushpizin—holy guests—to share their sukkah for the holiday. However the two He sends, Eliyahu and Yossef, seem anything but holy. They are secular escaped convicts on the run; they stand out like sore thumbs in the religious neighborhood of Mea Shearim. Eliyahu had known Moshe years ago, before Moshe had reformed, when he was just as violent, immoral, and secular as them.
Moshe believes he is being tested by God. Has he really escaped his past and become a new man? Can he really uphold the Jewish ideals of charity and hospitality? Eliyahu and Yossef continue to push the bounds of Moshe’s toleration. Their rudeness grows from eating everything their hosts have, to terrorizing the neighbors by blasting secular rock music. Moshe and Malli struggle to pass the test, but how much can they really stand?
It’s certainly an interesting film. It takes belief in God and the Jewish traditions quite literally. The tightly-knit Hassidic community is portrayed in a much more positive light than we’ve seen in other films. Everyone gives to charity—even recipients of charity; everyone is gracious; the rabbi offers good advice on how to solve life’s problems; when one has given offense—no matter how insignificant or unintentional—he or she seeks forgiveness, and forgiveness for the transgression is granted. It’s practically utopian. Serious conflict only comes from the outside.
Perhaps the reason for this view is that the screenplay was written by Shuli Rand, who himself was a secular actor until he found religion. Shuli also plays Moshe—his first acting role since becoming ultra-orthodox. I found it very interesting to learn that Shuli had a problem as an Orthodox actor because, as a Hassid, he was not allowed to look directly into the eyes of any woman other than his wife; so what actress could play the role of his wife? The only possible answer was his real wife, Michal Bat-Sheva Rand, who had had no acting experience. At first, she refused to play the role, but when she learned that her husband couldn’t act unless she did, she agreed. Considering that she had never acted before, I thought she did an amazing job.
I saw “Ushpizin” for the first time seven years ago; I wasn’t that impressed then. But after a second viewing, recently, I found it far more profound. There are two competing views in the film: that of the believer who sees everything happening because of the hand of God, and that of the non-believer who sees the events as random luck.
For example, if Moshe prays to God for “help” which is a vague request, and the local yeshiva just happens to find $1000 and just happens to pick him to give it to, is that a “miracle”? Moshe and Malli certainly think so. But it’s not as though they specifically prayed for $1000; help could have come in many different forms, especially in a community where everyone believes in charity, so it’s hard to draw a direct correlation. If a miracle is defined as an event that breaks the laws of nature, such as the sea parting, this doesn’t seem to be in the same category.
So many events in the story can be seen with a similar conflict of interpretation. So which is it? I realized, while watching the film, that the answer can be both. Perhaps the reason for this seemingly rationalizing contradiction is the fact that the writer/star of the film is religious but the director, Giddi Dar, is secular.
I also realized something even more important. Irrespective of one’s interpretation of the events, you clearly sympathize with the characters, even if you see the world differently than they do. Regardless of the fact that they live in an insular community that takes Jewish faith and ritual far more seriously than most American Jews do, we still feel for them, fear for them, root for them.
And yes, maybe even pray for them.
Chag sameach! Happy Sukkot!