Unorthodox Jews: The Secret Worlds of Holy Rollers and Eyes Wide Open | Film reviews, news & interviews
Unorthodox Jews: The Secret Worlds of Holy Rollers and Eyes Wide Open
Two new features offer startling, shocking insights into a rarely seen culture
Some traditional religious sects such as the Amish in Pennsylvania (the setting for Peter Weir's 1985 film, Witness) separate themselves from society. Orthodox Jews, by contrast, are largely urban. Growing up in Golders Green – northwest London's Orthodox enclave – with a non-practising Jewish mother, I was always fascinated by the black-clad men and bewigged women who walked among us, yet seemed shrouded in mystery. However, this month sees the two films, opening in Britain and the US respectively, that shed a surprising light on the community: Israeli director Haim Tabakman's dramatic debut feature, Eyes Wide Open, and Kevin Asch's American-set thriller Holy Rollers.
It's not that Orthodox Jews haven't ever made it to the screen before. In fact Hollywood's first synchronised talkie, The Jazz Singer (1927), follows Al Jolson as he attempts to escape from his stiflingly religious family in New York's Lower East Side to become a Broadway performer. There have even been – in the case of Fiddler on the Roof (1971) and Yentl (1983) – a couple of Oscar-winning hit musicals, although they were both set in faraway Europe, in the past.
More recently, Sidney Lumet's A Stranger Among Us (1992) was Witness gone kosher: it starred Melanie Griffith as a cop who goes undercover in an Orthodox Jewish neighbourhood, and develops a crush on a handsome Hasid. Meanwhile, Darren Aronofsky's claustrophobic thriller Pi (1998) had a gang of maths-wizard Hasidim who are trying to crack a code in the Torah, and Josh Appignanesi's 2005 British indie Song of Songs featured incest, bad lighting and a returned son.
In many of these films – some of which are very good, some not – Orthodox Judaism is depicted as overpowering, exotic, suffocating, repressive, closed, something to run away from. They are a view from outside, rather than from within. It’s a view that isn’t shared by the Coen brothers’ superb A Serious Man (2009), set in a Reform Jewish community in 1960s Minnesota. The film follows a beleaguered physics professor who is desperate for Rabbinic guidance, but it opens with a blackly comic, folkloric prologue set in an early 20th-century Polish shtetl – an illustration, perhaps, of how Jewish humour and mysticism have changed very little in the move from Orthodox to Reform, Old World to New. (Joel and Ethan Coen are pictured above, second left and second right respectively, with cast members).
What makes Eyes Wide Open and Holy Rollers so interesting is that they are both about contemporary Orthodox Jews doing things which might seem unimaginable to both insiders and outsiders. Eyes Wide Open is a beautifully understated Jerusalem-set drama about a married butcher (Zohar Shtrauss) who falls in love with his attractive, younger male assistant (Ran Danker) – internet buzz has dubbed it "Brokeback Mezuzah". (A Mezuzah is a holy parchment that is traditionally affixed to every doorway in a Jewish household.)
Holy Rollers, meanwhile, stars Jesse Eisenberg (from Zombieland and The Squid and the Whale) as a young New York Hasid who gets caught up in an international ecstasy-smuggling ring (Eisenberg pictured left). The film is based on events in the late 1990s, when American Hasidic Jews were recruited as mules. It's not the first, nor the last time, that Orthodox Jews have become embroiled in drug smuggling, but to see it depicted in a feature film is certainly new. In other words, and perhaps for the first time, they're seen as sexy, sensual, dangerous and getting in trouble, just like everyone else (Below: Eisenberg in trouble in Holy Rollers.)
Even so, none of the films mentioned here have been made by practising Orthodox Jews, and the actors, too, are generally Reform Jews or non-believers. As Eyes Wide Open's director Haim Tabakman tells me, Orthodox Jews aren't allowed to own televisions or go to the cinema. And while some are making lo-fi films, they're faced with a particularly difficult hurdle. "They are not allowed to show women and men together on the screen," says Tabakman. "So if a woman is making a film, she has to only use women; if men are making a film, they can only use men. You can't even let a women pass in the frame. And of course, if they want to be subversive, they have to be very clever about it."
Therein lies the rule broken by the Hasidic actor Abe Karpen, who in 2008 dropped out of the film New York, I Love You due to pressure from his community. Karpen – who hails from Williamsburg, Brooklyn – was set to play Natalie Portman's husband in one of the film's 12 "short stories" about the Big Apple. "They [the Rabbis] didn't like the idea of a Hasidic guy playing in Hollywood,” he explained at the time. "The Rabbi called me over... and said in order for me to keep my kids in the school, I have to do what they tell me and back out.” Isaac Weinberger, a Hasidic activist, went further, saying, "To be in a movie is the worst thing. It's a shame for any Hasid.” Before resigning, Karpen had already refused to hold Portman’s hand in a scene – something that Hasids are not allowed to do in public, even with their actual spouses. Two years later, one assumes that the man who got close to being the world’s first Orthodox Jewish movie star has gone back to selling cabinets, his stab at Hollywood a distant dream.
So the genuine Orthodox experience may never be brought to the screen, but Eyes Wide Open, at least, gets very close. Indeed, the film’s specificity is what makes it so emotionally poignant. While researching the film, the director met several gay Orthodox Jews. “The people I talked to were living a double life, which means that they kept it a secret from their families,” he says. “They give themselves all kinds of justifications.” Eyes Wide Open explores the limits of such justifications: unlike Ariel, the saintly Hasid in A Stranger Among Us – who is able to resist Melanie Griffith’s feminine wiles – love and lust prove to be too great a match for Tabakman’s characters.
It's not the first time that the subject has been tackled on celluloid. In 2001, Sandi Simcha DuBowski made Trembling Before G-d (among some Jews, writing "God" is prohibited), a sensitive documentary about gay and lesbian Orthodox Jews struggling to heal the chasm between their faith and their sexuality. Homosexuality is mentioned twice in the Torah, in an extremely negative light. "If a man lies with a male as with a woman," reads Leviticus 20:13, "both of them have committed an abomination; they shall surely be put to death; their blood is upon them."
Among Reform Jews, this makes being gay difficult enough; showing two Orthodox Jewish men in the act of making love, therefore, is extremely brave – particularly as Tabakman (pictured left on the set of Eyes Wide Open) eschews any sense of melodrama or titillation. "It's the way I look at things – the tone that I like: take extreme things, but try to portray them in a more gentle way," he says.
Thanks to the fact that having a computer is not forbidden, the director is confident that Orthodox Jews – in particular, ones struggling with their sexuality – will be able to watch his film in their own homes. "I'm sure they will," he says, "because you can already download it on the internet. This is the only way they can see it." Whether it will inspire them to pick up a camera, however, remains to be seen. Until then, the likes of Eyes Wide Open and Holy Rollers are as close as cinema can get to the heart of this closed community.
- Eyes Wide Open is released in the UK on 14 May; Haim Tabakman will be doing Q&As in London and Bristol on 11 and 14 May
- Holy Rollers opens in the US on 21 May
- A Serious Man is out on DVD. Find it on Amazon and read theartsdesk review.
- Find An Empire of Their Own, Neal Gabler's definitive history of Jews in Hollywood's early studio era, on Amazon.
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