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Screens Kosher cinema 

A modern take on Abraham's tale is a mitzvah

You can always depend on the kindness of strangers, if they happen to be observant Jews. In Genesis, after extending lavish hospitality to three travelers who show up outside his tents, the patriarch Abraham discovers that they are emissaries of God. For his spontaneous generosity, the old man is blessed with a son. He has passed another celestial test.

Shuli Rand, second from left, an Israeli actor who became an Orthodox Jew eight years ago, returns to the screen as actor and screenwriter in Ushpizin.

Bearded Moshe Bellanga (Rand) could pass for a patriarch, except that, after five years of marriage to Malli (Bat-Sheva Rand), the pious couple is childless. They are also broke. It is the eve of Sukkot, when Jews, recalling the experience of Israelites who wandered 40 years in the desert, take their meals within makeshift structures open to the sky. Moshe cannot afford to build a sukkah or buy a citron and any of the other items necessary for the holiday rituals. "We need a miracle," he says, before going off to pray. "I'm all sadness, a lump of sadness," he tells God. However, the sadness is soon transmogrified into ecstasy, after an envelope containing $1,000 shows up under his door. Two hungry escaped convicts also show up, just in time to help the Bellangas celebrate Sukkot, when receiving guests is a special mitzvah. One of Moshe's unexpected, raffish guests is named Eliyahu (Mizrahi), the same as the Biblical prophet (Elijah) who continues to visit households of believers.

Ushpizin, which takes its title from an Aramaic word for guests, is said to be the first feature film made by and about Haredim - the ultra-Orthodox - in Jerusalem. Shuli Rand, a prominent Israeli actor until he found his faith eight years ago, wrote the screenplay and performs the part of Moshe. As squeamish as the Amish about worldly pleasures and distractions, Jews like Rand generally avoid the movies. Though director Gidi Dar is a secular Israeli, he made this film, under strict rabbinical supervision, with full respect for the insular community among whom it is set. The result is not merely a sympathetic ethnographic account of a neighborhood that might have been lifted from 19th-century Galicia into the contemporary world. It also echoes the rich folk fables that endear the Chasidic master Nahman of Bratslav to Malli Bellanga.


Dir. Gidi Dar; writ. Shuli Rand; feat. Shuli Rand, Michal Bat-Sheva Rand, Shaul Mizrahi, Ilan Ganani (PG)

Eliyahu and Yossef (Ganani), the comical rogues who visit the Bellangas, bring to the proceedings an outsider's perspective that doubles for the audience's; like most viewers, they must be told by Moshe that a shtreimel is a fur hat worn by Jewish men on sacred occasions. Eliyahu knew Moshe before he turned devout, during wild and violent times in Eilat. The crude behavior of the scoundrels camping out in Moshe's sukkah would try the patience of a saint, and it tests the faith of Moshe, a converted reprobate. It also challenges the commitment of Moshe and Malli to each other. It is no surprise that the story concludes in celebration, but the heartiest mazel tov belongs to the makers of Ushpizin, which, though tinged with melancholy over temporal imperfection, affirms that, even for the Orthodox, making movies can be a joy, and a mitzvah.

At press time the opening date for Ushpizin had been moved to January 16.

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