You may not know it, but you and the Hasids have a lot in common. At least that's part of the message of Israeli director Giddi Dar's latest film, Ushpizin. The film tells the story of Moshe Bellanga (played by Shuli Rand), an Israeli who has recently adopted the lifestyle of a sect of Hasidic Jews known as Breslevers.
As the Jewish harvest festival of Sukkot approaches, Moshe and his wife Malli are penniless and unable to prepare for the seven-day holiday. After fervent prayers, the Bellangas receive a miraculous donation just in time for the holiday and are able to celebrate with plenty of food and the proper rituals. Their faith in God's plan is soon tested, though, with the arrival of two convicts, Eliyahu and Yossef, who knew Moshe in his past life. Moshe's new lifestyle shocks his old friends, and will probably appear even more bizarre to many American moviegoers. This was Dar's goal with Ushpizin. "I wanted to force you to identify for an hour and a half with a world you wouldn't go to, to force you to love them," Dar says. "I wanted to show those aliens are human beings."
Through the contrarian attitudes of Eliyahu and Yossef, the film wrestles with issues of faith and the divergence between secular and religious lifestyles. These are personal struggles for Moshe but as Dar explains they are relevant to all Israelis: "Nowhere is the polarity so extreme as in Israel. For Israelis it's an issue of identity. The whole idea of Zionism was to create a new kind of Jew. A warrior, a worker. So hatred of Orthodox Jews is a kind of self-hatred. I see it as a big problem, because Israel is being cut off from its history."
For Dar, working with Rand -- who returns to acting after abandoning a successful Israeli film career for the Orthodoxy -- is an attempt to reconcile the two conflicting commitments in his life, film and Orthodox Judaism. As a secular Israeli, Giddi Dar wanted to make a film that could serve as a bridge between Israel's two bitterly divided groups.
Still, how does the conflict between secular and religious Israeli Jews translate to normal American audiences? "I think there's something very specific about Ushpizin," Dar reveals. "But the more specific it is, the more universal it becomes. Belief is universal. The issue of being tested is universal, whether we're testing ourselves or God is"