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Can Mashiach Be Far Behind?
by Judy Lash Balint
July 12, 2004

A packed auditorium is totally quiet as the audience listens intently to the words of a slight figure on stage. Clad in a long black coat, round black hat covering salt and pepper hair, payot (sidecurls) coiling down to his chest that barely miss his greying beard as he sways and speaks, Rabbi Shalom Aroush reads a tractate from Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav.

Not such an unusual occurrence in Jerusalem, you might say, but what is stunning are the venue and the setting. Rabbi Aroush is standing at a podium on the stage of Jerusalem's Cinematheque, a bastion of Israeli secular culture, talking about Reb Nachman's views on theater to an audience who normally wouldn't be caught dead associating with anyone identifying with the ultra-Orthodox.

The occasion is the screening of the latest creative enterprise featuring the talented actor Shuli Rand. The Jerusalem Film Festival, hosted by the Cinematheque, recently presented the premiere of Ushpizin, a feature film starring Rand and his wife Michal Bat-Sheva Rand.

Shuli Rand is one of a handful of high profile, successful Israeli entertainers who became baalei teshuva (newly religious) during the 1990s and continue to perform.

Behind Rand on the stage are a dozen Israelis involved in the production of the movie who listen respectfully to the rabbi's words. Among them are the bare-headed and decidedly secular director Gidi Dar, two actors who play non-religious characters in the film and a couple of ultra-orthodox men recruited as actors from the orthodox section of the Nachlaot neighborhood where the movie was filmed.

It's an almost surreal scene to watch the mingling of Israelis who never normally enter each other's worlds, brought together by a movie. The interaction is not always comfortable--there's a great deal of seat-shuffling before the lights go down, as the Breslovers try in the interests of modesty, to sandwich themselves in next to someone of the same sex.

Before the performance, scads of black coated men with oversize white crocheted kippot (skullcaps) and long payot jostled past the security guard at the entrance trying desperately to avoid bumping into women in halter tops.

The film is a touching and entertaining story that depicts a week in the lives of a newly religious couple who are down on their luck. The holiday of Sukkot brings them the opportunity to welcome guests (Ushpizin) into their sukka--guests who happen to be from the husband's former life. The two ex-cons who drop in to visit almost succeed in disrupting and destroying everything the couple has built together, but faith, love and commitment prevail.

Unlike many films dealing with the ultra-orthodox lifestyle, there's nothing contrived or saccharine about Ushpizin. The actors from the neighborhood made sure they received the blessing of their rabbi before taking part, and backers like ultra-orthodox venture capitalist Shlomo Kalish lent their support.

Before the feature film, the Israel Film Fund airs a three minute trailer bemoaning the cuts in government support for cinema and initiating a public campaign to reverse the decree. Without government subvention, the Fund notes, Israeli cinema will dry up and die. One can't help wondering how the Haredi families in the audience react to the plea. Large families and full time yeshiva students have been among the most severely affected by Government cuts, forcing many to rely on private soup kitchens and food distribution programs.

As the credits roll after the screening, the applause is long and heartfelt. Ushpizin is a contender for the prestigious Wolgin Award for best Israeli feature film. If a positive film about the orthodox community beats out the seven other contenders and is judged a winner by a panel of secular film people next week, then surely the Messiah can't be far behind.