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Chooray for Challah-Wood?

October 27, 2005 By:
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Ah, what an etrog! That's the opinion of Moshe and Malli, played by real-life husband-and-wife team Shuli Rand and Michal Bat Sheva Rand, in "Ushpizin," opening regionally on Nov. 2.
Forget Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick. Want to view the most unorthodox of odd couples? Gidi Dar and Shuli Rand - the Oscar and Felix that Neil Simon could never have imagined.

But director Dar certainly did - and dared to bring it to screen: "Ushpizin" ("Holy Guests") opens Wednesday, Nov. 2 at Ritz theaters.

And who's the Oscar? Rand, winner of Israel's equivalent of the Academy Award for his role as Moshe, a member of that country's Breslau Chasidim facing Sukkot without the succor he desperately needs - enough money to build a sukkah.

Into his life and that of his Golde-gilded wife (Michal Bat Sheva Rand, his real wife, making her screen debut) topples a pair of strangers who parse their pareve lives by milking the Chasidic couple out of the little money they have while desecrating the sukkah Moshe has "borrowed."

Borrowing mysticism and mishugas, director Dar has come up with an original, reportedly the first movie made by members of Israel's ultra-Orthodox community (in tandem with the secular Dar and his crew).

Indeed, why did Michal Bat Sheva Rand take the role of wife? Because the dictates of their beliefs wouldn't have allowed Shuli to interact with any other woman in the part.

Did Dar feel like a stranger in a strange land in this ultra-Orthodox un-Western world? Not so much - he and Shuli had shared a longtime friendship long before Shuli, a popular actor, discarded movie costumes for the real-life garb of the Chasidim.

Call their 18-year professional relationship the chai-light of the director's life: "The best actor I truly ever worked with in my life," says Dar of his leading man.

When worlds collide - and the secular-religious clash is reminiscent of a potent Chaim Potok novel - these chosen two initially decided the differences between them were too many to collaborate again.

As Rand explained: "The obligations I have as an Orthodox Jew made it a very delicate proposition to make a film. Having to take into account all of those religious details and considerations seemed an impossibility."

Mission improbable, maybe, but Dar gave a damn and pursued the idea - "on Shuli's terms."

Not exactly terms of endearment for one accustomed to Hollywood schedules: no shooting on Shabbat, no dialogue considered remotely irreligious, kosher catering only …

Hooray for challah-wood? Food for thought, anyway. Not second-guessing himself, Dar signed on the dotted line, promising to adhere to the Chasids' strict regulations so help him … God.

A Clash of Culture
"I'm a regular secular person," says the 41-year-old award-winning director, "and I live in a country that has a big problem with its past. With Zionism, they spilled the baby out with the bathwater," the "baby" not having much of a brachah surviving side by side with the secular.

"It was not just a personal problem for me to deal with as an artist; it is a problem for our nation."

It is a tug of war between tallises and tartan scarves; between phalactories and filigreed rings. "The seculars hate the Chasids more than anyone else," claims Dar of what he considers internecine anti-Semitism. "We would never let others hate Jews like that."

Not that Dar would enjoy Israel turning to the religious right. What "I want is the country to have a dialogue with its past. This is a good time to investigate our culture."

Sherlock as Shylock?

Far from it; stereotypes fall by the village-side in "Ushpizin," as "this story forces you to take a trip with me," says the director, "and to look at the world through their eyes."

Correcting short-sightedness through the filter of a movie lens? "There is not such a big difference between these two worlds," he says.

Stop the world - Shuli wanted to get off. Or, at least his fellow Chasids did. "When they saw the cameras," recalls Dar, "they saw the enemy."

Peace treaty before the fighting began? "I told Shuli I'll accept all his rules from the start."

A blessing on his head - but would the town's rabbi deliver same? "The rabbi is a very, very special person, a pinch-your-cheek kind of rabbi, who understood and said, 'This [cooperation] is important for Israel.' "

If the film has a ring of truth, it's because Dar felt obligated to ring up the rabbi when in doubt. "We had a 'Red Phone' for emergency calls," and if a disagreement would come up between filmmakers and the community, one call to Rabbi Arush would solve the dilemma.

Halachic hotline? Cell phone for celestial guidance? "We didn't need to use the phone once," says Dar with pride.

But the PG-13 film is not rated R for religious - but, maybe, for righteous. "The Chasids don't so much hate [the secular] as feel sorry for us," says Dar.

On the other hand, secular Israelis "just hate them."

Yet, the appeal widened during the shoot. Sects and the city? "Every day would bring people from different sects" to the set, exclaiming, "We want to be in the movie."

Of course, the director had to yell "cut" for the occasional breaks that would confound a Hollywood honcho. Let's do brunch? Let's do a brachah! "Every now and then, they'd have to take breaks for praying and dancing," says Dar of those contract players whose covenant was with a higher authority than the one who sat in the director's chair.

And Shuli was sure to keep some distance between himself and any perceived impropriety. "He felt he was walking a thin line," says his director and friend.

The line to see the film starts to the right … sort of. While the Chasids weren't about to see the film in a theater, they did see it. "About 70 percent saw it illegally," says Dar.

Chasids as … pirates? Shiver me tzuris! "They would say, 'My friend gave it to me,' " of the illegal DVDs that circulated among the community. "They didn't see it as illegal."

But see it they did. "So I made a deal with them. If they sent me $5," all would be forgiven.

And they did. "I didn't get millions," laughs Dar. "But we did receive a number of envelopes with $5 in them."

Such courtesy stopped at the shtetl's borders, however. "We will not be accepting" acts of piracy when the film opens outside Israel.

Dar openly concedes a major fear he had in ushering "Ushpizin" through its 25-day shoot. He may have admired Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith as "Men in Black," but as for himself?

"My biggest fear was that they'd make me religious," says Dar of the Chasids' possible influence.

Didn't happen. But, miracle of miracles, Dar delivered his own impact. By the end of shooting, the religious extras on the set had a new name for the daring Dar.

And what name was that? "They called me, 'Our rabbi.' "

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