Lowdown: A glimpse into the world of Orthodox Jews.
Ushpizin is a 2004 Hebrew speaking Israeli film that took me back a few years and reintroduced me to the unique world of the Israeli Orthodox Jew. Living in Israel means you stumble against this world from time to time and it often surprises you. As I have personally spent a lot of time in Jerusalem, near where Ushpizin was shot at the Orthodox area of Mea Shearim, watching the film sure brought back memories of this world that is so fascinating in its detachment from anything real.
It is quite a world on its own: many if not most male Orthodox Jews living in Israel do not work for a living and dedicate their time to their studies of Judaism. Living amongst their own in their ghettos, they make their living off charities and government funds (financed by the secular majority). This reliance on others to finance them is the unique attribute of the Israeli Orthodox Jew when compared to his/her counterparts from the rest of the world, who, generally speaking, work for a living.
Ushpizin’s story set around the time of Sukkot, a Jewish holiday when people are meant to spend a week in a Suka, a temporary dwelling with a flimsy walls and ceilings that is meant to simulate the way the Israelites lived between leaving Egypt behind and entering their promised land. We follow an Orthodox Jew called Moshe who lives in poverty with his wife Mali as they both contemplate how to pass the holiday with no money in their hands. Then, a couple of miracles happen: Through a friend, Moshe acquires a Suka that was abandoned by someone else, and a charity gives them $1000 which means they can celebrate the holiday properly.
One of the proper elements of a well celebrated Sukkot is to have Ushpizin (the Aramaic word for guests) at your Suka. Indeed, Moshe and Mali get their share of guests: two runaway prisoners who knew Moshe from the time he was a criminal himself, before he turned to religion, seek refuge in Moshe’s Suka. This triggers a set of conflicts: The fugitives find it hard to believe Moshe is now a dedicated do-gooder and do their best to get him to expose his old self. On their part, Moshe and Mali believe this is all just another trial from god as they go about trying for their most coveted prize: having a male son.
Overall, the events taking place in the film are nothing we haven’t seen before: a reformed guy facing his past while tension ensues with the hero’s woman. The way things turn out and the solution to this potential Greek tragedy are nothing new either. The trick about Ushpizin, though, is that on its way it exposes us to more than a glimpse of the world of the Orthodox Jew. That glimpse alone is why Ushpizin is worth watching. Call it the anthropological factor, if you will.
The way Moshe and Mali view their tribulations, as a trial from god, is indeed the generic world view of Jewish believers as they try to comprehend this world of ours and as they contend with basic questions that has troubled most people: how come there is suffering in the world, and how come bad people seem to be able to get away with it while good people often suffer. The Jewish answer is that the suffering is a part of god’s set of trials and that the bad things that happen to good people are the result of bad deeds. Needless to say, this mentality that Ushpizin exposes is very naïve to say the least; Judaism itself acknowledged that when it adopted the ideas of heaven and hell as sources of delayed gratification/punishment. This feeling of naivety is dominant in Ushpizin, and thus while I have a lot against this Jewish point of view and its unrealistic deception it does enhance that anthropological factor that is Ushpizin’s main drawing card. Believe it or not, we’re in the 21st century and people do live like they do in Ushpizin!
Best scene: The runaway prisoners test Moshe’s welcome to the max by using his Etrog (a citrus used during Sukkoth rites), which Moshe had bought for 1000 shekels, for salad dressing.
Overall: A compromised film that is interesting due to the unique glimpse into another world that it provides us with. 3 out of 5 stars.