Ushpizin (2004)

Rated PG-13 . Our ratings: V-1 ; L-1 ; S/N- 1. Running Time: 1 hour 31 min.

“On the fifteenth day of the seventh month, when you have gathered in the produce of the land, you shall keep the feast of the LORD seven days; on the first day shall be a solemn rest, and on the eighth day shall be a solemn rest.
And you shall take on the first day the fruit of goodly trees, branches of palm trees, and boughs of leafy trees, and willows of the brook; and you shall rejoice before the LORD your God seven days.
You shall keep it as a feast to the LORD seven days in the year; it is a statute for ever throughout your generations; you shall keep it in the seventh month.
You shall dwell in booths for seven days; all that are native in Israel shall dwell in booths, that your generations may know that I made the people of Israel dwell in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.”
Leviticus 23:39-43

Ushpizin

Who would guess that a film about Succoth, known also as The Feast of Tabernacles (see the 7th chapter o0f the Gospel of John) would be so entertaining? Or, for that matter, that a film would be made about it? Actually, Israeli director Gidi Dar and writer Shuli Rand center their film on an ultra-Orthodox couple and their ushpizin, “holy visitors, whom they host in the temporary tabernacle that Jews are required to construct during the period of the festival, all this in celebration of the harvest and in memory of the time of the Exodus.

Moshe Bellanga (Shuli Rand) is a middle-aged rabbinic student with two great worries. He is broke at Festival time, his yeshiva board holding back the stipend due him. Thus he has no money to pay for food and materials to build a makeshift shelter. Also, he and his wife Malli (Michal Bat Sheva Rand) are still childless after several years of marriage. The two pray daily that God will allow them to have a son. We wonder at first why at the beginning of the film Moshe enters a shop and gazes longingly at an expensive specimen of an esrog (it took me a while to realize the venerated yellow object was a lemon!), until later we learn that this is regarded as a powerful fertility charm.

Moshe is much like Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof, his prayers to God being more like a conversation in which he frequently is asking for a miracle. To both his and Malli’s surprise and delight, a miracle occurs, or rather two of them. Moshe’s best friend takes him to a home whose owner has gone away, supposedly not needing the expensive sukkot he has left behind in front of his house, and Malli finds pushed under her door an envelope containing a large sum of money. Moshe uses a large portion of their windfall to buy that esrog he had admired at the beginning of the film, and the rest to buy a week’s worth of food for their celebration. All that is lacking, as they enter their gaily-decorated temporary abode, are guests, ushpizin. These they soon have. In the ritual prayer the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron, and David are invited to visit, but instead two scoundrels named Scorpio (Shaul Mizrahi) and Yossef (Ilan Ganani) show up.

The two are criminals sent to prison but released for a temporary visit to their homes. As they are returning from their leave and the prison is in sight, they decide that they cannot return to the dreary place. They will go to Jerusalem instead. Malli does not know it, but Moshe had once led a wild life and been a companion of Eliyahu, so the latter decides to look up his old friend. The hosts are surprised by the unexpected guests, but then feel blessed. However Eliyahu cannot believe that his old comrade in debauchery has truly changed, thinking instead that he is putting on a pious front. He and Yossef pull every obnoxious trick they can think of to get him to lose his once infamous temper. As the hosts begin to wonder if this is a test from God or not, matters over the course of the seven days move to what could be an explosive climax.

For Reflection/Discussion

1) How does Moshe remind you of Tevye or Abraham (see Genesis 18)? Do you feel like God is one with whom you can converse, or is your prayer life more formal because of the sense of the awesomeness of God?

2) In the way that Malli is depicted how does this film differ from other films about Orthodox Jewish women (such as A Price Above Rubies)? Moshe’s is a patriarchal world, but how is Malli’s relationship to her husband more than just a subservient one?

3) The film offers a good opportunity to discuss the nature of miracles. Moshe and Malli in their great need pray to God, and their needs are met. But how do they receive the sukkot and the money, that is, does the tabernacle and money arrive directly from God, or through human agents? Does this diminish the “miraculous” in any way? Where in the Scriptures is it suggested that God performs a miracle that could be “explained” by a natural cause? (See Exodus 14:21; Numbers 11:31; John 6:5-11.) Remember the story about the man repairing the steeply sloped roof on his Victorian house? He loses his grip and starts sliding down. Fearing the results of falling two stories, he cries out, “Help me God!” Just as he slides to the edge a protruding nail catches the trap of his coveralls, and he says, “Never mind it, God. A nail saved me.” 4) At what points do you see grace and forgiveness in the film? How does the film affirm that a person can change? In the case of Moshe; even of his two guests?

5) Moshe and Malli come to accept the boorish behavior of their guests as a test from God, much as the author (or editor) of the Book of Job regarded that patriarch’s series of afflictions): what do you think of this theology? How useful can it be when we are in a situation of suffering? What is its danger? That we develop a view of God as cruel and callous? How have you regarded God and your pain during those times when you were suffering or in need?

6) What have you learned about The Festival of Tabernacle, mentioned in John 7? How can the booths and the food be powerful reminders of the people’s history and of their debt to God? What similar things has the Christian Church done to keep alive our awareness of our past heritage? What symbols that we use? The architecture of our churches; the structure of the liturgy, especially of the Eucharist and the Church Year and its lectionary; the vestments of the clergy; the language of the prayers; works of art, poetry and drama; the special holidays and other commemorations?

Ushpizin (Hebrew, with English subtitles)

Rated PG-13 . Our ratings: V-1 ; L-1 ; S/N- 1. Running Time: 1 hour 31 min.

“On the fifteenth day of the seventh month, when you have gathered in the produce of the land, you shall keep the feast of the LORD seven days; on the first day shall be a solemn rest, and on the eighth day shall be a solemn rest.

And you shall take on the first day the fruit of goodly trees, branches of palm trees, and boughs of leafy trees, and willows of the brook; and you shall rejoice before the LORD your God seven days.

You shall keep it as a feast to the LORD seven days in the year; it is a statute for ever throughout your generations; you shall keep it in the seventh month.

You shall dwell in booths for seven days; all that are native in Israel shall dwell in booths, that your generations may know that I made the people of Israel dwell in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.” Leviticus 23:39-43

Who would guess that a film about Succoth, known also as The Feast of Tabernacles (see the 7th chapter o0f the Gospel of John) would be so entertaining? Or, for that matter, that a film would be made about it? Actually, Israeli director Gidi Dar and writer Shuli Rand center their film on an ultra-Orthodox couple and their ushpizin, “holy visitors, whom they host in the temporary tabernacle that Jews are required to construct during the period of the festival, all this in celebration of the harvest and in memory of the time of the Exodus.

Moshe Bellanga (Shuli Rand) is a middle-aged rabbinic student with two great worries. He is broke at Festival time, his yeshiva board holding back the stipend due him. Thus he has no money to pay for food and materials to build a makeshift shelter. Also, he and his wife Malli (Michal Bat Sheva Rand) are still childless after several years of marriage. The two pray daily that God will allow them to have a son. We wonder at first why at the beginning of the film Moshe enters a shop and gazes longingly at an expensive specimen of an esrog (it took me a while to realize the venerated yellow object was a lemon!), until later we learn that this is regarded as a powerful fertility charm.

Moshe is much like Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof, his prayers to God being more like a conversation in which he frequently is asking for a miracle. To both his and Malli’s surprise and delight, a miracle occurs, or rather two of them. Moshe’s best friend takes him to a home whose owner has gone away, supposedly not needing the expensive sukkot he has left behind in front of his house, and Malli finds pushed under her door an envelope containing a large sum of money. Moshe uses a large portion of their windfall to buy that esrog he had admired at the beginning of the film, and the rest to buy a week’s worth of food for their celebration. All that is lacking, as they enter their gaily-decorated temporary abode, are guests, ushpizin. These they soon have. In the ritual prayer the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron, and David are invited to visit, but instead two scoundrels named Scorpio (Shaul Mizrahi) and Yossef (Ilan Ganani) show up.

The two are criminals sent to prison but released for a temporary visit to their homes. As they are returning from their leave and the prison is in sight, they decide that they cannot return to the dreary place. They will go to Jerusalem instead. Malli does not know it, but Moshe had once led a wild life and been a companion of Eliyahu, so the latter decides to look up his old friend. The hosts are surprised by the unexpected guests, but then feel blessed. However Eliyahu cannot believe that his old comrade in debauchery has truly changed, thinking instead that he is putting on a pious front. He and Yossef pull every obnoxious trick they can think of to get him to lose his once infamous temper. As the hosts begin to wonder if this is a test from God or not, matters over the course of the seven days move to what could be an explosive climax.

For Reflection/Discussion

1) How does Moshe remind you of Tevye or Abraham (see Genesis 18)? Do you feel like God is one with whom you can converse, or is your prayer life more formal because of the sense of the awesomeness of God?

2) In the way that Malli is depicted how does this film differ from other films about Orthodox Jewish women (such as A Price Above Rubies)? Moshe’s is a patriarchal world, but how is Malli’s relationship to her husband more than just a subservient one?

3) The film offers a good opportunity to discuss the nature of miracles. Moshe and Malli in their great need pray to God, and their needs are met. But how do they receive the sukkot and the money, that is, does the tabernacle and money arrive directly from God, or through human agents? Does this diminish the “miraculous” in any way? Where in the Scriptures is it suggested that God performs a miracle that could be “explained” by a natural cause? (See Exodus 14:21; Numbers 11:31; John 6:5-11.) Remember the story about the man repairing the steeply sloped roof on his Victorian house? He loses his grip and starts sliding down. Fearing the results of falling two stories, he cries out, “Help me God!” Just as he slides to the edge a protruding nail catches the trap of his coveralls, and he says, “Never mind it, God. A nail saved me.” 4) At what points do you see grace and forgiveness in the film? How does the film affirm that a person can change? In the case of Moshe; even of his two guests?

5) Moshe and Malli come to accept the boorish behavior of their guests as a test from God, much as the author (or editor) of the Book of Job regarded that patriarch’s series of afflictions): what do you think of this theology? How useful can it be when we are in a situation of suffering? What is its danger? That we develop a view of God as cruel and callous? How have you regarded God and your pain during those times when you were suffering or in need?

6) What have you learned about The Festival of Tabernacle, mentioned in John 7? How can the booths and the food be powerful reminders of the people’s history and of their debt to God? What similar things has the Christian Church done to keep alive our awareness of our past heritage? What symbols that we use? The architecture of our churches; the structure of the liturgy, especially of the Eucharist and the Church Year and its lectionary; the vestments of the clergy; the language of the prayers; works of art, poetry and drama; the special holidays and other commemorations?