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A Hasid Among Us

As Natalie Portman makes her screen debut in ultra-Orthodox garb, we scan film history for her antecedents

Allison Hoffman
October 15, 2009
Natalie Portman in New York I Love You(Photo courtesy of Vivendi Entertainment)
Natalie Portman in New York I Love You(Photo courtesy of Vivendi Entertainment)

When New York, I Love You opens on Friday, Natalie Portman will make her debut as a Satmar Hasid. The movie is a series of vignettes based in New York, and Portman anchors one of them as Rifka, an ultra-Orthodox 25-year-old. Unlike most female Hasidic characters who have appeared onscreen, Rifka is brassy and independent: a diamond buyer who travels into Midtown by herself and haggles shrewdly with her Indian gem broker. In other words, she’s still Natalie Portman, just with a long skirt and a high collar. Tablet Magazine talked to three film historians—Village Voice critic J. Hoberman; Jeremy Dauber, a professor of Yiddish at Columbia; and Andrew Ingall, a media curator at the Jewish Museum—about the history of ultra-Orthodox Jews in film.

Ingall: The origin of Hasidism in film would be in this movie, which was Molly Picon’s earliest film. It’s a satire—she is this assimilated American gal who goes back to the old country to visit her Hasidic family, and she ends up wooing this Hasidic boy. Molly comes in with very modern clothes, and she’s surrounded by these old world shtetl Jews, so it’s very easy for those of us who aren’t Hasidic to identify with Picon. It’s in many ways the experience many of us have if we travel to ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods like Borough Park or Williamsburg.

Hoberman: There were other movies in the 1920s where this conflict between young and old, European and American was played out, but The Jazz Singer is the only one that gets into the conflict in a specifically Jewish way. It was, essentially, a psychodrama for the Warner brothers, who thought they were just making it to make money but unconsciously it was a chance to dramatize their own story. And they were concerned with a certain amount of authenticity in the movie—having Yossele Rosenblatt, this famous cantor, in there with a long sequence where he’s chanting, was an amazing thing to do. It’s vaudeville. The cantor is old-fashioned, but he actually is shown with a reasonable degree of dignity, even though the audience is likely to sympathize with Al Jolson.

Ingall: It’s the story of a Hasidic yeshiva boy who enters the soul of the protagonist, Leah. It’s the dark side of Hasidism, where someone goes a bit too far into Kabbalah and pays the price. There is definitely the critical dark side of that world, but you also see some of the beauty as well.

Dauber: Annie Hall’s comment—“You’re what Grammy Hall would call ‘a real Jew’”—is not predicated on Woody Allen dressing like a Hasid. It’s predicated on him just being Woody Allen. And it is sort of the inability of the screen to represent what he could have thought, if you were seeing this in prose – imagine what Philip Roth would have done with this in Portnoy’s Complaint. “She hears the way I bend my vowels, she hears how I talk about liberalism.” But it’s very hard to do that onscreen so instead you go for the visual cut—Woody dressed in Hasidic clothes—which works wonderfully.

Dauber: The Frisco Kid is at its heart a Gene Wilder movie and a buddy comedy. It has much more to do with the easy jokes that are made by that period about Jewish stereotypes than about any sort of deep engagement with questions of Hasidism. You could argue it has something to say about religion—that Harrison Ford’s character does come to a kind of grudging, and eventually not grudging, admiration of the hard-won honor code that religious Jewry and maybe by extension any religious observance has. You could say that Gene Wilder’s grit in that world is equivalent to the Western honor code that Harrison Ford’s character has. So there’s something positive about religious observance in general. But that’s subtext—the comedy of the movie is watching Gene Wilder in a beard.

Dauber: A movie like The Chosen ends up being a movie about different kinds of Jewishness and the conflict between them. The theological fissures that are really the essence of the book it’s based on are not the point of the film. It’s an encounter of Americanization and the American melting pot with a kind of pure, mystical, insular authenticity. Particularly after the Holocaust there is a sense of yearning for a kind of purity that this traditional world represents. That occurs for two reasons. There’s the post-Holocaust sense that this is a vanished world, so it’s a testimony to a vanished way of living, and then there’s the real re-engagement with spiritual and mystical currents in American life in the last half or last quarter of the 20th century. There is a sense that ultra-Orthodox Jews have a real spiritual authenticity that secular people–Jews or not–don’t necessarily have.

Dauber: When Hollywood is going after a kind of authenticity and saying “this is an authentic Jew,” they’re speaking about, on one level, someone who is culturally insular and cut off. This is an encounter with strangeness. That’s the plot of something like A Stranger Among Us, where you have this world, and then a character trying to go undercover in that world. In that sense it’s very much like Witness, where Harrison Ford goes undercover with the Amish.

Hoberman: Hasidim are part of the urban landscape in America, so the idea of an insular, somewhat exotic, devout people among us brings a degree of fascination. But it can be distracting to have someone who’s a star in these films because they bring their whole career baggage with them. Renee Zellweger has played a small-town person in a lot of movies, which actually kind of makes sense in a way, because it makes her provincial. But the person who was really good in this movie was Julianna Margulies—she has an ethnic look, so we could accept her.

Hoberman: Mira Nair is probably one of the few non-Jewish filmmakers who’s used Hasidim as her background. Since she’s a member of a minority herself, and would have an outsider perspective on America, she would have an affinity for this as well. For Jewish filmmakers, working with Hasidic characters stirs up a certain amount of ambivalence. They’re making movies about what one could call “real Jews”—there’s no mistaking them for anything else. They’re unassimilated, you could even say aggressively unassimilated—they don’t want to assimilate, and they’re very deep into their own culture.

Allison Hoffman is a senior editor at Tablet Magazine. Her Twitter feed is @allisont_dc.

Allison Hoffman is a senior editor at Tablet Magazine. Her Twitter feed is @allisont_dc.