Ushpizin” is the Aramaic word for “guest.” It is also the title of a 2004 Israeli film, directed by Gidi Dar and written by Shuli Rand. Rand, who also starred in the film, won the Best Actor award from the Israeli Film Academy for the role of Moshe. On a side note, Shuli Rand is a Hassid in “real life” and Michal Bat Sheva Rand, the woman who plays his wife in the film is—his wife! This viewer would never have guessed that “Ushpizin” was her first film. Bat Sheva Rand’s debut is owing to the fact that as a Hassidic Jew, Shuli Rand is not permitted to touch any other woman.
The movie is set during the festival of Sukkot. Moshe, a Breslover Hassidic Jew, has been reformed from his past life as a “bad guy.” He lives and studies at a Yeshiva near the market in central Jerusalem. With barely enough money to provide for his wife and himself, he wonders how he can fulfill the obligations of Sukkot: building a sukkah, obtaining arbat haminim (the four species), and entertaining ushpizin. The money for the items comes to him miraculously. Then, two guests arrive: convicts (one a friend from Moshe’s past) who take advantage of the holiday to seek asylum. This situation creates tension between Moshe and his wife. As the tension rises, Moshe has to deal with feelings of anger and stress during a time when Jews are commanded to be joyful. Throughout, we see Moshe praying and bringing his struggles before God.
Part of the film’s appeal to me is very personal. For a time, I was a Hassidic Jew living in the very area where the story takes place. My wife and I lived in a tiny apartment and struggled to pay our rent at the end of each month, much like Moshe and Michal. I loved seeing the place and people with which I was once so familiar.
Viewers who are unfamiliar with the Hassidic community will find that the film opens a porthole into a fascinating world. Some Jewish believers may be surprised by some of the concepts and attitudes the film reveals as typical of the Hassidic community. Despite the radical differences in lifestyle, I think most viewers will be able to identify with the film’s characters on a very human level.
We see the gritty realities of a man and a woman who rely on their belief in God for survival. We get a glimpse of how the ultra- Orthodox deal with stress, anger and trust in God, just as we all do.
The characters in the film challenge our misconceptions if we think that believers in Jesus hold a monopoly on trusting God. Many people of different religions have some understanding of God’s providence and various other aspects of His character. They experience legitimate feelings of joy and thanksgiving as they contemplate Him. Unfortunately, they do not know the truth of the Kingdom of God and cannot enter into it without Y’shua.
We also see something of how trust in God is commonly mixed with superstition in the Hassidic community. It seems paradoxical that a man who believes in God with all his heart would also believe that the near perfect etrog (the citrus fruit of the four species) that he purchases for 1,000 shekels, the equivalent of about $250, will help his wife give birth to the son they have been trying to conceive. How are we to understand the way in which a wonderful belief in God’s provision can be paired with this unbiblical, perhaps even pagan trust in fruit charms?
In Romans, Paul writes that our Jewish people “are zealous for God, but their zeal is not based on knowledge.” Moshe Bellanga is one of these people; a man who loves God and tries hard to observe the Torah as he understands it. Sadly, while he may honor God with his lips, his heart is far from Him because he has received the precepts for loving and obeying God from the commandments of men (Isaiah 29:13).
We might ask ourselves if we have the reverse problem that Paul described: knowledge of God without zeal. Believing viewers may see Moshe’s zeal for holiness, and be led to strive for such zeal in their devotion towards Messiah.
I recommend the film not only because I found it entertaining and interesting (especially as Sukkot approaches) but because I think this film can inspire some of us to see the Hassidic community in a different light. It shows much that is good in this community that we may ordinarily see simply as those who are closed to the gospel or even those who would persecute us for our faith in Y’shua. As we look through their eyes and hear the heart of their prayers through the character of Moshe, may we be led to take the risk to prayerfully and faithfully tell them about Jesus. We may not be able to discuss matters of Talmud and we may feel at a loss in our knowledge of certain traditions—but we know Messiah and the words of the prophets; we know God personally. May we be zealous to pray and do what we can that others might know Him, too.