Vilifying a Rebbe: On Subculture vs. Underworld and the Orientalization of Chassidic Jewry in American Cinema

Day in and day out, each sunset and each dawn, I find myself one in a sea of oscillating black hats; a single wave, contributing to the rhythmic ebb and flow of black and white in heavy motion, and the mellifluous collective murmur of engaged voices swelling around shtenders (podium-like study posts), shteiging feverishly. I am a Chassidic Jew. Technically you're not supposed to call yourself a Chassid, but for the sake of specifying my so-called "insider's perspective" on the matter at hand, it is probably requisite that I affix this label to myself early on. Mostly contrary to my general upbringing, I have taken it upon myself to openly and full-heartedly accept a Chassidic lifestyle as a Lubavitcher Chassid.  I am a full-time yeshiva bokher (Jewish seminary student) and have begun pursuing a rabbinical ordination (semicha as it is formally called). I pour over Talmud and Tanakh day and night and, contrary to what many might have you believe, I live a happy and fulfilled existence met with mostly little resistance. To some degree, I knew that I had been headed to this point of Jewish observance all throughout my life, and Judaism has always been central to my identity.

I am especially unusual because I am a Chassidic filmmaker. Oh yes, there are others of us (most notably another Chabadnik, Marc Erlbaum of Philadelphia). I do not portend to know precisely what my kindred spirits have weathered or will weather in terms of quasi-clever quips leveled at them by others, but I have been called both a "Chassipster" (yes, that is a friend-patented term meaning "Chassidic hipster"), "Chassidic hippie" and "the soon-to-be Matisyahu of independent cinema". Filmmaking to me is my parnassah (a means of survival) but also a form of avodah (in this context, a service that serves some higher purpose). Up to now, I have made only a single film about Jewish issues, all the rest tackling secular topics, albeit often with a keenly Jewish perspective. I am currently at work on a script, ironically entitled Parnassah, which will mark my first feature-length foray into Jewish-themed filmmaking, namely a look into the world of a Chassid which defies earlier permutations of the Chassidic film.

It upsets and disillusions me that not just seldom but in fact never has a truly accurate portrait of Chassidic Jewry been offered up maturely in American cinema -- at least none that I know of. The autopilot button that American filmmakers, outsiders all, seem to push when depicting what is to them almost an underworld renders a highly unfavorable and insensitive view of Chassidism -- an oppressive subculture populated by all manner of stereotypes, from uptight and often grossly unhappy religious zealots to servile women without persona which make the filmmakers go to absurd lengths to make it clear to the viewer that, "Hey, it looks like they obviously missed out on the whole women's lib thing, heh, nudge nudge?". Aim is taken at the flagrantly obvious and the surface-level with any attempt at complexity left discarded to amp the box-office receipts. There is a reason that neatly wrapped packages are attractive to the eyes. An often-used plot device is that one or many of these stock characters are bent on restricting the freedoms of a "free" protagonist who is made to appear free in the most banal of ways. People have often come to accept the illusion that there is a single type of Chassid...the kind that Annie Hall's granny envisions Woody Allen as, at the dinner table scene in Annie Hall. One size fits one and all. That's one of the reasons why that scene, to me, is extraordinary and, in its own way, profound about the image the world has of practicing Jews.

Even in films that take on an overall more "sensitive" approach like 1981's The Chosen, directed by Jeremy Paul Kagan, the son of a conservative rabbi, films often end with a character leaving, at least in some degree, the cloistered environs of the Chassidic world. 2002's The Believer observes Talmudic discourse in a yeshiva as close-minded and closed off to anything that could even remotely ask the bigger questions that emerge in such a dialectical event, and serves in the film to explain partly why our Jewish lead character becomes a skinhead neo-Nazi. The fairly recent film Holy Rollers does not even seem to know, even in any simplistic terms, the hashkafot (sects) that comprise the entirety of the Chassidic world. Behaviors of one hashkafoh will differ in the minhagim (customs) from another hashkafoh. The 2003 low-budget, shoddily produced indie film Mendy is just another tired drama on the tired subject of a restless Chassidic youth looking to free himself from the constraints of the Chassidic world. I am not saying that such stories do not exist. I admit that I am privileged to have lived a wholly other life before resigning myself to my current one, but these truly are the only types of Chassidic stories that are told in American film. Fleeting references in films like this year's It's Kind of a Funny Story are placed carelessly for audiences to gawk and laugh at people, like Chassidim doing things they would not likely do (e.g. taking acid and roller-blading over the Brooklyn Bridge). There is reason why those photos of farm animals smoking cigarettes were never funny. Cinematographers are also keen on photographing yeshivas as dark, bat-cave-like, candelit rathskellers lit only by lush amber hues every other here-and-there. If I studied in a place as dark as that, I'd be like Mr. Magoo by age 35. I am reminded of the 1995 documentary The Celluloid Closet, a documentary history of homosexuality in cinema. Everyone interviewed observed how it was once the key trend in mainstream cinema for gays and lesbians to die by a given film's final fade-out, either by murder or suicide. And so it is the trend that Chassidim will leave the fold by the final fade-out in films about Chassidism.

Even when films are not explicitly about Chassidism and merely possess a definitively Jewish voice, a strictly borscht-belt sensibility is the presiding state of normalcy. Well, either that or the films become pale Woody Allen clones. Jewish humor is vital to our culture, without a doubt, but in American cinema, it assumes such a front-and-center status almost as a means of safety. I am reminded of an actor friend who wrote a script with explicitly Jewish characters, set around the world of horse racing. When pitching the project to Hollywood types, he was told by producer Jennings Lang to "cut the Jewish bit and you got a deal". To most producers, Jewishness is just often too strange and foreign to warrant the posting of funds for a "Jewish film". It's the Orient, the unknown, that spells danger in a world that gambles with investments the way the film business does. A non-Jewish friend of mine is keen on the term "Jewish magic" because of the very insularity with which we, to him, seem to conduct our spiritual affairs. This is to say nothing of the ultimate level, which of course is Chassidism.

Keep in mind that I am not stating that the yeshivishe world and the Chassidishe world is free of stringency. That is an equally absurd illusion and I am not in any way looking to maintain it. It is a challenge and one that, for good reason, most Jews choose not to withstand or ever even attempt. Chassidism is clearly not for everyone and it is no wonder why my new direction has turned a lot of heads and incited panic in many people I know. Implicitly, there is this barrier. What can't be said, done, etc.? What would offend him? Better be careful. How do I act? Questions like this seem to quietly consume those I have chosen to keep close in my life. Valid points all, granted, but a lot of this nervousness is informed by the distorted way media portrays my shady "underworld". At the same time, there is a fascination the world has for the way my brethren and I live. We're among the collective proverbial car crash? No one wants to look, but they cannot look away.

I specifically remember watching Sidney Lumet's 1992 film A Stranger Among Us (or, as many critics dubbed it, "Vitness"), I became actively angered and offended at the depiction of Borough Park Chassidim. I might add that it is not easy to offend me. Melanie Griffith's female cop cruises through Brooklyn in a car and Lumet prefers the tiresome old "babe in Jewland" approach, streets teeming with Hebrew signage, young boys with swinging tzitzis and/or payis, parades of women with strollers, and beards beards everywhere. This is of course accompanied by klezmer music so over-the-top in its placement that it, with very little effort, becomes a heightened parody of itself. This is all coming from Sidney Lumet, a Jew himself, the son of a popular Yiddish theater actor. The film is known as a particular low-point in the director's career, but it speaks to often how Jewish directors picture their own concealed identity when they tackle Jewish subjects, and how alienated they have become from the shtetl that reared their ancestors on a mamishe machmeer (extremely stringent) yeshiva experience. Joan Micklin Silver's Hester Street explores Jewish assimilationism in America at its most critical juncture, in the America of the 1900's. A dream project of mine would be to adapt one of the most scathing and complex Jewish assimilation stories ever told, Abraham Cahan's novel The Rise of David Levinsky, to the screen one day.

I do not wish to reveal very much about my next project Parnassah. It just suffices to say that Chassidism will just simply be in this proposed film, and twists and turns will present themselves, but never in a way that impugns the entire way of life as every single film with a Chassidic subject seems to have done blithely. Sure, I live a life far removed from the lives most are used to observing or even noticing. History, among other things, has taught Jews, not just Chassidim, to be cautious and more insular than most ethnic or religious groups. Another kind of history informs popular conception, i.e. that which is presented in media. As a Chassid then, I have something ahead of me to accomplish. This also engenders something else. On a pay-job shooting a fundraising trailer for a film to be shot in Borough Park, Chassid after Chassid would pass by, catch a glimpse of me on the camera dolly with payis ("sidelocks") untucked and tzitzis out and look at me with wonderment and pointed confusion. Like I said, there are other Chassidic filmmakers, but no one has truly emerged as a voice for our startling minority. Sure, the fact that in many hashkafot (sects), filmmaking may very well be asur (forbidden) might have been a factor. A great deal of weight is placed on "hamavdil beyn kodesh l'chol" (separating the holy from the secular). I happen to belong to a sect that thankfully encourages it more, as Lubavitchers believe that much of everything can be used for tachlit hakadosh (a holier purpose). I think the reason for its asur status is that no filmmaker has delivered an honest portrayal of their lifestyle, therefore no worth can be seen for the greater good, and for it being an avodah. Cinema can aspire towards higher purposes, and I (along with others of my kind), are out to achieve that. We are in search of search of truth and honesty to the extent that film can capture it.

There is friction between the dubitably termed "civilization" and one of its under-realms. I am not going to say that there has not been the occasional difficulty of existing fully in the real world. I have never been able to fully return to my old way of living one-hundred percent and this has deeply affected me on an emotional level, especially as one afflicted by the most intense premature nostalgia. My old self is now just a shadow. As Rabbi David Aaron eloquently says, "We are not human beings but human becomings." It is the friction that is truly interesting. I am resigned, currently with no question in my mind, to live the rest of my years this way. I have seen my fellow bokherim (students) undergo the quandaries of occasional rebirth. Rebirth is always depicted in culture and the natural world as a joyous event, a celebration, a bacchanal. What of rebirth as trauma? What of the story of someone of deep faith and piety who does not wish to escape with any permanence into a new world, but to simply take a brief jaunt into it, bearing in mind his conduct and duty as a Chassid...and the ultimate trauma this Chassid undergoes. I have a stirring story in mind. The political ramifications of this, to me, emerge without them fully meaning to.

This is all to say that subcultures, not just Chassidism, have been branded too often in both Hollywood and independent American cinema as underworlds -- mysterious underbellies of society from which types can easily be manufactured, even by those who should know better.

POST SCRIPTUM: For an interesting and compellingly complex non-filmic portrait of the lives of ex-Chassidim which runs thankfully counter to that of film's one-dimensional portraits, visit One of my brother's students at Stony Brook writes for this blog.


  1. Beautifully and informatively written, Dan. Rather an eye-opener for me. (Please forgive the juxtaposition of Dan and Rather; yours is a factual report of what may by some be considered eccentricity. I respect what you have spoken here.)

  2. Hello Daniel, I found your blog very interesting. But what about movies from other countries? Like the Israeli movie Eyes Wide Open from Haim Tabakman. Is that an more accurate portrait of Chassidic life?

    The movie had a difficult subject about homosexuality in an Orthodox Jewish community.

    Or the Dutch/Belgium movie Left Luggage by Jeroen Krabbe.

    Are movies from other countries more accurate or is it the same like most American movies?