Ushpizin(Holy Guests)

Equal parts Isaac Bashevis Singer (“Yentl”) and Capra's “It's a Wonderful Life,” Giddi Dar's Israeli film, “Ushpizin” (which roughly translates to “Holy Guests” in Aramaic and Hebrew), is a modest and charming folktale that offers a humorous look at the daily lives of ultra-Orthodox Jews in modern-day Israel.

As such, the film represents a novelty in two ways: It provides a window into an otherwise secretive world, and it demystifies this human group as ordinary people with ordinary needs and desires rather than special or deviant.

As the festival holiday of Succoth approaches, big-hearted Bellanga (Shuli Rand, who's also the writer), a devoutly religious man and member of the Breslau Hassidim, is broke, describing himself as “lump of sadness.” Moshe doesn't have the money (shekels) to scrape together a Succah, the temporary dwelling in which religious Jews stay during the festival to commemorate the time of the Exodus, and remind the devout that this life, too, is ephemeral.

Nor does Moshe have the money to purchase the four species needed to make blessings during the holiday: Date-palm branches (Lulav), myrtle (Hadas), willow (Avaros), and, most important, citron (Esrog), which, according to mythology is considered to be a blessing for having male children (religious Jews favor males over females).

This element becomes particularly relevant due to the fact that Moshe and his wife Malli (Michal Bat Sheba, Rand's real-life wife) have been married for five years but are childless.

When Moshe and Malli receive an anonymous gift of $1,000 from a local charity organization, they perceive it as a holiday miracle. Moshe quickly uses most of this money to purchase a citron dubbed, “the diamond,” believed to be the most perfect citron in Jerusalem, and decorate the seemingly abandoned Succah.

Meanwhile, Just as the holiday begins, Eliyahu Scorpio (Shaul Mizrahi) and his friend Yossef (Ilan Ganani), escape from prison while on furlough, and come looking for their Moshe, their former associate.

Knowing it's considered to be a blessing to host guests in the Succah, the couple take advantage of Moshe and Malli's hospitality, taking up full residence, drinking their wine, eating their food, indulging in bestial table manners, and playing loud music outdoors. Mocking the community's Hassidic “penguins,” Scorpio and Yossef question the sincerity of Moshe's newfound faith and allude to his violent past, of which his wife was unaware

Trying to get rid of their abusive, undesirable guests, Moshe and Malli fabricate a lie, but are caught by the shrewd couple. Rationalizing that God is testing their worthiness, Moshe and wife take the ordeal in stride.

The first film made by members of the ultra-Orthodox community, in collaboration with secular filmmakers, and aimed at general audiences, “Ushpizin” introduces viewers to the customs, rituals, and organizations of a sect, about which we know very little.

Do not worry about lack of knowledge. Most of the customs and words are translated into English, or referred to in the text in a way that makes them clear and understood. Hence, youll find out that “Gemah” are voluntary organizations that distribute money and other items to the needy in the Orthodox community, and you may know already that “Mikveh” means a ritual bathhouse.

In its ultimately celebratory, fable-like quality, “Ushpizin” is disarmingly funny and humane, turning what appears to be unique and particular into a more general and universal experience. Religious life has never been depicted in a more ordinary, simple, and rewarding way; when was the last time you saw Hassidic Jews drinking, dancing, listening to pop music, and smoking, while arguing about more serious matters.

If the film has an insider's quality about it, it's due to the fact that the tale is based on the life of Shuli Rand, its writer and actor, who won the Israeli Best Actor Oscar last year for this performance. “When I became Orthodox, I stopped working in movies and discontinued my participation in theater,” Rand says in the press notes. “I felt there was no place for an Orthodox Jew in those worlds, and I dedicated myself to five years of studying the Bible.” Rand has obviously changed his mind and we the viewers are beneficiaries to his reconciliation of religion and art in “Ushpizin.”

Technically, “Ushpizin” is ultra-modest, but it's a film whose impact depends on abundant charm and folksy wisdom, the kind of which is transmitted orally from one generation to the next.