Showbiz meets shtetl: Helping Hollywood get Hasidim right
When it comes to Hasidic characters in movies, film consultant Elli Meyer believes that the real deal trumps a random actor in costume.
But that approach isn’t without its challenges.
Meyer, a New York-based Lubavitcher Hasid, recounted one occasion when he was hired to cast extras for a film but refused upon learning that shooting would take place on Yom Kippur.
“Who told you to hire Jews?” one of the producers said, according to Meyer, though ultimately the shooting was postponed.
Meyer is among a handful of Jews from haredi Orthodox backgrounds who have carved out an unusual niche in show business as occasional consultants on films and TV shows aiming to authentically depict Hasidic life.
These consultants often find themselves having to dispel misconceptions about Hasidim as they advise on language, costuming and plot, sometimes even stepping into rabbinic roles as explainers of Jewish law.
Meyer, 59, has been doing this kind of work for a decade. In 2014 alone he has acted in, consulted on or done casting work for more than half a dozen TV shows or movies.
He said he was motivated to get into the consulting business because he was appalled by the sloppiness of many depictions of Hasidic Jews.
“They think they can slap on an Amish hat and a long black robe, and they’ve created a Hasid,” he said of directors and producers in general.
Isaac Schonfeld, a graduate of Yeshiva Shaar Hatorah high school in Queens and an Orthodox Jew, has consulted on several independent films.
Most recently, Schonfeld consulted for the 2013 comedy “Fading Gigolo” directed by John Turturro, who stars as a novice prostitute being pimped out to female clients by a friend played by Woody Allen. One of the major plot lines focuses on a budding romance that develops between Turturro’s character and a lonely Hasidic widow who hires him as a masseur.
Schonfeld brought Turturro and several crew members to a regular social gathering he runs in New York called Chulent that is popular among many former Hasidim and others on the margins of the haredi world.
Other acquaintances of Schonfeld also helped with the film. One, Malky Lipshitz, contributed religious artwork and consulted with Vanessa Paradis, the French actress who played the Hasidic woman in the film. Others submitted voice recordings for actor Liev Schreiber to use to practice his inflection in his role as a member of a Hasidic community patrol vying for the widow’s affections.
Schonfeld pointed to one significant change that resulted from his advice. He said that Turturro had planned to name the Hasidic widow after a friend’s wife named Avital, wrongly believing it to be an authentic-sounding Hasidic name. Schonfeld noted that some people have a tendency to believe that Israeli and haredi names are interchangeable.
Schonfeld recommended similar alternatives that would be more plausibly Hasidic but would still accommodate Turturro’s attachments and artistic considerations. In the end Avital was named Avigal.
But the naming of characters was a minor challenge compared to another conundrum: finding a word for “pimp” in Yiddish to be used in a scene before a rabbinic court where Allen’s character is accused of providing a male prostitute for a Hasidic woman. Finding the one word, “alfons,” rarely if ever used in contemporary Hasidic parlance, required a significant amount of research on Schonfeld’s part.
When it comes to meticulousness, “Fading Gigolo” does not stand alone. “Felix and Meira,” a forthcoming independent Canadian film that follows a Hasidic woman from Montreal who engages in an extramarital affair with a non-Jewish man, also required significant research, consultation and visits to the haredi community.
Several former Hasidim consulted for the film in varying capacities. Rivka Katz, formerly a Lubavitcher Hasid, consulted on the script, while Luzer Twersky and Melissa Weisz, who attended Satmar Hasidic schools growing up, both acted and consulted. Twersky plays the protagonist’s husband and Weisz has the part of a Hasidic woman, a minor character in the film.
They pointed to the verisimilitude of a scene set during a Shabbat meal.
“The shtreimel [fur Hasidic hat] was real, the bekeshe [frock coat] was real, the chicken soup was real,” Twersky said of the scene.
Even though it was not shot on the actual Sabbath, the scene seemed so authentic that Weisz, who acted in the scene, said that on a visceral level it felt wrong to be engaging in un-Shabbat-like activity like filmmaking.
Afterward, when conversation turned to the movie, “I got mad,” Weisz recalled, “because they shouldn’t be talking about that on Shabbos.”
But film consultants do not always agree with one another on what makes for the most authentic depiction of Hasidim.
On Twitter, Twersky had criticized the 2010 movie “Holy Rollers,” starring Jesse Eisenberg as a drug-running yeshiva student, for its costuming choices and other issues. He tweeted: “guys with peyos don’t wear short suits and fedora hats.”
Meyer, who worked on the film, says he advises a “mish-mosh look,” piecing together the hat from one Hasidic sect and the side curls of another, unless the director has a particular sect in mind.
To Twersky, that was one of several of the film’s failings.
But he acknowledges that departures from authentic portrayals of Hasidic life are not always such a bad thing.
“We need to get over the fact that we don’t own the story of Hasidic Jews,” Twersky said.
He noted that artistic considerations often result in departures from reality.
“Nobody wants to see regular people doing regular things,” Twersky said. “That’s not a movie.”