Please enjoy this old-ish but delightful Israeli movie: Ushpizin (2004), by Gidi Rand.
Everybody I know who has seen this movie loves this movie. It’s not a big group of people, but rather diverse: it includes me, my secular Jewish parents, my religious Jewish friends, and two non-Jewish Catholic guys I’ve dated.
Against an Israeli setting both literally and figuratively warm, and just exotic enough, a husband and wife who have “returned in repentance” – khozrim be-teshuvah, a Hebrew term describing formerly secular people who return to God, adopting an Orthodox Jewish faith and lifestyle – are childless, poor, and living “on every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” in part for lack of other options. One day they receive a bonanza of money, and spend most of it on doing the right thing for God – celebrating Sukkot (Feast of the Tabernacles) in a fitting manner. Some rather unseemly guests – ushpizin is Aramaic for ‘guests’ – then turn up. As Moshe and Mali continue, with increasing difficulty, to do the right thing and show them hospitality, through a combination of malice and hilarious foolishness the guests almost tear the couple apart. And in the end, as after the visit of the angels to Abraham and Sarah’s tabernacle, a child is born.
Why do we all love this movie? I think it’s because it’s one of very few that’s all about religion, and at the same time is funny, well-made, and totally accessible. (This is in no small part because the actors portraying Moshe and Mali are themselves a “returning repentant” couple, and have written movie as well as starred in it.) Like the best movies about faith, its characters’ religious devotion turns them neither flat nor despicable nor incomprehensible: they have sins and conflicts and problems, and they deal with it like everyone else does, except that they also have hope and faith – and joy. Unlike almost any movie, its characters get away with full-body praise-singing and praise-dancing without anyone feeling the need to make snarky comments – you’re too busy being happy that they’re happy.
In short, it’s the kind of movie every Evangelical Christian movie-maker wishes they could make, except it’s about Jews. And therefore, yet another reason I love it is that it makes it so heart-warmingly obvious – against, I’m sure, the wishes of its makers – just how much the two have in common.
Finally, I love this movie because it is about hospitality – a virtue that, if truly practiced, brings together believers and unbelievers, tax collectors and Pharisees; a virtue whose practitioners, like Moshe and Mali, leave room for God to show up unannounced and turn around their lives.