All Guests Welcome

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.


About The Groom's Family

I was born in Soviet Russia and grew up in Israel. I was baptized Orthodox Christian in 2006. Today my husband and I live in Northern Virginia. I would love to hear from you, so please leave a comment!
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2 Responses to All Guests Welcome

  1. Diana says:

    Okay, so first of all full disclosure: I have to admit that I hated this movie when I first watched it. Why would God grant them exactly what they were wishing for just when they started praying? Seemed a little too cut-and-dry for me. God usually doesn’t answer prayers so directly.

    But then a friend of mine connected it to a teaching from Rabbi Nachman of Breslav, who said that teshuva really happens when a person experiences “busha” – utter humiliation. That’s what happened to Moshe when he came home to find (something really embarrassing that I won’t give away) and ran into the forest to scream out to God (incidentally, they’re Breslavers, so the whole meditate-in-the-forest thing is one of their major traditions – hitbodedut – one of those funny reflexive Hebrew words that means something like “being built by building yourself from within”). This was, for Moshe, a major change – he had encountered a scenario that in the past would have made him lash out in anger, but here, instead of letting the anger take control of him, he runs to the forest to take it to God before he can hurt anyone else.

    What Rabbi Nachman meant was that you can put on all the skirts and long sleeves you want, go to shul, keep Shabbat, etc – but you’ve done nothing but changed external trappings until you’ve gone inward and dealt with the demons inside you, and *this* time, reacted differently. And that only happened to Moshe when he was utterly humiliated, and his past (the vile thing that his ushpizin were doing, which he could easily have done 10 years earlier) comes back to stare him in the face and jeer.

    What do you think? Can repentance happen without humiliation?

  2. Daniel Silver says:

    I’ll have to check it out, having worked in the Evangelical Christian film industry I will be interested to see how it compares.

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