On March 29 2000, some of the ostensibly least likely drug smugglers were sentenced to prison terms in New York, as the NY Times reported:
Dozens of Hasidic Jews packed together shoulder to shoulder in a Brooklyn courtroom yesterday, seeking leniency for a teenager who forsook his strict upbringing to help run a huge smuggling ring that flooded New York with the drug Ecstasy.
But to their surprise, the 70 members of the Bobover sect found themselves the subject of a scathing lecture by a federal judge who upbraided them in a quavering voice for allowing an international drug smuggling ring to flourish in their midst.
“Where was the community when all of this was going on?” the judge, I. Leo Glasser, demanded of the crowd gathered in his courtroom in Federal District Court in Brooklyn for the sentencing of the teenager, Shimon Levita, 18. “Where was the family when 18-year-old boys were traveling from Paris to Amsterdam, Montreal, New York and Atlanta?”
Scheduled for theatrical release in New York and Los Angeles on May 21, Holy Rollers is a fictionalized version of these events. Striving for an authenticity rarely seen in films dealing with the world of the Hasidim, it is filmed on location in Williamsburg, New York—a home of various orthodox Jewish sects. The cast studied with a dialect coach to learn Hebrew prayers, elementary Yiddish, and to perfect their Brooklyn accents. But leaving aside the intrinsic interest of the remarkable story and the gritty realism, the real reason to see this movie is its intelligent screenplay, solid performances and masterful direction. As someone who has spent a considerable amount of time around Hasidim over the years (my next door neighbor upstate was one) and who has written about their beliefs and history, I was impressed with the production company’s ability to make their exotic lives interesting and identifiable to the average audience.
In some ways, Holy Rollers is a retelling of a very old movie plot going back to Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singer which inevitably involves a young orthodox Jew being torn between the ways of his father and the siren call of secularism and the pleasures of the flesh. The main character is a 20 year old named Sam (referred to as Shmuel by his brethren) who lives with his parents in a modest one-family house. Like many Hasidim, who virtually exclude themselves from the professions by refusing to go to college, the family is barely scraping by from the income the father makes in his Lower East Side fabric store with Sam as his only employee. The kitchen stove is barely functional and, as such, presents real problems for a family whose social life revolves around the dinner table, as is the case with most Hasidim.
Not long ago, I noticed in my hometown paper upstate that Kiryas Joel, an all-Hasidic enclave, about an hour from my village was statistically the poorest in the country:
According to the latest round of U.S. Census figures, released late last year, the village has the highest poverty rate in the nation, and the largest percentage of residents who receive food stamps. Only one other place in the 50 states has a lower median income. The median household income in Kiryas Joel is $15,848; in Carbondale, Ill., it’s $15,799.
More than two-thirds of Kiryas Joel residents live below the federal poverty line and more than 40 percent receive food stamps, according to the American Community Survey, a U.S. Census Bureau study of every place in the country with 20,000 residents or more.
Sam lives next door to two brothers about his age, whose parents are deceased. Perhaps because of the freedom that gives them, the older brother Yosef has already begun to wriggle free from Hasidic strictures. Going to bed at night, Sam looks through his window and sees Yosef watching Midnight Blue, a pornographic cable TV show.
The next day Yosef accosts Sam on his way to the synagogue like the serpent in the Garden of Eden and asks him if he’s interested in a job. He describes it as bringing medicine into the United States for special customers. He will have to take precautions since it is not legal here, but reassures him that no moral questions are involved. Who knows why some medicine is illegal? After all, he reminds him (inaccurately) that Advil is illegal in Israel.
Yosef introduces Sam to Jackie, an Israeli who is masterminding the operation. Jackie is even more cut off from Hasidic Puritanism than Yosef and spends his evenings at a Brooklyn disco where he consults with drug dealers trying to line up an Ecstasy connection. Not long after habituating himself to the night life in Brooklyn and the even more libertine scene in Netherlands, whence they pick up Ecstasy pills in underground factories, Sam begins to follow in Yosef’s footsteps. The tension between his new-found appetite for women and fast money on one hand and the communal support of the Hasidim on the other is sustained throughout the remainder of the film until it is relieved by the gang’s capture.
Playing Sam, Jeff Eisenberg is extremely convincing. His last role was in the comedy/horror movie Zombieland. Even better is Justin Bartha’s Yosef, who comes across as a kind of brash Lenny Bruce figure. And perhaps best of all is Danny Abeckaser as Jackie, the Israeli kingpin. Abeckaser produced the film as well, having gotten the idea originally from reading about the arrests in 1999.
Incredibly enough, the script was written by Antonio Macia, the son of Argentine and Chilean parents, who converted to Mormonism and even served as a missionary. One suspects that his intimate knowledge of one sect helped him dramatize another. The movie was directed by Kevin Asch, his first feature film.
While I thoroughly enjoyed Holy Rollers, I could not help but feel that the movie failed to really sink its teeth into the question of why so many super-orthodox youngsters were amenable to becoming drug smugglers. At one point, Yosef mentions that the Hasidim have been smuggling diamonds for generations, so it’s no big deal. The average viewer, however, might still end up scratching his head trying to figure out why people who are so super-religious can become players in a scene reminiscent of the finale of Goodfellas.
I came to the movie with different expectations, starting with my memory of buying marijuana from a friend whose source was—as he put it with a smile—a Hasid in the diamond district. For him, this was just another way of making money.
But the real eye-opener was reading Stephen G Bloom’s Postville: A Clash of Cultures in Heartland in 2000, just around the same time the Hasidim were smuggling Ecstasy. This is a book about the presence of the Hasidim in a small Iowa town where they have bought a packing house and turned it into the largest kosher processing plant in the country. If you’ve been following the news, you will probably know that there was a raid on the plant by immigration cops last year that resulted not only in the arrest of undocumented workers, but the revelation that the Rubashkins, the owners, were guilty of breaking child labor laws and generally running the place in a manner calculated to inspire a new version of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle.
But long before the Rubashkins were arrested, there were clear signs that criminality and the Hasidic life-style were not incompatible. In chapter 16 of Postville, Bloom describes the crime spree of Pinchas Lew and Phillip Stillman, two married Hasidic employees who shot a woman causing permanent loss of her legs while robbing the convenience store where she worked. Lew only served 3 months of a 10 year sentence and during his probation was ordained as a rabbi. However, a few years later when serving as the rabbi of a synagogue in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, he was charged with sexual assault against his housekeeper.
If you want the last word on Hasidic crimes, misdemeanors and all-round bad behavior, you must visit the Failed Messiah website. Launched by Shmarya Rosenberg, a Hasidic apostate, it is particularly incensed over the sexual abuse of young boys by one rabbi or another. Apparently, the fact that Jews do not require such men to be celibate has had no effect on the pederasty problem.
But it is doubtful that the still observant Shmarya Rosenberg can really understand the awful behavior of people like the Rubashkins, who are generally understood by religious Jews as “forsaking” the ways of their father. I have a different understanding of what makes them tick, however.
In my view, the “ethics” of the orthodox Jews has much more to do with the mitzvah than it does with the prophet Isaiah who said the words that the more assimilated Jews, observant or not, hold dear: “And he shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many people: and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”
Although the word mitzvah is generally understood as “good deed”, this is not quite the meaning it has in orthodox households. A mitzvah is instead is a word used to refer to the 613 commandments given in the Torah, such as saying the “Shma Yisrael” prayer a certain number of times a day, or putting a mezuzah (a piece of parchment with words from the Torah) on your front door. In one of my favorite Curb Your Enthusiasm episodes, Larry David gets in trouble with his strictly Christian in-laws by using a nail that supposedly came from the Crucifixion to attach the mezuzah next to the front door.
As long as you get these mitzvah’s down pat, it really doesn’t matter that much if you put a bullet in the spine of a convenience store employee or smuggle Ecstasy, although I’d have to say that anything that gets people to dance their asses off to Moby can’t be all bad.