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Casting Themselves In A New Light

Casting Themselves In A New Light

Bathed in light, wrapped in a tallit and kittel, the soul of a middle-aged New York Jew speaks to his earthly body on a Queens side street late one night last week.
“Chaim, Chaim,” calls the soul, flanked by a pair of large menorahs, an ark of Torah scrolls behind him, “good Shabbos. Did you have a good week?”
A plaintive voice — of Chaim himself, who is mentally disabled — is heard answering, “Nobody likes me.”
Don’t despair, answers the soul. “Soon it will all be over.”
The conversation repeats itself again and again, 10 times, until a stocky man wearing a baseball cap — one of seven men gathered around the angelic, mustachioed figure in the sanctuary of the Young Israel of Sunnyside — announces, “Cut! It’s a wrap!”
Another filming day for “Uncle Chaim” ends with a director’s call.
“Uncle Chaim,” an independent movie about fear of acceptance and change among haredim — produced and directed by haredim — is set to open in New York’s Orthodox community in time for Sukkot this fall.
Holding haredi standards of public image up to public examination, the film focuses on one Chaim Wasserman, a fortyish, developmentally disabled man from an Orthodox background. He has been institutionalized most of his life and effectively abandoned by his family.
Uncle Chaim is an idiot savant, a quirky man who inexplicably wears a scuba mask and goggles all the time. He is an embarrassment to his family. His teenage nephew doesn’t know that Uncle Chaim exists, but suddenly Uncle Chaim turns up at the Wasserman home in Brooklyn one Friday afternoon.
The production was filmed this month at a half-dozen sites in the greater New York area, including the scene on the Young Israel bima of Uncle Chaim’s soul talking to Uncle Chaim in a Shabbat night dream.
In the movie are confrontations, recriminations and finally, reconciliation.
At first glance, “Uncle Chaim” follows the pattern of several films made in recent years, especially in Israel, which are frankly critical or mildly questioning of aspects of life in the haredi, or fervently Orthodox, community.
The producers of two such documentaries, Sandi Simcha Dubowski, who documents the problems of gay and lesbian Orthodox Jews in “Trembling Before G-d,” and Pearl Gluck, whose “Divan” treats estrangement from a haredi lifestyle, come from Orthodox roots.
But “Uncle Chaim” is probably the first dramatic movie about haredim made in the United States whose producer and director are unambiguously still part of the mainstream haredi community.
Producer and financial backer Yoel Waxler is a chasid — he declines to specify which sect he affiliates with — from Borough Park. Director Avi Schwartz, a filmmaker from Long Island City, Queens, has rabbinical ordination from Mesivta Tifereth Jerusalem, a prominent “black hat” yeshiva on the Lower East Side.
Besides Steve Arons, a professional actor and secular Jew who portrays Uncle Chaim, the other actors who play the parts of Orthodox Jews are haredim from various chasidic or yeshivishe backgrounds. It’s an all-male production, in keeping with haredi standards of modesty.
Cast members agreed to participate in Waxler’s low-budget project for little or no pay.
“The community volunteered to be in the movie,” says Waxler, 29, who works as a Web site designer and computer programmer.
This despite the production’s possibly controversial nature.
Both the message (the depiction of Orthodox families who deny medical problems in their background because of social pressures or a deleterious effect on children’s marriage prospects) and the medium (haredim are traditionally not a cinema-intensive community) may disturb some haredim.
“There is a problem out there, no question about it,” Waxler says. “The people who hide the family members are really the victims.”
But the times in haredi circles are changing, Waxler, Schwartz and other observers agree.
Few Orthodox families today put members with developmental disabilities or emotional problems in institutions or cut off ties with them, as frum households and many families in general society did in previous generations, the observers say.
An array of educational organizations and support groups for such conditions as Down syndrome have been formed in the haredi community in recent years, they say, adding that the feelings of shame about someone with a possibly genetic condition — the fear that others knowing about someone in the family with such a condition may jeopardize social standing — have largely disappeared.
“There is much more acceptance and tolerance of disabilities,” says a lifelong member of a haredi family in Borough Park who works in the Jewish media. “You see an openness towards dealing with other problems, really uncomfortable problems. Maybe the frum community is 20 years behind the general community, but we’re catching up.”
However, Waxler says, the change in communal thinking is not widely known.
“The main problem is that everyone [else] thinks it’s a problem,” he says.
In other words, while members of a family may accept someone with a medical condition, they fear other members of their community may not. “The problem,” Waxler says, “is the illusion of a problem.”
“I don’t think [the film] is going to be a controversial thing,” he says.
But Samuel Heilman, professor of Jewish studies and sociology at the City University of New York, is skeptical whether the haredi community will accept — or even see — the film’s message.
“Anything that smacks of stigma, people will stay away from,” says Heilman, the author of “Defenders of the Faith: Inside Ultra-Orthodox Jewry” (Schocken, 1992). “It lowers someone’s value on the marriage market.”
Heilman says “the paradox of ‘Uncle Chaim’ is that by picking this medium, they are speaking by and large to a non-haredi audience. The people who they’re talking about don’t by and large watch movies or videos.”
In the haredi neighborhoods of New York City and Israel, religious newspapers and posters pasted on walls are traditionally a chief source of news and entertainment. But many haredi families now watch videocassettes or DVDs with appropriate themes and content. And especially in Israel, haredim are making their own professional-level films.
“A new haredi movie industry” is profiled in a recent issue of The Jerusalem Post weekend Upfront magazine.
“The haredi community was never as monolithic as outsiders saw it, but it is becoming more diverse than ever,” an Upfront editorial states. “A new and vibrant generation is emerging in the haredi community.”
“I think there is a perception [in outside circles] that the haredim are Luddites or Amish, that we eschew modern technology,” says Rabbi Avi Shafran, a spokesman for the haredi Agudath Israel of America.
“The haredi community has been quite adept at harnessing the power of new technology,” Rabbi Shafran says. “The talents in the haredi community are now expressed.”
There will be little resistance, the rabbi says, to the message of “Uncle Chaim” because it comes in a movie instead of a sermon or newspaper article.
“I don’t think it will be rejected because of the medium,” Rabbi Shafran says.
While Waxler says few haredim can be expected to see “Uncle Chaim” in the theaters, where it will precede longer feature-length movies or be part of film festivals, he will try to arrange private screenings in yeshivas and synagogues. Haredi institutions will be more open to a film produced and directed by member of their community, he says.
Waxler, who financed a smaller-scale film with a similar ethical theme two years ago, says he “always liked cinema. I do watch from time to time some kosher stuff.”
“Uncle Chaim,” based on a composite of people and incidents from his life, was inspired by a schoolmate’s absence in yeshiva 15 years ago. The bochur had gone to an uncle’s funeral.
“You don’t know him [the uncle],” the fellow student told Waxler. Either had the uncle’s nephew. The uncle, mentally challenged, had had no contact with the young members of his family.
“Everyone felt … it’s not right to do such a thing,” Waxler says. He kept the idea “in my head.”
Finally, he wrote the screenplay of “Uncle Chaim,” which was subsequently rewritten by Schwartz, “based on many true stories.”
“We’re using metaphors, poetic license,” says Schwartz, who has filmed shorts before but nothing of the 40-minute length of “Uncle Chaim.”
“Another stereotype is being broken — that religious Jews have no appreciation for artistic beauty,” he says. “Here you have a religious community doing [a film] in a professional manner.”
The film does not specify the Brooklyn neighborhood of Uncle Chaim’s younger brother, Abie, or the haredi group of which Abie Wasserman is a member.
“It could be any [Orthodox] crowd,” Schwartz says. “It gives everyone mussar [rebuke]. It’s a universal message.”
“Someone out there,” someone who watches the film, “will be motivated to do something,” Waxler says.
Many families have an Uncle Chaim. “The movie is going to tell them it’s OK, you don’t have to hide them anymore,” Schwartz says.
He intentionally chose the revealing scene with the dialogue between Uncle Chaim and his soul to take place on Shabbat. “Shabbat is a transforming day,” Schwartz says.
And Schwartz intentionally chose an ending that shows Uncle Chaim reunited with his once-intolerant family. Abie, who had earlier shut his older brother out of his life, comes to embrace Chaim.
“We want to show that there is light at the end of the tunnel,” Schwartz says. “We want to show that there is transformation, that a person can be transformed.”

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