In a few days, Jewish people around the world will be celebrating the Feast of Sukkot (Tabernacles) in small “booths” or “tabernacles” they have built in their yards. They’ll live in these little huts for seven days (or at least eat their meals there), in order to remember God’s care during their 40-year wilderness trek to the Promised Land, because God commanded it in Leviticus 23:39-43.
If you want to see how these ancient traditions are still observed today, you have a superb opportunity in a movie that came out a few years ago called Ushpizin (OOSH-pee-ZEEN). The word means “visitors,” and refers to the tradition of showing hospitality to visitors in your sukkah during the Feast of Sukkot.
The story revolves around the lives of Moshe and Malli Bellanga, an extremely poor couple who live in an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood in Jerusalem. Both of them are ba’al teshuvah, (“masters of repentance”) meaning that they became observant as adults, and they are still learning to live according to Jewish traditions.
Soon you learn that the husband has a pretty checkered past, because two escaped convicts presume upon their old friend Moshe to let them stay in their sukkah, and make their lives crazy. The movie shows how the couple grow beyond their beginnings. (It weaves in the story of Abraham and Sarah too, if you pay attention.)
Ushpizin is one-of-a-kind in that it is the only movie ever made by ultra-Orthodox Jews, who normally stay far away from public media. When it debuted in Israel in 2004, it won all sorts of awards because of its delightful story and excellent acting. (You can read the story here.) It’s a real favorite of mine.
The entire movie was played by Haredi Jews living in their own neighborhoods in Jerusalem, so you get an amazingly authentic glimpse into their very private lives. Considering how stifling its strict rules would seem to be, I was amazed at the characters’ humor, faith and gentleness.
Let me know what you think!