Ushpizin (2004) - Synopsis

Winner of the 2004 Best Actor award at the 2004 Israeli Film Academy for writer-star Shuli
Rand, director Gidi Dar’s film, Ushpizin (roughly translated to “holy guests”), is a revelatory –
and humorous - look at the daily lives of ultra-Orthodox Jews learning, living, and loving in
modern-day Israel.

As the festive holiday of Succoth approaches, big-hearted Moshe Bellanga (Rand), a devoutly
religious man and a member of the Breslau Chasidim, finds himself broke, a self-described lump of sadness.” Moshe doesn’t have the Shekels to scrape together a Succah—the temporary
dwellings religious Jews stay in during the festival to commemorate the time of the Exodus,
and remind the devout that this life, too, is ephemeral. Nor does Moshe have money to
purchase the four species upon which religious Jews are commanded to make blessings during
the holiday: date-palm branches (lulav), myrtle (hadas), willow (avaros), and, most important,
citron (esrog), considered a blessing for having male children.

When Moshe and his wife Malli (Rand’s real-life wife, Michal Bat Sheva Rand) receive an
anonymous gift of $1,000 from a local charity organization, they take it as a holiday miracle.
Married for five years and still childless, Moshe quickly uses the money to purchase a citron
dubbed “the diamond,” believed to be the most perfect citron in all Jerusalem, and decorate
a seemingly abandoned Succah.

Meanwhile, just as the holiday begins, Eliyahu Scorpio (Shaul Mizrahi) and his friend Yossef (Ilan Ganani), escape from prison while on furlough, and come looking for their former associate. . .
During the festival of Succoth, it is considered a blessing to host guests in the Succah. After
making their way to Moshe and Malli, Scorpio and Yossef quickly take up residence in their
Succah, terribly abusing the couple’s hospitality by drinking, smoking, playing loud music, and indulging in bestial table manners. Mocking the community’s Hassidic “penguins,” Scorpio and Yossef openly question the sincerity of Moshe’s newfound faith and allude to his violent past.
After fabricating a story in order to rid themselves of their obnoxious houseguests, Moshe and Malli eventually come to see the treatment of their less-than-holy “Ushpizin” as a test of worthiness.

The first film made by members of the ultra-Orthodox community in collaboration with secular filmmakers and aimed at general audiences, Ushpizin introduces Western viewers to organizations,
rituals, and customs such as shtreimel (circular fur hats made of fox tails that are worn
on the Sabbath or holidays), gemah (voluntary organizations that distribute money and other
necessities to the needy within the Orthodox community) and mikveh (ritual baths).

Disarmingly funny, the film also startles in its universality, depicting members of the ultra-
Orthodox community in scenes of ordinary living, drinking, smoking, dancing, arguing, reconciling, listening to popular music, and grappling with their faith. In its ultimately celebratory, fable-like quality, Ushpizin is a completely unique moviegoing experience: equal parts Isaac Bashevis Singer and It’s A Wonderful Life.