When it comes to Hassidic characters in movies, film consultant Elli Meyer believes that the real deal trumps a random actor in costume. But that approach is not without its challenges.
The New York-based Lubavitcher Hassid recounted one occasion when he was hired to cast extras for a film, but refused upon learning that shooting would take place on Yom Kippur.
“Who told you to hire Jews?” asked one of the producers, though ultimately the shooting was postponed.
Meyer is among a handful of Jews from haredi Orthodox backgrounds who have carved out an unusual niche in show business as occasional consultants on films and TV shows aiming to depict Hassidic life authentically.
These consultants often find themselves having to dispel misconceptions about Hassidim as they advise on language, costuming and plot, sometimes even stepping into rabbinic roles as explainers of Jewish law.
Meyer, 59, has been doing this kind of work for a decade. In 2014 alone he has acted in, consulted for or done casting work for at least six TV shows or movies.
He said he was motivated to get into the consulting business because he was appalled by the sloppiness of many depictions of Hassidic Jews.
“They think they can slap on an Amish hat and a long black robe, and they’ve created a Hassid,” he said of directors and producers in general.
Isaac Schonfeld, a graduate of Yeshiva Shaar Hatorah high school in Queens and an Orthodox Jew, has been a consultant for several independent films.
Most recently, Schonfeld consulted for the 2013 comedy “Fading Gigolo,” directed by John Turturro, who stars as a novice prostitute being pimped out to female clients by a friend (Woody Allen). A major plot line focuses on a budding romance that develops between Turturro’s character and a lonely Hassidic widow who hires him as a masseur.
Schonfeld brought Turturro and several crewmembers to a regular social gathering he runs in New York that is popular among many former Hassidim and others on the margins of the haredi world.
Other acquaintances of Schonfeld also helped with the film. One, Malky Lipshitz, contributed religious artwork and consulted with Vanessa Paradis, the French actress who played the Hassidic woman in the film. Others submitted voice recordings for actor Liev Schreiber to use to practice his inflection in his role as a member of a Hassidic community patrol vying for the widow’s affections.
Schonfeld said one significant change that he advised resulted in a new name for one of the characters.
But that was a minor challenge compared to another conundrum: finding a word for “pimp” in Yiddish. It was needed in a rabbinic court scene where Allen’s character is accused of providing a male prostitute for a Hassidic woman. Finding the one word, “alfons” — rarely if ever used in contemporary Hassidic parlance — required a significant amount of research on Schonfeld’s part.
When it comes to meticulousness, “Fading Gigolo” does not stand alone. “Felix and Meira,” a forthcoming independent Canadian film that follows a Hassidic woman who has an extramarital affair with a non-Jewish man, also required significant research, consultation and visits to the haredi community.
Several former Hassidim consulted for the film in varying capacities. Rivka Katz, formerly a Lubavitcher Hassid, helped with the script, while Luzer Twersky and Melissa Weisz, who attended Satmar Hassidic schools growing up, both acted and consulted. Twersky plays the protagonist’s husband and Weisz has the part of a Hassidic woman, a minor character in the film.
They pointed to the verisimilitude of a scene set during a Shabbat meal scene. “The shtreimel [fur hat] was real, the bekeshe [frock coat] was real, the chicken soup was real,” Twersky said of the scene.
Even though it was not shot on the actual Sabbath, the scene seemed so authentic that Weisz, who acted in the scene, said that on a visceral level it felt wrong to be engaging in un-Shabbat-like activity such as filmmaking.
Afterward, when conversation turned to the movie, “I got mad,” Weisz recalled, “because they shouldn’t be talking about that on Shabbos.”