Just before Yomtov I got my hands onto a DVD of a film called Mendy; the story of the eponymous Chassidic orphan who is caught messing with a girl in the community and is thrown out. He moves in with a friend, Yanky, who had left years before and is now a tattooed, occasional tefillin wearing, whoring, drug pusher. The film follows Mendy through the first few weeks of his life with Yanky and his attractive, black, Brazilian roommate, and watches him painfully adjust to a world where morals and ethics must be decided for one’s self and where solutions as well as love can be just as hard to find as within the gefilte-fish cradle.
The film is surprisingly authentic. It is let down, for me, only by the appallingly poorly articulated Yiddish, which half the film is spoken in. For me it would have been far more genuine, not to mention comfortable to watch, had it been played entirely in English, with the classic yiddishisms left in. To me, a native speaker, the stilted Yiddish was a major irritation although those relying on the subtitling might see in it a charm of its own.
With at least one Satmar dropout on the credits the film is sometimes refreshingly and hauntingly real. When Shabbes arrives a group of ex-orthos, some bare-headed and holding cigarettes and others still wearing the traditional garb, pool together the kugel, gefilte fish and cholent they received from their families - ever hopeful of their return – then join hands to lustily welcome the Shabbes Queen, in song, to their mixed and half drunk gathering. So eerily authentic that it brought a lump to my throat.
I cannot recommend this charming film to the religiously faint of heart. There is occasional nudity and Yanky puts his tefillin on his shikse while making love to her as he whispers the brocho (blessing) into her ear, in a shockingly provocative scene that left even me unsure if I could continue to watch. I sincerely hope they were props and not the real thing! Still, I do believe that the film does tell the story rather well from the point of view of the tortured soul who leaves, and anybody who has dealings with youngsters who have left, or might, can learn much from seeing it.
For me it awakened memories that had been pushed back into the far recesses of my skeleton cabinet. In the years since I took a conscious decision to return to the fold and traded in my rebellion and individuality for a Solzhenitsyn style compromise, I have slowly grown accustomed to the comfort and security that being a paid up member affords. This film jolted me back to the time when I would have given anything ‘just to be accepted for what I am’.
Now, sitting in shul on Yomtov, I look around me at what I traded that in for. I observe the man across the table, his eyes tightly shut in concentration, his roughly woven, yellowing tallis pulled tightly round his torso and head. In his loud raspy voice the, essentially upbeat, Hallel texts he moans sound more like an audition for King Lear.
The teenager next to him is also chanting lustily, anticipating the Chazzan (cantor) in a reedy solo. Unmarried, he cannot cover his face with the Tallis so he self-consciously looks around every few minutes to see if anyone is watching him. Every so often, when his neighbour’s cacophony becomes too loud, he stops his lone performance to glare balefully at the shrouded figure’s formless back and then resolutely returns to his singular devotion. I wonder to myself whether he considers the fact that they are both ostensibly talking to the same being and if so why he thinks his own libretto is more worthy than his neighbour’s? Maybe he is really just having his personal cantorial rehearsal interrupted by the git, and the issue is more about personal space than religious fervour?
The congregation is settling down now, each having finished gurgling, whispering, singing, shouting, moaning, snarling or, like me, grudgingly and mechanically reciting the passage of Hallel. Next the Chazzan will try to wow us with his pretentious operatic variation on the traditional holiday melody. My mind drifts nostalgically back to a time years ago when I too could sway in delicious ecstasy to these primeval texts even as Supertramp’s Breakfast in America blared in the background of the squat we were hanging out in.
Although my reasons for choosing a lifestyle markedly different from the one I was brought up in, are ideological, they were not the ones that made me leave nor what brought me back, on my own terms, a couple of years later. Unlike Mendy and Yanky it was not lust and sex that drove me into the arms of the Shgatzim; only too happy to hurt my family by encouraging me. Consciously, it was my love of music and, subliminally I now believe, the search for unconditional love that were stronger than the threat of eternal damnation.
In the Shaigetz milieu I experienced genuine love. Not necessarily of a physical kind but the love that arises out of the bond between people sharing pain, adversity and the hope for a better future. A future I could not then envisage as it now is but which I would not today trade in for the happy-go-lucky existence the others in our group still alive today determinedly cling to. But I was privileged and lucky. Not everybody is, as the film Mendy eloquently shows.