By MICHAEL FOX
According to the old saw, “all politics is local.” To ultra-Orthodox widower Yaacov Cohen, it’s not just local: It’s personal.
Furious that his daughter has been expelled from an exclusive Jerusalem yeshiva on false pretenses, and convinced that the Ashkenazi institution discriminates against Sephardim, Yaacov embarks on a campaign to shift the imbalance of power.
You could call it a crusade. Yaacov, who owns a small printing business, would describe it as a David vs. Goliath story, steeped as he is in the Torah.
Israeli writer-director Eliran Malka’s terrifically entertaining debut feature, The Unorthodox, recounts the founding of the Sephardic Torah Guardians (Shas) political party, in the run-up to the 1983 municipal election, with the wit and brio of a heist film. Its underdog hero is an irresistible blend of charm, idealism and pragmatism that, poignantly, can only carry him so far.
The Unorthodox presents the Agudat Yisrael party of Ashkenazi Jews from Europe as controlling the power and purse strings in the ultra-Orthodox community. Yaacov preaches Sephardic self-determination, but his main goal is to get a bigger chunk of the budget to improve yeshivas and other facilities.
Beyond this initial impetus to start a Sephardic-centric party, Malka (who created the hit Israeli TV show Shababnikim) isn’t interested in getting into the weeds of policy and platforms. The motor that propels his film is the nitty gritty of running a campaign: Which rabbi to cultivate for an endorsement, how many vans with posters and loudspeakers to put on the street, where to get the money.
Yaacov (the bearish, twinkly-eyed Shuli Rand, onscreen for the first time since 2004’s Ushpizin) is aided and abetted by a pair of sidekicks: Reb Moshe (Yaacov Cohen) knows which ultra-Orthodox rabbis have the most influence, while shochet and mohel Vigal Yakin (Yoav Levi) brings a zeal for the cause that sometimes crosses the bounds of legality.
“We’ll make the Black Panthers look like pink pussycats compared to us,” Vigal proclaims at the outset of their quixotic venture. It’s a laugh line, of course, because there’s nothing remotely intimidating about these three guys. But he’s also underlining the minority status of the Sephardim, and their powerlessness.
Much later, Vigal supplies another key pop culture reference. Running some errand in the car with Yaacov, he puts on the Bee Gees’ “How Deep Is Your Love.” Yaakov gently points out that the song is inappropriate for religious Jews, but he can’t help laughing that a group calls itself “the Beechies.”
As the trio build support and momentum, Yaacov stands before his mirror imagining the deeply gracious interviews and speeches he’ll give following Shas’ upset victory. His vanity isn’t presented as a flaw or failing but as an impulse that every viewer will identify with.
Although religious faith is omnipresent in The Unorthodox—whether it’s belief in God or ritual observance or the ubiquitous yarmulkes and payess in archival photos—it’s not the quality that ultimately defines Yaacov. That would be integrity.
His ethos is reflected in the declaration, “We’re a party of the people, not of offices and neckties.” It comes to the fore, however, when Yaacov is forced to choose between personal reward and the party’s larger success.
Then we discover how deep his love is.
My lone quibble with The Unorthodox is that I wish the well-etched female characters, Yaakov’s confident daughter and his outspoken sister, were given more to do. Then again, the world in which this deeply satisfying film takes place is a patriarchy.
Michael Fox reviews films from San Francisco, Calif.
The Unorthodox will be shown 7 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 22 at the St. Paul JCC, 1375 St. Paul Ave. The 2019 Twin Cities Jewish Film Festival runs Sept. 14-28.