Hasid for a Day

A few weeks ago, Matthue Roth got a gig on the set of the TV show “The Good Wife” as an extra.

the good wife unorthodox orthodox jews matthue

the good wife unorthodox orthodox jews matthue

the good wife unorthodox orthodox jews matthue

1.
I’ve protested so frequently about the portrayal of Hasidic Jews in movies and TV — not to mention the book I wrote on the subject — that you’d think I should know how to do it correctly. Being one myself, I’m pretty quick to catch the common errors: eating in non-kosher restaurants (Pi), mixed dancing (A Stranger Among Us), being in inappropriate situations between men and women (pretty much every movie out there that involves Hasidim in any capacity).

In my head, as I’ve gone through the everyday movements that make up our life, I’ve thought several times about how perfect something would be for a movie — probably due to a healthy amount of egotism combined with a cinematic outlook. Swishing my talis around me before morning prayers would make a great pan! Washing hands from a double-handled cup would look so meaningful in slow motion! Walking down the street with my black overcoat swishing against my calves like a cape is — well, yeah, that’s my fantasy of being a superhero combining with my fantasy of living inside a movie.

The reality of Hasidic Jews on film, from The Chosen to New York, I Love You, is a different story. When we’re not represented as shadowy figures crossing streets in the background, we’re old, un-English-speaking naïfs with poor posture and weird hair. The weird hair part, we are totally guilty of, but the rest of it is due in large part to the dumbing down of culture to its barest essence — when it’s not straight-out making stuff up.

But nothing quite prepared me for this: Sitting at a bridge table at 5:45 A.M. with a dozen men dressed as Hasidic Jews.

These guys have run through the gamut of Hasidim in films. They’re like the gods of Hasidic acting — they’ve been in A Price above Rubies and A Stranger Among Us. They’ve been in sitcoms, dramas, and Law & Order. (This, I will learn, is a benchmark among extras* in New York; as my trophy-wife {we’ll get there} will tell me later that day: “If you haven’t been on Law & Order, you don’t really live in New York City.”) These guys have stories as long as their fake beards. Of Stranger, one is saying: “We were filming, and one of the real guys says, ‘Hold up! That’s not how it’s really done.’ So the director calls cut, everyone stops, and he shows them how to do it. Then they start again, they roll tape, and someone else says, ‘Hold up!’ And everyone else has their own way to do it.”

“Ah,” he cackles, leaning back into his seat, “Jews.”

And the whole group starts laughing.

Elli Meyer, nicknamed “the king of Broadway” and known in the industry as the go-to person to play Hasidic Jews, very kindly set me up with this gig. His IMDB profile lists nearly 50 credits to his name (in reality, it’s much larger) — mostly as “unnamed rabbi” or “unnamed Hasid,” but he’s also played a hillbilly, a trucker, and (once, on The Sorpranos) a Muslim cleric. He put out a call for actors on his Facebook profile — this new television show needs Hasidim!

I couldn’t say no. So far, being a Hasidic Jew has only gotten me a whole bunch of fast days that I wouldn’t have otherwise known existed. I figured, it was about time looking like a crazy-haired freak should start paying off. I emailed him my details, and he emailed me back the info. Starting, I should note, with the 5:45 call time.

The camera crew isn’t scheduled to arrive until seven, but makeup and wardrobe have already set up. One of the makeup artists comes over and starts sending people over to the makeshift station, which is really a bunch of mirrors duct-taped to a wall. The other guys are fishing out their sidecurls. They all have pre-made payos, dyed the exact white of their hair, with little clips at the top. Most of them have beard extensions, too.

The younger guys, the professional would-be actors who are here because it’s another gig, and maybe because they happen to look Jewish, are being sent away to be outfitted with fake ones from the wardrobe department. I do a double-take when I see the blond underwear-model guy walk past in his skullcap and tzitzis. The makeup guy does a double-take on me and says: “Oh. You’ve already been.”

The Good Wife takes place in Chicago — fictionally, anyway. There are three Hasidic synagogues in Chicago that I can think of, having lived there for a year, but even the mostly-Jewish neighborhood, West Rodgers Park, is scarcely a hotbed of Hasidic culture like they’re portraying it today, with dozens of Hasidic families swarming down the streets. And they definitely don’t live in the stately downtown brownstones that we’re filming in front of today.

It’s kind of bizarre, but it’s also kind of flattering. I mean, over the course of the day I will listen to Julianna Margulies inquiring again and again about the meaning of an eruv. Up-and-coming actors are dressed in the cultural garb of my people. What’s not to like?They bring us out to the street where they’re filming. Fake props abound: clip-on payos (for kids and adults), fake beards, strollers packed with plastic kids. It’s particularly disorienting to hear a bunch of ten-year-olds, all payos-and-yarmulked up, talking about the Wii games that they want for Christmas. But, in a way, it’s kind of nice to not get stared at by everyone on the street for the way I look. Or, at least, that the staring is divided up between me and all the fake Hasidim.

We are told to wait. I know about this part because everyone’s told me that this is the cardinal rule of being an extra: “Hurry up and wait.” In a fit of nervousness, I asked my token Hollywood-star friend Mayim Bialik for advice before the filming. She starred on a TV show in the ’80s, but more recently has recurring roles on Curb Your Enthusiasm and The Secret Life of the American Teenager. She told me two things to remember:

1) Expect a lot of waiting (unrelated to your being Hasidic, just that’s what it may be like), and
2) Expect to be poorly treated (ditto)

She also told me: “People may ask you random questions, and you are representing all of us, Hasidic and not, so do us proud!”

A production assistant grabbed my shoulder and started steering me down the street. He grouped me with two other Hasidim (the real ones, that is) and told us, when they called action, we were supposed to walk down the street.

I looked down the street. There, for the first time that day, I catch sight of Julianna Margulies. She’s standing in front of the crane, inhaling wisps of coffee and talking to the other principal cast member there, Archie Panjabi. The director is telling them about the scene. I edge closer to the curb until I’m able to overhear, a process which causes several other extras to look at me like I’m crazy, but they do this for a living. They’re used to it.

I overhear, and the plot for this scene is thus: They are going to climb out of a car. Then Ms. Margulies is going to walk around to Ms. Panjabi’s side, and they are going to walk over to the curb together.

There’s a tiny moment of disappointment in my chest. I was hoping for big spoilers. Juicy spoilers. Or possibly a moment where Ms. Margulies makes eye contact with me, something passionate and familiar is sighted, and she decides that the show needs a recurring Hasidic character. In this moment, I realize that walking down the street with two other long-coated dudes, as badass as we look, will probably not make that happen.

Not that it matters. That’s not what I’m here for. I’m here to represent my people positively, and to look good. “Action!” the PA calls. We fall into step.

This happens two or three times. Then another PA, our original PA, walks up to us, shaking his head. “Something’s not right,” he announces, finally, after looking each of us up and down. “You. Come here.”

He is talking to me.

He takes my coat again, pulls me back down the sidewalk to the other end. There’s a young, short woman there who’s been doing exactly what we’ve been doing from the other end, walking down the street pushing a stroller. Three small kids are in tow. “Walk with her,” he tells me. “Be a family. Hustle your kids along. You know — help out the wife.”

I actually do have a wife. She’s small and Hasidic and dark-haired. I have a daughter, too. I peek inside the carriage. Yep. Plastic. This is not my wife. This is not my child.

But, hey, I am an actor. That’s why I got here. Because I can lie so well, I can even fool myself.

Again, someone calls action. We hustle.

2.

One thing I never thought I’d have to do on a film set: babysit.

My new wife and I have four kids — three real, one plastic. The real kids (the youngest is five, the oldest is eight; improbable, even for a Hasidic family) are pretty clearly not Hasidic. One boy is flicking the other’s payos. The girl is trying to reach into the baby carriage without us noticing and turn the baby upside down. “What’s your name, sweetie?” asks my ostensible wife. “Charlotte,” says the girl, sweet as pop rocks. “Well, Charlotte, sweetie,” she says, “please stop messing around with your little baby brother, or else you’ll never work in the industry again.”

Her lips curl back in a cruel smile. She manages to be elegant, polite, and unflinchingly brutal. She could completely pass as a Hasidic mother. Well, she could if it weren’t for the hair and the hat. She introduces herself as Beatrice, and offers her hand — a telling sign (as if everything else wasn’t) that she’s only Orthodox for the day.

And now, a note about the clothes: She’s wearing her hair short, tucked up under a cloche, which is a ’50s-style hat that’s become weirdly fashionable in Modern Orthodox communities in recent years, but is next to anathema in most Hasidic circles. All the women are wearing flats (correct) and dark tights (depends which neighborhood you’re in, but, okay, potentially correct) and long skirts, which definitely are Hasidic…although there’s something unspoken, something intangible about some long skirts that is Hasidic, and something about others that isn’t. I can’t tell you what it is. Maybe I’ve been Hasidic so long that I have some sort of Hasid-dar, like when I had a gay roommate and developed really good gaydar? But right now, I am ostensibly surrounded by Hasidim, and it ain’t goin’ off.

One thing I will say that they got accurate: the kids aren’t wearing Hasidic clothes. For some reason, although men are required to wear white shirts and black pants, and women have to have their wrists and nostrils covered, young boys can wear Gap jeans and girls can wear two-inch skirts and spandex everythings. (As a parent, my hypothesis is that kids will ruin clothes as fast as they wear them, so you’re better off just getting the cheap stuff.) Similarly, these kids were dressed in their Children’s Place best — except for the fake payos and (real) yarmulkes, you couldn’t tell they were Jewish. As a matter of fact, the next time that Beatrice tells the kids to be quiet and pay attention, they’re discussing what Halloween costumes they’re going to wear.

A costuming person runs up to us in a frenzy, stopping the action just as it’s about to be called. “Your rings!” she yelps. She empties a variety of small gold bands into her palm. The PA grins at us wickedly. “Wouldn’t do for that baby to be born out of sin,” he says, gesturing toward our plastic progeny.

Beatrice chooses a ring swiftly. With me, it’s harder. “I’ll wear one,” I offer. “But married Jewish men don’t wear rings.”

The costuming person doesn’t believe me. I tell her, I’m married — do you see a ring on my hand? We go back and forth a bit. Eventually, she shrugs it off and leaves.

“Typical,” Beatrice says — gently, but unmistakably critical. “The women get marked, and the men get let off easy.”

“That’s not true!” I insist. “There are ways to tell if a man’s married, too.”

“What are they, then?”

I flounder. The 5 a.m. curtain call is catching up with me. Then I recover: “By this coat,” I say, remembering for the first time in a while how I’m dressed. “Only married men wear coats like this. There are also special kinds of hats, and socks”–well, okay, stockings, but I don’t want to get too (ahem) technical–”and unmarried men don’t wear a tallis when they pray…”

We both fall silent. The Hasidic guest stars for the episode arrive on set, and everyone is checking them out.

The woman looks legit. Her clothes are a little frumpy, but manageable; at least, they don’t scream I’m a backwater shtetl girl from the 18th century like the Hasidim in Stranger Among Us. She actually looks pretty decent. And pretty, well, pretty. That’s another unexpected development, that the Hasidim are young and actually sort of cool-looking. (She’s also in a clochet, though.)

The guy, though. He has a three-day beard as if he came from the other half of Williamsburg. His hat would look more appropriate on a snowman. His jacket is buttoned the wrong way on top. He has long curly hair–not long, but much longer than a Hasid would–and his stuck-on sidecurls aren’t much longer than the curls of his actual hair.

When the scene cuts, the Hasidic actors crowd together to complain. One of the younger ones is all afire. “He looks ridiculous!” he shrills. “He looks like a moron!” The older actors laugh at his outburst. “It’ll never show up,” they say. “When people watch on TV, they’ll edit it out of their heads.”

3.

If you who don’t know, the main use of extras in film and TV is as background. Our job is to make reality look normal, or at least palatable, and fill it with much the same grouping of people who would otherwise exist on the very same street or park or police station — only we are specifically hired, instead of gaping at the movie stars or straining to overhear the story, to completely ignore all of it.

So it’s not surprising that, when they were originally casting this, they didn’t think to call real Hasidim.You don’t have to have an intimacy with God or an extensive knowledge of esoteric kabbalistic teachings to be able to walk down the street in a fur hat. As a matter of fact, it’s probably better if you don’t. A bunch of us were hassled by wardrobe people for having our tzitzit on the side, covered by our coat, instead of sticking out in front like a weird sort of phallic symbol. Authenticity gives people a reason to worry. They want to make things look right, not be right, and rightly so — they’re in the business of visuals. Instead, we give them roadblocks.

And more than a few additional problems.

We were supposed to have a sukkah. It is the middle of the Feast of Tabernacles, and observant Jews don’t eat anything outside of a small palm frond-covered booth. Okay, anything is an overstatement. In severe cases, there’s dispensation for eating snack food in small amounts. And it has to be certain kinds: only foods that satisfy the most general blessing, which means they basically have to be either completely ground up or chemically based. (Potato chips, for instance, are a question, because they still sort of look like potatoes.**) But that doesn’t change the fact that the catering crew is putting out the lunch buffet, and it smells really good. Even when the menus are posted, and they’re serving — wait for it — barbecue pork loins. It’s not offensive. It’s just funny.

Rabbi Elli grabs me by the kapote and whisks me out of there. We head to a local bodega, where we secure the most healthy choices we can muster with our restrictions: tortilla chips and hummus. When we return, everyone’s looking at us. When we sit at our own table, with the other Hasidim-for-a-day, and start digging into our Garden of Eatin’ Sesame Blues, it does nothing to diminish our conspicuousness. We might all be playing Hasidic Jews, but one thing never changes: the more Jewish you are, the more you stick out.

4.

By the end of the day, playing a Hasid has run its course. I’m a little edgy, since people told me the shoot would take half a day, we’ve been here since 6 am, and it’s already 4:30 pm. I told work I’d be in a few hours late. The other actors laugh at me. “‘Half a day’ means till 5!” they exclaim. “A full day will take you till midnight or one am” Then everyone takes turns telling their nightmare stories — Elli was once filming in a concrete tube off the river in the middle of winter until 4 am — and trade fables of Golden Time. Union pay scale provides for time-and-a-half for hours 9-10 in a day; then double-time up to hour 16. After that is something they call “Golden Time” — for every hour worked past the 16th hour of a day, actors earn an entire day’s pay. Possibly the only thing more legendary than getting paid Golden Time is the tradition of telling set stories itself.

For the final scene, the producers bundle all the extras out into the sidewalk. A truck pulls away from the curb; Ms. Margulies and Ms. Panjabi stand in the center of the street, watching meaningfully as it zooms off. I’m again paired with my wife (sans kids, this time), and we take upon ourselves the now-familiar goal of walking down the street and pretending to talk to each other. Now, though, we actually talk. Either I’m getting to be a passable actor, or we have enough shared experience that we can.

She tells me how she started out as a stage actor, got into this area. How she’s good at this, how it’s kind of become her regular schedule, how being stereotyped is an advantage. (Her agent says she looks “ethnic,” which means that she’s often called upon to play Jews, Greeks, and Arabs. Recently, she purchased her own burqa and learned to tie it, which means that, like my beard and sidecurls, she’s paid $18 extra a day for “authentic attire.”)

Last year, she scored the dream of dreams, a recurring role on a TV show that happened to be made by one of my favorite TV writers (Rob Thomas, who did Veronica Mars). The show was canceled, however, and she was back to doing this.

“It’s not a bad life,” she told me. “I get to stand in front of cameras. I get to be recognized. And sometimes, occasionally, when I get thrown a line or placed in a good spot in front of the camera, I get to really flex my acting muscles. I get to be somebody else.”

My first book, Never Mind the Goldbergs, was the story of a girl who starred on a sitcom about an Orthodox Jewish family. The girl, Hava, was Orthodox herself — but being Orthodox was one small part of who she was. You’d never tell by looking at her: she was also a punk-rock New York kid who dressed in different outrageous outfits every day. On the sitcom, however, she wasn’t playing the sort of Jew that she was; she was just playing a Jew, an everyman sort of stereotypical Jewish girl. For the time that the camera was on her, the rest of her sort of disappeared.

All day, I’ve been going through the same sort of thing. The pretty and familiar-looking girl who’d been walking down the other side of street all day — as soon as the last cut was called, she whisked off her wig. Her jet-black wig was replaced by a shock of bright red Manic Panic-ed hair. Her Jewish features now could have been Turkish, or Greek, or Arabic or just straight-up generic American. She was a Jew for the day, and now the day was over.

____
* — I’m grossly oversimplifying it, I know.

** — Or, as more often used in the industry, “background.” I’ve stuck with “extras” here simply because it’s less confusing to the rest of the world.

Matthue is the author of the book Never Mind the Goldbergs, and the new novel Losers. They’re both really good.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • http://www.kvetchingeditor.com Chavi

    This was EXCELLENT. And fascinating. I want to be an extra …

  • http://sarabonne.blogspot.com Sarabonne

    Very interesting.

  • FrumGer

    great post!!!, the goyim never get us right on film…

  • http://duddes02.blogspot.com Chaya

    There was a small mistake in the writing. The woman who sued the chasidic couple, because their Eruv fell, claimed that she went to the kosher supermarket to buy wheat free food. She went on Saturday and I was wondering why the store was open on Shabbas. Any insight?

  • Phil

    Sounds like quite an experience. Those little details all done wrong always drive me nuts, what’s worse it when they twist religious ideas to fit in with their stories.

    Did you have to daven on the set?

  • http://www.myjewishlearning.com/blog matt

    I actually didn’t end up davening on set. I davened alos hashachar in the morning, and it was before daylight savings time switched, so I managed to get out of there before dusk.

    One of my friends was trying to convince me to bring my lulav and esrog and try to convince Julianna Margulies (who is, apparently, Jewish) to give it a shake. (I think it was because he had a crush on her and wanted to do it himself.) But it wasn’t the sort of thing where you could just walk up — or, even, store it anywhere.

    • Phil

      What kind of chasid doesn’t take the opportunity to do mivtzoim???

      Yeah, I could just see you coming up to her in a Butthead impression “huh huh huh hey baby, wanna shake my lulav?” ;)

  • Avrumy

    Great story!
    Portrayals of orthodox or Hassidic Jews on film is always funny. The crooked beards, the mangled Kiddush scene (borick atow), the something not quite right about the clothes or haircut. With all the Jews in the television and film industries, someone must know what rings authentic.

  • http://www.myjewishlearning.com/blog matthue

    Oh, and Chaya — you’re totally right. Rabbi Fink caught that one with his post about the episode (http://finkorswim.com/2009/11/12/orthodox-jews-are-not-sneetches). Man, you should write for Hollywood!

    • http://duddes02.blogspot.com Chaya

      My boyfriend caught it actually. He’s like “I SOLVED THE MYSTERY’” as soon as she said she went to the store for wheat free products. I was like “naaah, I think it’s just bad writing, there’s gotta be a cooler twist”

  • MM

    There was a recent episode on Amazing Grace involving a kosher meat packing operation in Oklahoma (not Iowa). In this case the whole premise, not just the details, was meshugass. The story involved a retired mashgiach (his daughter was played by Mayim Bialik who seems to have a monopoly of such roles) who was unhappy with the performance of his replacement. So one Friday night he left shul and murdered a shipment of 32 cows in the middle of the street. The goyishe truckdriver calls the owner who takes the call in the middle of shul and tells the rabbi, who then leaves shul and drives in his truck to the dead cows and murders the old mashgiach–on shabbos. The show actually got some of the details right, but the entire premise was simply ridiculous. I can’t imagine a situation where frum Jews leave shul on Friday night to murder cows and each other in the middle of the street.

  • FrumGer

    MM- Thats crazy- serial shecetta on shabbos?

    Avrumy- The sad fact is that non religious jews or even semi religious jews have no idea about chassidus, i have even had a misnaged orthodox guy ask me why i wrapped a strap around my waist (it was a gartle)… secular reform and even conservitive jews are little better then a goy in that fact, everything is the broad stroke steroetypes with them, i find that non religious jews are almost more antisemetic towards chasidim then goyim. they hate hasidim, i think it is because it makes them feel even more goyishe then they already are.

    fiddler- when the perchik (farafel) tears down the mahitzah and everyone starts dancing together.

    Stanger among us- is absurd, Ariel (eric thal) with the super trimed up, jaw line, chin strap beard who was always reading the book named “the kabbalah” the shabbos scene at the rebbes is redurkulus ( did anybody catch the so called ethiopian yid in the background, looked like eddie murphy on coming to america -with payoes)

    the Chosen- is not so bad because the technical advisor has a name like Avroham Frumfrombirthowitz….

    Left luggage is all about how terrible frum men are to their women and children

    Mendy- DONT EVER WATCH MENDY!

    Arranged- is actually a good themed movie it shows the shidduch process in a good light actually, but all the chasidic men in the movie are beardless, which is not acurate at all, she is chasidic .. i’m guessing lubav but marries what seems to be a MODOX guy i think he even wears kippa sruga…

    the only one that got it right was ushpizim which actually had real chasidim in the film.

    • http://www.frumsatire.net Heshy Fried

      Mendy had some good parts and they did a very good job wit it in some ways – though the tefillin scene was a bit much

      Have you seen the Holy Land? That’s a good movie

  • chassidish guy

    The picture at the top is all wrong, the hat the woman is wearing is nothing like the styles of hat chassidsh women wear (I know my wife wears one), she is wearing black not beige stockings which don’t go with a hat and her hairstyle is different to the shaitel styles of such ladies. At this point I assume their purporting to be satmar or belz or something so why does the boy have lubavitch style short payos and small kappel (he is actually the most realistic looking of them all). I don’t actually think there any chassidish women with hats or men with long curly payos in Chicago in any case. All in all though it is relatively good compared to some of the other stuff out there.

    • http://www.matthue.com Matthue Roth

      Actually, I lived in Chicago for a year, and my payos come past my shoulders. (Not to brag, but there you go — not Lubavitch style at all.)

      I can’t make any excuses for the woman or the hat, except to say that that’s the costume department’s fault, not the woman’s (who wasn’t Hasidish, or even necessarily Jewish, although she was very respectful & inquisitive).

      • chassidish guy

        Still the boy and his Lubavitch style peyos don’t really match his father

  • FrumGer

    Heshy-

    I haven’t seen holy land, when something has an outline picture of a stripper straddling a pole on the cover art, i avoid it… Mendy had some bad pervy stuff in it, which is why i recomended all should avoid it but i had no idea until i watched it.

    But Mendy was terribly stupid, it was made literally by OTD yeshivish guy which is why it did have some believability. the Tefilin scene what dumb dumb dumb… this otd leigns for like 60 seconds with out a shirt on for all to see his million tatts and piercings. pretty much that whole movie was the dumbest thing ever, the shabbos scene with an OTD of every major sect of chasidish all around a table smoking pot and drinking talking about how much they hate chasidus…. that movie epitomized the otd extreme. cant have tatts so i am going to get every thing tatted and peirced, cant eat treif so i am going to eat a double cheesburger, cant be with goyim, so the kid ends up with a shiksa shvartza, the ultimo goy…. everything is ultimo, and absurd, and i hated it because it made me throw up in my mouth….

  • Chevramaidel

    I saw that one- didn’t the whole plot revolve around a woman falling in front of a Jewish store where she was shopping ON SHABBOS? Seemed like a huge plothole to me. Not to mention the anomalous hats, and the Chassidish husband with long payos and a big tchup. Will they ever get it right? And it seemed improbable that a Chassidishe woman would use the phone on Shabbos under those circumstances- if she was hiding the calls from her husband, it was her cell phone- she could have gone out of the house during the week to call. There should be an intensive course for directors, actors, and casting directors in the differences between Orthodox communities, teaching them about all the different styles of dress, codes of behavior, and nuances of speech.

    • http://finkorswim.com E. Fink

      I wrote all about things they got right, the things they got wrong and the huge plot hole on my blog: The Good Wife: Unorthodox

  • http://Yossi1234@yahoo.com Yossi

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