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

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.


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.”


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.


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.