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portmanandHasidicJewishacto.jpgA talented beauty whose career has been eclectic and impressive even from her early years, Natalie Portman is the reigning Jewish princess of Hollywood (even unbesmirched by her Padme/Amidala years). As actresses go, she’s fairly modest, a good role model (ok, “Closer” will not be hitting the family values multiplex anytime soon), and a compassionate person (see also, “vegan shoes“). But modest by Hollywood standards is still Hollywood, a place that exemplifies the opposite of the family values and modesty adhered to by the Hasidic community.
Portman, 26, is filming “New York I Love You,” a collection of New York-based stories about relationships; in her chapter, she portrays a religious woman, and Hasidic actor Abe Karpen–at 25, a father of three–plays her husband. He reported that he and Portman spoke in Hebrew together and that she had revealed a desire to become more religious; they were getting along fine and all was respectful. But because of community pressure, Karpen quit the movie over the weekend.

“I have my kids in religious schools and the rabbi called me over yesterday and said in order for me to keep my kids in the school I have to do what they tell me and back out,” Karpen said.

Hasidic community activist Isaac Weinberger explained further:

“We don’t watch television. We don’t go to the movies, so to be in a movie is the worst thing. It’s a shame for any Hasid,” he said.

Despite the setbacks this must be causing for the film, its executive producer, Jan Korbelin has been very respectful–if disappointed–in speaking about Karpen’s decision:

“He’s a great ambassador of his faith and it came out of the left field. … This is the last thing this picture should be doing,” Korbelin said. “This film is about love and understanding between different people and communities.”

Although I’m certainly sympathetic to religious sensitivity and not compromising your religious beliefs, Korbelin makes a good point. And this is not about Karpen’s personal beliefs–it sounds like he was able to negotiate those in a way that permitted him to do the film, perhaps justifying his involvement in that it allowed him to present a positive aspect of his often-misunderstood community. But the community asserted itself, and personal beliefs and compromises took a back seat to the collective.
I’m too young to remember all of the brouhaha, but I do have a recollection of a related debate over the Amish community represented in “Witness.” It made an impact because those of us who were traditionally Jewish wondered, if Witness had been set “on our turf,” how accurately would our communities have been portrayed?
While this is undoubtedly more complicated than one blog post can cover, one cannot help but feel saddened that a community’s richness–in characters, stories and relationships–is stifling itself. Karpen seems able to live with the “shame” of being associated with a Hollywood film within a structure of purpose; so maybe, for a greater good, the community could too.

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