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Hasidic Actor Walks Off Portman Set

posted by Esther Kustanowitz

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.

  • Richard

    Wow, this is a toughie. I got to admit, if your beliefs don’t permit you to watch movies then you probably should not be in one. But, as usual, there is a flip side to the coin. If there is going to be a movie which includes your beliefs, and you don’t allow the “outsiders” to get any input from the “insiders”, then the insiders have no footing on which to complain that the movie was not accurate. Giving them the benefit of the doubt, my guess is that the movie makers want to be accurate and not offensive. I hope everyone can find a way to communicate.

  • Seamus MacNemi

    I have to agree with the Elders of the Hassidic community in this. There are many things that that cannot be seen even when presented in broad day light and the spirituality of the Hassidic community is one of them. The only way to really see that is to spend some time in that community. If you are Jewish or even a gentile it is not impossible to join a community if you are sincere but you must understand that the thinking in the Hassidic community is very different from the rationalistic thinking of the greater world surrounding. The Hassidic mind is not encumbered by the rationalistic world view of the Hellenists and is therefore capable of directly experiencing the presence of HaShem and the Shekinnah on Shabbat and on other Holy occasions. These things cannot be shown in a movie even with the best of technological methodology.

  • pagansister

    Abe Karpen really had no choice but to bow to the wishes of his community. My question is, since he was described as an actor, what is he allowed to act in? If the Hasidic community doesn’t watch TV or go to movies, how was he able to even start the movie in the first place? Wonder what Karpen does to support himself, his wife and 3 children?

  • pagansister

    Just read the whole article referred to in the above article, answering my question about his occupation…he sells cabinets.

  • Esther Kustanowitz

    I do understand that there’s no way a commercial film (let along one single vignette within a larger commercial film) can adequately and fairly illustrate the complexities of the community. But there is a way to educate through TV and film–Law & Order does this very well, I think, especially given the limited time frame of each episode. I know there are people who disagree, and say that L&O gives the whole subject short shrift. But that’s another aspect of the conversation…
    I’m just disappointed because it seemed like this was a great opportunity to provide a nuanced look inside this insular community, and maybe a chance to correct whatever impressions were left by, let’s say, “A Price Above Rubies.”

  • Charles J.Murnick

    Considering that Hollywood never does behave responsibly when picturing different religions and religious preactices and how the individuals in those religions cope with the outside world,it’s easy to see why those of a more orthodox belief reject the idea of it being filmed.
    You can go back to films that portrayed biblical subjects(Peter and Paul,Ten Commandments,A Night with the King,etc,) and easily see that a Hollywood treatment was given every time,and that the moviemakers never even tried to present what was written or the characters correctly.

  • Kim

    I am a Christian and I was just very impressed that Miss Portman expressed interest in going deeper into her faith. That, to me, it awesome!
    I feel bad that he had to bow down to his elders, but if that is the religious path he chose, he should have known it from the beginning.
    I am just glad I am no longer bound by such things and have freedom in Christ. I am so incapable of that type of perfection…but by God’s grace I have a Savior who paid my price. The Holy Spirit lives in me so that my desires to break the Law are stifled big time (one of the evidences of a true Christian).
    I have a lot of respect for Natalie Portman, even though I do not agree with many of her political stances (not too important). She is very principled and I pray that she does not allow Hollywood to take that away from her.

  • John

    It looks like Abe has a new role. See clip on

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