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‘Price Above Rubies’ draws fire from Orthodox group

By Daily Bruin Staff

April 7, 1998 9:00 p.m.

Wednesday, April 8, 1998

‘Price Above Rubies’ draws fire from Orthodox group

FILM: Director presents a Hasidic Jew chafing under social
constraints

By Teron Hide

Daily Bruin Contributor

Creating controversy is no surprise to writer and director Boaz
Yakin. His movies have ranged from life in the streets of Brooklyn
to Pentecostals in the South, drawing criticism from members of the
respective communities. Yakin’s new film is no exception.

Currently playing in theaters, "A Price Above Rubies" follows
one woman’s struggle against convention as she pursues independence
and sexual fulfillment in the Borough Park Orthodox community of
New York.

In the movie’s Hasidic culture, marrying a good man and
mothering a baby is the pinnacle of a woman’s aspirations. But for
the main character, Sonia, her identity can only be defined outside
of her community.

Following the success of her appearance as a single mom in
"Jerry Maguire," Renee Zellweger stars as Sonia, a free-spirited
Jewish housewife and mother who challenges her Orthodox faith and
struggles with her sexual desire.

"I found it interesting that in telling the story (Yakin) never
puts the blame on the Hasidic community," Zellweger says. "The
movie is about Sonia. She thinks that she has something evil in
her, because she is unhappy. But it is OK for her not to be
satisfied. It’s OK for her to need something else."

As in Yakin’s previous work, "Fresh," the underlying theme of
conflict between personal desires and a community’s limitations
dominates "A Price Above Rubies." But some find this portrayal
offensive and an inaccurate description of the Hasidic life.

"I think that this movie does not set out to offend anybody,
because it refers to a culture whose foundation is based on daily
religious practice and keeping to righteous ethical and moral
principles," Zellweger says. "But when you suggest that they’re
capable of immoral behavior, just like people who don’t try to keep
to high moral standards, you’re going to offend somebody because
that’s what their lives are about on a daily basis."

The alienated protagonist tires of her unloving husband, Mendel
(Glenn Fitzgerald). Feeling her needs unsatisfied by his constant
absorption in prayer, Sonia embarks on an affair with her sensuous
brother-in-law, Sender (Christopher Eccleston). Complicating
matters is his wife, Rachel, played by Julianna Margulies of "ER"
fame, who is a devoutly religious woman who embraces her culture
and finds fulfillment within its traditions.

After Sender hires Sonia as his jewelry buyer, she gradually
rejects him because of his outright selfishness and rough sexual
practices. Eventually, she finds comfort in the arms of Ramon
(Allen Payne). It is here that she discovers her true passion and
value through a romantic involvement with this unconventional
Puerto Rican sculptor.

Not surprisingly, "A Price Above Rubies," has elicited outrage
from the Borough Park Orthodox community, where it was shot,
because of its slightly negative image of Hasidism. A large crowd
of Hasidic Jews even drove the film crew out of the Brooklyn
neighborhood last year. Then there was a small but vociferous
protest more recently at the Manhattan offices of the film’s
distributor, Miramax, where the protesters proclaimed the film
promoted negative stereotyping and anti-Jewish sentiment.

"When my first film came out, which was an all black and
Hispanic cast, it took place in Brooklyn, and all I heard was ‘Why
is a white guy making a movie about black people?’" Yakin says.
"And the next film I did took place in the south, and it was about
Pentecostals. What am I gonna do? I mean, blind people protested
‘Mr. Magoo,’ when it first came out."

Yakin, who is Jewish, holds a very personal relationship and
experience with Judaism. Although growing up in a secular and
artistically oriented home, Yakin did attend yeshivas until he was
15 years old. He is quick to note though, that this is
irrelevant.

"In the sense of writing the material, I hesitate to ascribe any
importance to how I grew up, since everything I write involves
other communities that I didn’t grow up in," Yakin says. "And I
hate to start suddenly saying that the manner in which I was raised
should validate it in one way or another."

Badgered for playing a Hasidic role and not being a follower of
Judaism, Zellweger herself was a victim of public criticism.

"I was sitting in my car, when a guy comes up to me and asks me
‘What are you doing?!’ I answer, ‘I’m sorry?’" Zellweger says. "He
asked ‘Are you Jewish?’ And I said, ‘No, I’m not.’ And he said,
‘Well they should get rid of you. And they should find someone who
is Jewish, because you don’t look Jewish at all.’"

Yakin adds that some people tend to forget that a movie consists
of a collection of individuals imagining that they are a particular
character.

Emphatically throwing up his hands, Yakin says, "Zellweger was
the best actor for the part. She is an actor. The Jews that worked
on this film knew less about the Hasidic lifestyle than Renee did
after reading 10 books about it. So, being a Jew doesn’t qualify
you to act the part any more than any other thing. It was more
important for each actor and actress to find the emotional light of
their character and learn to wear it like a second skin."

In preparing for this complex role, Zellweger, a self-proclaimed
"lazy Catholic," amassed an entire collection of reference material
on the Hasidic culture. She supplemented her knowledge with films
and documentaries that were playing at a local museum near the
film’s location. Afterwards, she donned a long skirt, covered her
hair (out of respect for the Hasidic tradition) and ventured into
the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. She went to a local yeshiva
(a religious school), witnessed a traditional bris (circumcision
ceremony), experienced a Mikvah (ritual bath) and interacted with
many of the local women.

Ironically enough, Zellweger found that she did not meet any
women who shared similarities to Sonia and that the general
sentiment among the people of the community was one of happiness
and contentment.

"I think that most people know so little about the Hasidic
community that any exposure will be good, especially since it leads
to understanding and understanding means tolerance. And tolerance
is so important with so much hatred and so much suspicion about the
other guy going in our society today," Zellweger observes. "So I
think that any look into that world, especially one by the
filmmaker who is as responsible as Boaz, should show both sides.
And he shows the humor, he shows the love and the purity that is
the foundation of their sub-culture."

FILM: "A Price Above Rubies" is currently playing at the Samuel
Goldwyn Theaters on Pico Boulevard.

Miramax Films

Renee Zellweger and Glenn Fitzergerald in "A Price Above
Rubies."

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