Two lapsed Hasids running from Brooklyn?  Can they answer 'Hineni?'

Two lapsed Hasids running from Brooklyn? Can they answer 'Hineni?'

HOLY ROLLERS was one of the most anticipated films at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival. A film, inspired by the actual events of a few Hasids who acted as drug mules for an Amsterdam-to-NY Ecstasy smuggling drug operation, could either be a “Shanda for the Goyim” or an interesting, gripping story. Cue the klezmer soundtrack and glue on the pais? (Actually, I was happily impressed that the soundtrack had no klezmer cues, and it worked well in progressing the story)

HOLY ROLLERS is directed by Kevin Asch, a graduate of NYC’s School of Visual Arts, and stars Jesse Eisenberg (The Squid and The Whale; Adventureland; The Social Network) as Sam Gold, a young Hasidic man in Brooklyn, who is irritated by strictures of his religious community and feels restricted when working in his father’s fabric store. It’s a hard-knock life, boychik. He is ripe for temptation; one notices that he peeks out his window at his neighbor’s tv — a neighbor who enjoys watching “The Robin Byrd Show,” a porn program on community access tv.

The man with a taste for porn and ‘gelt’ is Yosef (Justin Bartha), Sam’s next door neighbor. Yosef wears a Rolex and seems happy; and Sam becomes enamored by Yosef’s exciting, well-paying “medicine importing” operation, which is run by an Israeli and staffed by Hasidic drug mules. Sam initially thinks he is just transporting medicine from Europe, but then finds that he is good at this operation and has a “kopf” for the business. He gets the praise he seeks from his new friends, something that was lacking at home and in his other endeavors. The characters are very slightly inspired by the real life story of Jacob “Cookie” Orgad, a bud of Heidi Fleiss, and an Israeli sociopathic “beeper” salesperson, who allegedly smuggled 9 million Ecstacy pills into North America wother over $200 million, using Hasidim, strippers, and others as mules.

Sam’s father, Mendel is more interested in happy customers. He does not know how to maximize his profits. Leon (Jason Fuchs) is Sam’s best friend, next door neighbor, and perhaps a future rabbi, who values learning over business. Jackie Solomon (Danny A. Abeckaser), is like a Jewish Al Pacino; the character is an Israeli-born drug smuggler (though he calls his mother in Israel each Shabbat). Rachel (Ari Graynor) is Jackie’s main squeeze and Hebrew School dropout.

If you think this is going to be a Jewish “Mean Streets” or “Trainspotting” you would be wrong. Asch stressed that, “it is actually a story about a young man’s struggle with faith and blind faith.”

Sam is hoping for an arranged match with a lovely Hasidic woman from a respected family, but the outcome of his initial meeting with her helps to push him down an alternate path, to isolation, and to a sense of foreigness when he visits nightclubs and is introduced to the drug subculture. Astute observers will note that the Torah parshot discussed in the synagogue scenes concern God asking Adam “where he is” in the Garden of Eden, and two of Aaron’s sons offering up a “strange fire.”

A not so kosher snack.  This ain't a kreplach

A not so kosher snack. This ain't a kreplach

Much of the screenplay was written by Antonio Macia. Macia, the son of immigrants from South America, grew up as a Latino in Stamford CT, and converted independently to the Mormon Church. He performed his missionary work in Canada. These experienced prepared him to write a tale of change, faith, and apartness. Macia said, “I just did a lot of research on my own, and received information provided by the crew. I took the perspective of the character, Sam, and his journey, and how he takes these small little steps of compromise.” The title, “Holy Rollers,” is a double meaning, since “rolling” is a term used by users of Ecstasy to describe the feeling of drug’s high. Asch said, “I really dig the title. The story is lively. There were ideas for other titles. I wanted it to be accessible, and I did not want it to sound like a somber film.”

Two years before filming began, Asch came up with a list of possible actors who could play Sam. His first choice was Jesse Eisenberg, and therefore sent a script to the actor through channels. Eisenberg read the script, and on his own, drove to Brooklyn, explored one of the Hasidic communities, discussed the project with his mother, and then called his agent to sign on for the role. He then recommended that Jason Fuchs play his friend and neighbor.

Asch on set

Asch on set

Asked if he and the cast did any “ride-alongs” with Hasidim, Asch told how a Chabad ‘Mitzvah Tank’ was parked across from their rehearsal space one day. Asch said, “…Ari, Jessie, and I spent an hour on the Tank with the young Hasids who manned it, and incorporated some of the dialogue into the story.” (I guess, one could say that it was like a police “ride-along,” accept it used tefillin, instead of guns and arrests.)

By the last day of Sundance, the international distribution rights to the film were purchased. And Asch is already at work developing his next two films. “Great Neck” will be about growing up in a materialistic world in Great Neck, Long Island; and “Kings Highway” will focus on the rise of the Israeli Mafia in New York City. Both are set in the late 1980’s.

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