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In all his 76 years, filmmaker Paul Mazursky had never seen anything like the 25,000 Hassidim, singing, swaying, blowing shofars and dancing around the lake.
"It's like the old days at the Apollo in Harlem, with the crowd going wild," says the irreverent Mazursky. "Can you dig it?"
The scene is from his documentary Yippee: A Journey to Jewish Joy, which is quite a change of pace for the creator of such quirky social comedies and dramas as Bob&Carol&Ted&Alice, Harry and Tonto, Next Stop, Greenwich Village, An Unmarried Woman, Down and Out in Beverly Hills and Enemies: A Love Story.
Despite his artistic reputation and string of Oscar nominations, Mazursky has found it increasingly difficult to find backing for his iconoclastic movies, infused with his wry take on the human condition.
During the past decade, after a quadruple heart bypass operation, Mazursky has gone back to his roots as an actor and comedian, including parts in HBO's Curb Your Enthusiasm and The Sopranos, while looking for the right combination of film and financing.
But last year, he and his two camera crews found themselves in Uman, a Ukrainian town of 80,000, whose population swells every Rosh Hashana during an invasion of ecstatic Hassidim, dressed in white kittels (coats), or black suits or streimels (fur hats).
They come to pray at the grave of Rabbi Nachman of Breslav, the great Hassidic master, disputatious Tzadik, and great grandson of the Baal Shem Tov, founder of the Hassidic movement. Nachman was buried in Uman in 1811, at the age of 38.
What had brought the insistently secular Mazursky to Uman were the urgings of three disparate Angelenos, David Miretsky, his optometrist, Shmuel Levy, a devout Moroccan-born rock musician, and Rabbi Ezriel Tauber.
All three regularly participated in the pilgrimage to Uman and they promised Mazursky that he would witness an event unlike any he had ever experienced.
Putting up $50,000 of his own money, and with his broken arm in a sling, Mazursky embarked on the adventure with his friends and a six-man crew, including his son-in-law.
During a brief layover in Munich, he warmed up by filming the beer-swilling October Fest, before reaching Kiev, where his grandfather is buried, and then reaching Uman after a three-hour drive.
In the runup to the climax of the three-day celebration, Mazursky meets and talks with Hassidim, policemen, scholars and peasants, combining the roles of an innocent abroad, travel guide, and self-described "wise guy from Brooklyn."
Typical is his encounter with two local peasant women selling fruits from a sidewalk cart. They, like all the other natives, know about Rosh Hashana, which enriches the town by $2 million each year.
Despite the windfall, one woman is not entirely happy. "Jews are not cultured people," she complains. The other woman disagrees. "They are cultured," she insists, "they are just different."
Mazursky's camera lingers on other happenings. There is a rustic folk festival with pretty dancing girls in costumes, and later Vodka Appreciation Day, during which the filmmaker digs into his bottomless reservoir of jokes, many unprintable.
His favorite joke, told at least three times in the film, goes something like this: Cohen meets Schwartz in New York's old garment district and Cohen says, "I heard about the fire." Schwartz puts his fingers to his lips and whispers, "Shhhh, tomorrow."
(For the benefit of the younger generation, the joke goes back to the Depression days, when storeowners facing bankruptcy sometimes set fire to their shops to collect the insurance.)
The film climaxes on the evening of Rosh Hashana, when the 25,000 Hassidim throw their sins into the lake, and pray, dance and sing through the candle-lit night.
"Madonna and Woody Allen should be here," murmurs Mazursky.
Before leaving, Mazursky organizes a bull session with Rabbi Tauber and a British neurologist, Dr. Julian Unger, to explore the meaning of what he has seen.
"We come to Uman because, on the Day of Judgment, Rabbi Nachman will be our lawyer, pleading our case before God," explains Tauber.
Unger has a darker observation. "You know, 37 years before Rabbi Nachman came to Uman, there was a great pogrom here and thousands of Jews were drowned in the lake.
"When the Nazis came, they again murdered Uman's Jews. It is a great irony that in 2005 we should be dancing in the streets of Uman. We are dancing on the graves of our martyrs."
Mazursky, the wise guy from Brooklyn, drew his own lessons. "I could never think like a Hassid," he ruminated during a two-hour interview in his crowded Beverly Hills office.
"I think of life as a cosmic joke, which keeps getting bigger all the time. But I've learned tolerance and maybe affection for the Hassidim. They are real people, who can see light in the darkest things."
The title of the film comes from another Mazursky observation. "It is better to wake up in the morning and instead of kvetching, say 'Yippee.'"
The Palm Springs (Calif.) International Film Festival will screen Yippee on Jan. 7 and 8 (check www.psfilmfest.org for additional information). So will New York's Lincoln Center, which will host a reptrospective of Mazursky's works May 4-10.
A treasury of Jewish film
I hate to admit it, but after decades of writing about Jewish-themed movies, I had only the vaguest notion of the National Center for Jewish Film (NCJF). But executive director Sharon Pucker Rivo filled me in.
Located on the campus of Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass. as an independent entity, NCJF holds the world's largest, most comprehensive collection of Jewish-themed films and videos.
Included are some 10,000 cans of film, holding features, documentaries, shorts, newsreels, home movies and institutional films from 1903 to the present, augmented by thousands of master videotapes.
Many of the older holdings have been restored by the center, which also serves as a research resource, organizer of film festivals, and distributor to institutions and individuals. Almost every Diaspora community in the world is represented, with particularly rich holdings from Poland, the Soviet Union and the United States.
For more information, phone (781) 899-7044, e-mail email@example.com, or visit www.jewishfilm.org.
Yippee is now available on DVD through the National Center for Jewish Film at Brandeis University, phone (781) 899-7044; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org; or go to www.brandeis.edu/jewishfilm.