‘The Unorthodox’ will make you believe

Eliran Malka’s The Unorthodox is a dramatic underdog story, filled with comic moments, about the founding of the Shas Party in Jerusalem in the early 1980s.

A scene from the movie ‘The Unorthodox’ (photo credit: YARON SHERF)
A scene from the movie ‘The Unorthodox’
(photo credit: YARON SHERF)
Eliran Malka’s The Unorthodox is a dramatic underdog story, filled with comic moments, about the founding of the Shas Party in Jerusalem in the early 1980s, a kind of “Mr. Cohen Goes to the Knesset.” But although it may start out like one of those feel-good stories of a little guy beating the odds, it turns into a tragedy, not one littered with bodies, but one where people’s souls are stolen or sold.
It’s this mournful aspect that elevates the film into something more than just a quirky tale torn from fairly recent headlines. But what might have been a preachy history lesson, in Malka’s assured hands, becomes a lively and suspenseful film.
Shuli Rand, an actor whose life could be the subject of another movie – born Orthodox, he became a secular actor, then embraced ultra-Orthodoxy and now appears only in rare films that are in line with his values – commands the screen as Yaakov Cohen, a Jerusalem widower who runs a print shop. Cohen, who narrates the movie, explains how he founded Shas (usually known in English as Sephardi Torah Guardians) to represent the interests of religious Mizrahi Jews (Sephardim), out of frustration with Ashkenazi religious control over public life.
The movie opens with what, for Cohen, is the last straw: his daughter is kicked out of the religious high school where she studies. A parade of officious Ashkenazi women tell him it’s just because she didn’t fit in. Rand and the script make clear that this is just the most recent injustice in a lifetime of similar slights, and he decides to form a political party to run for the 1983 municipal election. He finds allies in his rabbi (an actor, ironically, named Yaacov Cohen, who was so good in last year’s Scaffolding) and an oddball sidekick, Yigal, played with great comic timing by Yoav Levi.
These three can barely agree on any kind of plan but are united by their frustration with the status quo. Those around them conspire to quench the fire of their passion for politics. Some smooth operators on the Mizrahi side, who have been making the system work for them and their families, discourage them. Others tell them they must make peace with the Ashkenazi establishment, which leads to a priceless comic scene where they meet a doddering rabbi who can barely utter a word, but whose every expression and gesture is interpreted with absolute clarity by his handler.
Ultimately, Cohen decides that the Mizrahim need their own party, in spite of all the advice and some very real threats. Of course, we all know how it turned out, and that Shas went on from its success in Jerusalem to become a major national party, seemingly overnight. But this isn’t really the story of Shas, rather of a man who dreamed of justice but whose efforts were hijacked by his colleagues, who turned Shas into just another corrupt political party.
Rand’s performance is filled with outrage and energy, and these two qualities infuse the entire movie. There are well-edited montages and music that put Cohen’s activities in the context of the time. The culture clashes between the Mizrahim and the Ashkenazim mirror the conflict between religious and secular culture in 1980s Jerusalem, exemplified by an extremely funny scene that involves the Bee Gees’ “How Deep Is Your Love.”
Based on questions I got from Americans and Europeans attending the recently concluded Jerusalem Film Festival, where The Unorthodox was the opening-night film, it seems that some of this quintessentially Israeli story is a bit mystifying to people who have no idea what the Shas Party stands for (foreign audiences won’t understand the importance of the late Ovadia Yosef, Shas’s spiritual leader, for example), or haven’t heard of its history of corruption scandals. But even viewers who didn’t get the nuances were charmed by Rand’s Cohen and his rebel comrades.
Malka, who created the popular television series Shababnikim, about mischievous yeshiva students, has made an extraordinarily accomplished and ambitious debut film.