Roy Assaf stars in “God’s Neighbors” as Avi, a Bratslaver who uses violence against non-observers.
Roy Assaf stars in “God’s Neighbors” as Avi, a Bratslaver who uses violence to impose religious observance on his neighborhood. Photo by Daniel Kaminsky
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A white tablecloth, a bottle of wine, a kiddush cup. In the opening scene of "God's Neighbors," the camera follows the wine as it is poured into the cup and the familiar blessing over the wine is recited.

"The sixth day; then the heavens and the earth were completed, and their array," chants the film's protagonist, Avi. "With the seventh day, God completed all the work He had done."

The camera climbs slowly from the wine cup in Avi's hand to his bearded face - and stops, finally, to focus on his eyes. It is a tiny, almost invisible detail, but still the viewer cannot help but be drawn to the small scar beneath his left eye.

The tenderness that fills the room where this festive kiddush is taking place is about to be shattered in a scene of unexpected violence, as Avi and two of his friends approach a group of immigrant Israelis who are standing next to a car blasting music.

"Could you lower the volume?" Avi asks. "Today is Friday. People want to rest."

The young men sneer at him. "So go, go home, rest, what do you want? Go home, go pray," they respond, laughing, and return to their vodka.

Revenge is not long in coming. Two of Avi's friends are hiding behind the car, watching the scene as it unfolds. After a few minutes, one of them stands, and with all his might he swings the baseball bat at the men gathered around the white car. The bat twirls through the air and smashes one of them in the back. A cruel and bloody brawl ensues. In the end, the battered trespassers get into their car and leave.

Avi and his friends direct their victory speech toward the lit windows of the surrounding buildings. "Dear neighbors, good night!" they call. "From now on, there will be quiet here on Friday night. Good Sabbath!"

"God's Neighbors," a film by director and screenwriter Meni Yaesh, opens Thursday in Israeli theaters. It was screened at the most recent Cannes Film Festival during Critics' Week, and won the Gaul's Society of Authors, Directors and Composers award. On Sunday, it was shown at the Jerusalem Film Festival in the Israeli drama competition.

The film tells the story of three newly observant young men from Bat Yam who become Bratslavers (Hasidim who are followers of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav ) and use violence to impose religious observance on their neighborhood. They beat up Russian immigrants and Arabs who come to the neighborhood, they harass young women who are not dressed modestly enough by their standards, and terrorize store owners who do not observe Shabbat rigorously. But when their leader, Avi, falls for a new girl in the neighborhood, he starts to question the path to faith he has chosen.

The essence of faith

Yaesh's film is a thought-provoking story about the essence of faith. It has a rhythmic dynamism thanks in part to the catchy music and convincing action scenes in the style of Quentin Tarantino films. It also features some very convincing acting, first and foremost by Roy Assaf, who is particularly impressive in the role of Avi, a man who sells vegetables by day and creates Hasidic trance music by night. Assaf manages to endear the audience to a character who initially elicits revulsion, and to mix tenderness and gentleness with the violence that bursts forth in scenes like the one described above. Avi delves into Torah study - even as he smokes joints with his friends and beats up anyone who disobeys the rules of his God. Assaf captures all these dualities and contradictions in a single complex and intriguing character who stirs compassion, revulsion and appreciation all at once.

"When Meni showed me the script, at first I was a little deterred," Assaf admits. "I told him, 'How can we get people to identify with someone so violent? How could they love him? But Meni knew exactly where he wanted to go. I constantly tried to push more things in Avi's favor, to get viewers to connect to him, because, after all, he's not just violent. He also has a big heart and I think you see his desire to correct himself and follow the right path. This is more important to him than anything else."

"There is, in this character, something very like me, but the ways he chooses to express what he feels are totally different from what I would choose to do," says Assaf. "Unlike Avi, I wouldn't search for an answer to the existential mystery of my being in a synagogue, but perhaps in a film about a synagogue," he smiles. "I'd look for the answer to that in art."

For several years now, Assaf has been playing leading roles in local film and theater. His first role was in Yael Ronen's play "Isabella" at the Be'er Sheva Theater, followed by a one-man play, "Hayeled" ("The Boy" ), at the TheaterNetto in 2007, which received favorable reviews. After that, the Cameri Theater picked up the play, and Assaf himself won the Israeli theater award for most promising actor. In "Mein Kampf," which won the acting award at the 2011 Acre Festival (and is now being staged at the Gesher Theater ), he plays Hitler; in "Romeo and Juliet" at the 2010 Israel Festival and the Gesher Theater he played Mercutio.

Assaf has also appeared on-screen in Keren Yedaya's "Jaffa" (also known as "Kalat Hayam" ) and Shlomi Elkabetz's "Edut" ("Testimony" ). On television, he played the manager of a sex trafficking business in the series "Blue Natalie."

Despite his experience, Assaf is still not well-known to the general public. "I want people to know who I am already" says Assaf. "Enough, I'm fed up with the newspaper articles that describe me as 'a promising actor.' I don't want to promise anything anymore. I want to be there already."

Yet, he admits, "I'd rather appear every time in 'Mein Kampf' in front of 60 people who leave the performance moved than do a play I don't believe in for an audience of 1,000 people."

A violent child

Assaf, 33, was born in and grew up in Rishon Letzion, where his mother worked as a teacher and his father was a sales agent. He is the second of three sons, and when he was 3, after his younger brother was born, he underwent a dramatic change, he recalls. "Until then, I was very quiet, but after my little brother was born, the jealousy in me was expressed in violence, aggressiveness that deviated a little from the norm among kids," Assaf says. He recounts violent brawls during his childhood and "questionable" and wild friends he had. In those days, he still never imagined that years later his memories of fits of violence would serve him in his work.

Assaf's parents also had a hard time seeing the positive side of the situation. "My parents had a really hard time dealing with me, especially my mother," he says. "As an educator, she was very frustrated that she wasn't able to handle her own child at home."

The violence started fading when he became an adolescent, Assaf says. When he was 15, he started attending Devora Miller's theater workshop at Tel Aviv's Tzavta Club, where he says he found his calling. "It was a defining moment for me, almost mystical. The first night there I already felt that this was the place where I could be wild and it was okay," he recalls. "After all, urges and creativity contain the same energy - it's just a matter of where you channel it. I realized that I can't change who I am, but I can change my methods of expression. In this profession, the wilder you are, the more you are embraced. It's absurd, but that's what art is based on. The more you let yourself be exposed, the more you touch people."

Of course, there's a danger involved in putting yourself out there for everyone to see, he notes.

"An interview I gave a few years ago, where I talked about my violence as a kid, really hurt my parents. My mother didn't speak to me for six months after that," Assaf says. "In that article, they chose not to present the full picture and didn't mention how amazing my parents are and how much I appreciate them. So, on one hand, I'm afraid to be exposed, but on the other hand, I know that the more exposed I am, the more people the article will attract. What do we like to read about? People who say real things and don't hesitate; it's the same with acting - if you conceal things, or if it's important to you to be nice or smart all the time, it's just not interesting."

Those who believe

Assaf did his army service in the IDF Theater, and a few months after his enlistment was appointed commander of the theater. Immediately after his discharge he went to study at the Nissan Nativ Acting Studio. "The most important thing I learned there is to be true to yourself and your path and that you don't have to compromise on that place even if it entails concessions," he says.

A mutual friend introduced Assaf to Yaesh in 2006 when he was looking for an actor for "Eliko," his final film project at the end of his studies at the Minshar art school. Assaf later acted in another short clip by Yaesh, "Tel Aviv Location," and then Yaesh's partner - director and screenwriter Keren Yedaya - cast him in the lead role in "Jaffa."

While Yaesh was working on the script for "God's Neighbors," Assaf says Yaesh shared with him his thoughts and deliberations about Avi's character. "It's the most important encounter I ever had with an artist," Assaf says. "I feel that Meni connects me to that wild, violent place where I once was. Inside me I was repelled by this place; for many years I'd run away from it because I wanted to be accepted by the cultured Tel Aviv crowd, and Meni helped me reconnect with that place. It took me time to realize that this place is a gold mine for an artist - authenticity that, later on, they search for far and wide."

Since it was important to Yaesh that the actors in the film bring to the screen real-life, convincing neighborhood characters, Assaf and the other actors worked for months on their roles.

"During that time, I was also doing rehearsals for Shakespeare - I was acting in 'Romeo and Juliet' - and I would come to meetings with Meni after I had recited Shakespearean poems. It would drive me crazy, because what can you do, it affects your speech and how you look and what you represent. For six months, [Yaesh] worked with us on local neighborhood speech. We also worked on the characters' brashness; they were the kind of guys who could slap someone in a flash. This is something physical - you have to be ready at any moment to hit someone or give them a kick; you can't act it. It was really already flowing in my veins," he says.

Unlike Yaesh, Assaf is not a religious person, he notes. At the end of the shooting, after they had finished a scene in which he delivers a monologue on the beach before sunrise - a kind of cry to God asking for guidance in finding the proper path to faith - Yaesh walked over to Assaf and hugged him. "He took me aside and asked, 'So, now, after the film, after everything, now do you believe a little?' It was really important to him that I undergo something. But because I can't lie to him, I said, 'No, but I believe more that you believe.'"

"I think that this film brought me closer to myself, not to religion. I'm a little worried, like a kid, that I'm disappointing Meni when I say this, but I know that he'll appreciate and love me only if I am who I am," he smiles. "People come out of the movie and are amazed to discover that I'm not religious. But to me, it's not at all relevant. On the contrary, after this film, I got so in touch with myself that now I'm even less religious than I was, but I believe more in man."