It's K for Kosher in Haredi Challahwood

A new industry of films on computer disks has been flourishing in ultra-Orthodox areas

It has been years since ultra-Orthodox children have been able to watch a bona fide Hollywood movie at a day camp or the local community center. Many people in the Haredi community have memories of a television-less upbringing that included 16 mm. screenings of such war films as The Eagle's Nest or The Guns of Navarone (for boys), and even aging prints of the wedding of Queen Elizabeth of Britain (for girls).

Any scenes that were deemed a trifle risque were censored by the back of a hand strategically placed in front of the projector, often to the dismay of the young viewers. But about ten years ago, with the spread of a more extreme and cloistered Haredi lifestyle, the curtain came down on these flickering old delights, never to rise again.

This entertainment vacuum was partially filled three years ago, when some clever Haredi entrepreneurs began producing films for the ultra-Orthodox public. They took advantage of a loophole that allows rabbis to use computers to earning a living, and began to sell movies on CDs to be viewed on a computer screen. This made it possible to circumvent the "abominable device" (television) and avoid any religious disapproval.

They set about building an audience for Haredi cinema. Before made-for-Haredim films came into vogue, there was a preliminary stage in which ordinary feature films on video were converted to CDs that could be rented at either of two video libraries in the heart of Haredi population centers - Shabbos Square in Jerusalem ("Photo Alan"), and near the main entrance to Bnei Brak.

The films were rented "under the counter." But these video libraries, which seem to be meeting a need in the community, especially in Jerusalem, incurred the wrath of the modesty squads, and had to face continual harassment from extremist elements.

One violent clash in Jerusalem ended in an accident in which a man who tried to break up a fight between the shop owner and the demonstrators was killed. The tragedy signaled the end of the underground era - but the underground phase had laid the foundations for the Haredi film industry.

The community's clear demand for filmed entertainment encouraged the Haredi entrepreneurs to go into the business, a move backed by the tacit approval of the rabbis. Within three short years a voracious market for the films developed. The industry is now dominated by four major producers, who churn out an average of 15 films a month.

Nowadays, the films are openly displayed on store shelves in the bustling shopping districts of Geula Street in Jerusalem and Rabbi Akiva Street in Bnei Brak, between videotaped speeches calling for a return to the faith and CDs of Hasidic music.

Rebbe's blessing

"There is a lot of demand for the movies. All of them are educational," says Yisrael, a Chabad Hasid who hawks the films in a Geula Street shop. Chabad fingerprints can easily be found on the early stages of the industry - they have always been more progressive than the general Haredi public in harnessing technology for the needs of religion.

At the time, they received dispensation - and encouragement - from the Lubavitcher Rebbe. Who buys them? Everyone, says Yisrael. "Lithuanians, Hasidim - there is no difference. Anyone who owns a computer. But not everyone will buy a movie that has a pistol on the packaging." He points his finger at one of the film posters that adorns the walls of the shop. "It is for children, after all."

"The children are only the excuse," says Yehuda Grohweis, smiling. Grohweis is a producer, director and screenwriter whose most recent film, "Jewish Revenge" was shipped last week to the shops. A picture of a gun adorns its packaging. "There isn't a single Haredi who would go and spend money on something that is actually entertainment for its own sake," he says, explaining the challenge of selling films to adults.

"Leisure culture remains problematic and people need excuses to indulge in it. They legitimize the purchase by saying it's a Chanukah present, or a birthday gift, or that it gives the children something to do when they have to be home with the babysitter. And with the same ticket, the parents can enjoy themselves, too."

Grohweis, 28, may be the man who is most readily identified with the Haredi film industry. In the space of three years, his company, "Grohweis Brothers," (founded with his brother and now ex-partner, a Haredi writer who publishes his work under the nom de plume Avraham Gross) has produced over 20 films. Sharp-eyed viewers are able to spot Grohweis in bit parts.

"I'm like Hitchcock - I like to make a surprise guest appearance," he said. When asked to define himself religiously, Grohweis says he is a general Hasid, meaning that he does not identify with any particular Hasidic dynasty. When it comes to film production, he is a complete autodidact.

"I learned from my mistakes, and from watching the work of film directors on the set," he says. Until recently, Grohweis was a successful and financially secure insurance agent, but like many others, he was bitten by the cinema bug, and since then has never stopped making movies. He seems to be motivated by a real desire to create a leisure culture for his community, although at the present time, he says, it is not that remunerative a line of work.

It is difficult to quantify the number of Haredi cinema consumers. Based on sales figures of the movie disks, only 20 percent of the public is buying the disks, which are not inexpensive (NIS 69 per CD, a price that drops to NIS 50 after a year on the store shelf). Grohweis says the record for a best-selling disk is 10,000 copies, but most of the disks barely sell 5,000 copies. This is also because most viewers burn their own CDs or borrow films from neighbors and relatives.

The true magnitude of the viewing audience, as opposed to the sales volume, may be hinted at by statistics on home computer ownership. The official statistics refer to a 40 percent share of Haredi homes that have a computer. Grohweis estimates that the real rate is higher - about 60 percent. He claims the films are watched in every home that has a computer.

No `moderna' here

There is a hard core of Haredim - the straitlaced Lithuanian faction that is opposed to all trappings of "moderna," or extremist Hasidic sects like Neturei Karta and Satmar. Even the Belz Hasidim recently issued a sweeping ban on the film-watching. "In these densely populated communities, " one Hasid explains, "it's impossible to hide anything from the neighbors or friends, so the ban is being observed."

The winding path that leads to Grohweis's editing studio starts in the rear courtyard of a building on the main street of Bnei Brak. For a moment it reminds the visitor of a walk through the alleys of Chinatown. The sign hanging on the steel door reads "Yehudah Grohweis, Insurance," not - heaven forbid - "Productions."

The Haredi cinema is still half-underground, and is another crack in the dam that enables processes of change to permeate the closed Haredi world. Its existence is linked down deep to prohibitions and opposition to outside culture - it says something about a public that yearns for change, whose needs are slowly fashioning a new norm. Without any public declaration, the Haredi public is interested in leisure culture and entertainment for its children and for itself.

In the face of this minor revolution, the rabbinic establishment recognizes its own limitations and has offered a feeble response. It usually chooses to turn a blind eye, having decided to avoid an unwavering, head-on assault. In spite of the immense popularity of the Haredi cinema, the community is a little defensive and apologetic about it.

Grohweis may be well-known and looked up to in many homes, but this admiration is muted. He pays a certain price for his activities, and is featured in handbills and wall posters that appear in his hometown of Bnei Brak every few weeks, which demonize him as a defiler of pure souls. At least on the surface, he professes not to be bothered by it, claiming that people overstate the significance of the handbills and that only a handful of fanatics are behind them, but at the same time, he admits "it isn't pleasant seeing your name spread all through the city."

Grohweis's films have been featured in articles appearing in the Haredi media. An article in "Family" was printed with an editor's note at the top, stating that the article should not be viewed as a recommendation of any sort. Grohweis maneuvers his way through a labyrinth of prohibitions and restrictions. Perhaps this is why he is proud of the fact that his latest creation, "Jewish Revenge," is "a film that has guns, slammed doors, chases - the whole nine yards - but without any shots fired." It is the sort of description that one might hear as a dubious recommendation to any filmgoer who is not well versed in the nuances of the Haredi world.

But Grohweis is a man of his people, and is responsive to their needs and wants. "I make commercial films," he says, "and I respond to the demands of my audience." The Haredi cinema industry does not profess to scatter stardust - here, everything is within reach, very homey and connected to the audience.

Fishy tale

Grohweis is a well-known personality, and carries on extensive correspondence with his viewers via e-mail. Based on the responses he gets, he is a master at assessing the most picayune demands of his viewers.

The most basic demand, of course, is that no women appear in the films. To uphold this holy principle, Grohweis sometimes modifies stories from the original or at times finds bizarre solutions. For instance, there is a scene in the film version of the popular story "Yosef Honors Shabbat" in which men are preparing fish for Shabbat.

He has come a long way since his first few films, which were pirated videos of Haredi puppet theater and children's plays. Now he produces feature-length films, most of which are adaptations of Talmudic tales or stories published in the Haredi media. From one film to the next, the cinematography improves. Grohweis says that the quality of the early films now embarrasses him.

Nor does the level of acting now fall from the level of soap operas screened on commercial television channels. The main roles are often played by actors who have become newly observant, such as Eviatar Lazar, who once worked at the Cameri, and Michael Weigal, who used to appear on the television series "Hafuch."

Based on the frequent requests Grohweis fields from man-in-the-street Haredim who want to act in his films, his enthusiasm seems to have caught on. Some of the applicants have already appeared as extras. The films are saturated with indoctrination, but because they are geared for an already convinced audience, and are not intended to bring viewers back into the fold, they are not blatantly missionary, as is the case for films made by the back-to-religion groups.

At best, they are naive - burekas films for the ultra-Orthodox. But even Grohweis has his artistic principles. For instance, he has a loyalty to reality. As such, the main part in his last film - a Mossad agent sent to the Ukraine to liquidate a Nazi criminal - does not embrace religion at the end of the movie, even though this would be considered the classic happy ending. "There is a limit," says Grohweis. "It doesn't look credible that in this short interval of time just before the end of the movie the guy comes back to religion. So I gave up on the idea, even though the viewers will be disappointed."

It may be assumed that the disappointment of viewers would be much worse if Grohweis Studios closes down. "If there is anything that can stop this film industry, it is the recession," says Grohweis. He claims that sales of the discs have sharply declined of late, and having sustained heavy losses he sadly admits that he has no choice but to leave the home cinema industry. Nevertheless, he is not planning to stage a complete retreat from cinema - far from it.

Now his dream is to make a feature length film for the Israeli public at large, about Haredim and the Holocaust. He is dreaming of "a film with hundreds of extras, which would be filmed in the Ukraine. "It would be screened in cinemas, just like "Escape from Sobibor" and "Life is Beautiful." I would like to bring other voices to the cinema," he says.

Israelis have already seen hundreds of movies about the Holocaust, but they don't know the Haredi story of it." Grohweis is active in the filmmakers lobby in the Knesset, which opposes cutbacks in the cinema budget. In November, he even tried to convince Haredi MKs to support a vote on amendments to the law that extended the franchise granted to Channel Two, as he says that this could "help Haredim to receive budgets for producing feature films in the spirit of Judaism."

In a letter to MKs Moshe Gafni and Yaakov Litzman of United Torah Judaism, he wrote: "I wish to emphasize that this does not constitute Haredi support for the Cinema Law, but the opposite - taking funds from the secular Channel Two for the good of Haredi films." For their part, the MKs demurred, and refused to support any legislation that might make it look as if they supported the Israeli cinema.