By chance, my first viewing of samuel-613 occurred at the end of May 2015—the same week the “Hasidic driving ban” story broke as headline news in the UK media. Apparently provoked by the minatory notion of the itinerant independent woman, leaders of the Belz sect issued a letter requesting that mothers desist from driving their children to communal schools in the Haredi heartlands of Stamford Hill in North London, stating that women drivers were in danger of breaching “traditional rules of modesty.”1 With the request widely reported as analogous to the state-imposed Wahhabism of Saudi Arabia, and declared to be in contravention of equal rights legislation by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, the Belzer authorities were forced to publicly back down, in a move that left the sect appearing decidedly vulnerable to the encroachments of modernity. That the temptations of twenty-first-century metropolitan London might infiltrate Haredi citadels of isolation is the central conceit behind samuel-613. Significantly, the depiction of the havoc such an event might wreak seems symptomatic of trends in thinking about cultural identity in the current moment.
With a running time just under sixteen minutes, samuel-613 quickly gets to the point: Shmilu has a problem—he is horny. For most twenty-something Londoners, developing a strategy to tackle such a situation is relatively straightforward; Shmilu, [End Page 196] however, is a Haredi Jew living in Stamford Hill. As such his contact with women outside the family is restricted to porn magazines smuggled into his bedroom and anonymously flirting online. Angry and frustrated, he constantly challenges his father’s authority, a struggle that culminates in his scandalous wrecking of a Shabbos dinner. Shorn of beard and payot, he strikes out on his own, moving into a high-rise flat where he goes about the work of remaking himself—gorging on bacon and beer. However, following a disastrous date with “Jezebel”—his online crush—Shmilu realizes that entry into the goyishe world demands more than purchasing a baseball cap. Cut adrift, he returns to Jewish ritual and dreams about bridging an impossible cultural gap by fantasizing a strictly Orthodox marriage between himself and Jezebel. As Shmuli becomes strung out on pharmaceuticals and descends into derangement, the film ends with the arrival of a hallucinatory flock of parrots, a perverse echo of a joke told by his grandfather at the fateful Shabbos supper a few weeks earlier.
While Haredi life has received only minimal attention in mainstream cinema, of those films that have appeared, the narrative of the individual who has strayed “off the derech” is something of a common theme. The derech—Hebrew for path—is the life of devotion to the 613 mitzvot: biblical commandments that range from dietary laws to the injunction that men not shave the hair at the sides of their heads. Adam Vardy’s Mendy: A Question of Faith (USA, 2003) and Tony Krawitz’s Jewboy (Australia, 2005) are relatively recent examples of this trend; less obscure are Jeremy Kagan’s The Chosen (USA, 1981), based on Chaim Potok’s bestseller and starring Maximilian Schell and Rod Steiger, and—from the dawn of talking pictures—Al Jolson’s desertion of Orthodoxy in The Jazz Singer (Alan Crosland, USA, 1927). Additionally, the trope of juxtaposed Jewish–non-Jewish worlds goes back both to the Yiddish theater and to the “ghetto movies” of 1920s Hollywood. In Edward Sloman’s 1925 His People (USA), for instance, a pious Lower East Side bookseller despairs over a son’s boxing career and love affair with a local Irish girl. For filmmakers interested in exploring a leakage between the boundaries of the socially central and the peripheral, Jews have long proved an appealing device.
Given this lineage it would not seem excessive to criticize samuel-613 as being somewhat hackneyed. However, rushing to such a judgment should—at least in part—be resisted. Despite comprising the most populous ultra-Orthodox neighborhood in Europe (most estimates cite figures of around...