Yippee: a Journey to Jewish Mazursky

‘Yippee: a Journey to Jewish Joy’ premiered at a special showing in London last week.

At the end of the film, the middle-aged Jewish woman sitting a few seats away turned to me and asked, ‘What did you think of it, then?’ When I suggested that I needed a while to digest my experience (code for: I don’t want to tell you), she launched into her disapproval of the Breslovers (‘They’re nothing like any Hassidim I’ve ever come across’), the fact that there was filming on Rosh HaShanah (untrue: the cameras stopped at sunset and resumed after Yom Tov, although there did seem to be footage from the previous Shabbos), and, finally, of me, for failing to express an opinion of the film (I would have thought that someone like you – i.e. bearded – would know much more about it). Going to see Yippee: a Journey to Jewish Joy’, was, like the film itself, an extremely Jewish experience!

The film, a trailer for which can be viewed here, records the participation of Hollywood director Paul Mazursky in the Rosh HaShanah 2005 pilgrimage of Breslover Hassidim and ‘fellow-travellers’ to the grave-site of Rebbe Nahman (founder of the Breslov movement) in the Ukrainian town of Uman. Rebbe Nahman encouraged his followers to celebrate Rosh HaShanah at his burial place and in the post-Communist era, this has grown to attract tens of thousands of pilgrims. Mazursky, who describes himself as a secular Jew, was encouraged to make the trip by David Miretsky, his orthodox optometrist in LA, himself a regular visitor to Uman.

The film is light on detail about Breslov: one gleans little sense of the radical nature of Rebbe Nahman’s teachings or what distinguishes Breslov from other Hassidic groups. Yet it highlights one area (mentioned in the film’s subtitle – ‘a journey to Jewish joy’) for which Hassidey Breslov are famed: ecstatic joyfulness at all times. The teachings of Rebbe Nahman are replete with this theme; the lifestyle, aspirations and music of the Hassidim express it in practice. It is this constant happiness that intrigued Mazursky and motivated him to explore a world so distant from that of his comfort zone in Beverley Hills.

There is a nice balance between footage of Uman and clips of Mazursky himself at home in Hollywood, post-Uman, neatly groomed, hair dyed (he is much greyer in the film and had a goatee beard and his arm in a cast following a fall), commenting on the experience and how it had affected him. There are also some clever contrasting scenes: en route to Uman via Kiev, Mazursky’s group had a lay-over in Munich, during which they managed to squeeze in a visit to the Oktoberfest. Beer-drinking and mixed dancing contrasted well with the later scenes of all-male ecstatic Hassidic prayer and dancing. Later in the film, we are treated to a glimpse of the rather normal-looking traders of gentile Uman (just down the road from 25,000 bouncing Breslovers), and hear their views on the annual Hassidic invasion.

However, most of this could be described as light entertainment: the film scarcely scratches the surface of the powerful spiritual nature of Rosh HaShanah in Uman. Apart from a few glimpses of religious yearning, mostly contributed by David Miretsky, we are shown what seems to be a very happy, somewhat shallow and more-than-slightly mad group of people. The profound nature of what is, by all accounts, a life-changing experience, is largely absent. While this may be due in part to the lack of filming on Rosh HaShanah (something that wasn’t mentioned in the film), there was still a (deliberate?) failure to explore the real depth of the experience.

Despite this, I liked the film not so much as an accurate portrayal of Breslov and the Uman-pilgrimage (which it is not), but for the insight it offers into the emotional life of the director himself. Mazursky is rich, famous, hysterically funny and well-liked, yet he is searching for something ‘bigger’. While he never mentions it explicitly, his words and face speak volumes about the emptiness that permeates his life. He admits that while visiting Uman did not make him religious, it touched his heart and that he had become more respectful towards the observant. More than anything, Yippee is a diary of Mazursky’s struggle to find deeper meaning within an outwardly fabulously successful life that seems hollow on the inside. In that respect, if in no other, it is touching and fascinating.

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4 comments to Yippee: a Journey to Jewish Mazursky

  • Garnel Ironheart

    > While at least in part this can be attributed to the lack of filming on Rosh HaShanah (something that wasn’t mentioned in the film), there was still a (deliberate?) failure to explore the real depth of the experience.

    Actually, that is the most important part to me. When a Jew shows true joy by celebrating with Hashem, it’s done privately without the whole world looking in with their cameras. Our relationship with Hashem is not something for display on Youtube and I think it’s better that way.

  • Ori Pomerantz

    I am going to touch on the tafel (= unimportant point) here, but would it be wrong for a gentile cameraman to take videos during Shabbat and Yom Tom (= holiday)?

  • Adamchik

    One of the reasons that this film is so well-liked among those who have been there, and those who support the cause, is that it has no ax to grind.

    It is one of the few films that just show it like the director saw it, with very little editorializing. It comes across as being very genuine.

    We all wish that the director would have been more inspired from what he saw, but it is probably the best that we’ll get from a Hollywood icon.

    I’m sorry that your support of the film is so equivocal. I think that we should be thankful for such an authentic and respectful sharing of an experience, even if it isn’t how we’d have portrayed it.

    I can only imagine that the deep Breslov wisdom and subtleties of serving G-d with joy, as an acknowledgment of him as the source, are difficult to see in the severe golus of London. The British doctor in the movie, however, is an inspiring (if brief) character.

  • Ester

    Anybody sitting next to me would not have had to ask me what I thought of it – as the tears were running down my face. I have heard quite a bit about this annual event – but always imagined a little knot of a few devoted followers at the graveside. I could not ever imagine or conceive of something like this ! And as a female , I felt particularly thrilled and privileged to be able to witness it all in this way. ( Not that I have ever, as a “non-Hassid” felt all that thrilled about so much of the exclusion, – but there you go, & I do understand it.)
    But talk of understanding – Wow … dear Paul Mazursky made me more than understand..so much… with my heart….
    I have always been interested in the special Spirituality of Rabbi Nachman, and this unique, marvellous, deep, loving, touching, funny,(hilarious) and moving film made me feel an affection and admiration for all the goings-on that I would never have thought possible. Yes, it was indeed a very Jewish experience. And when one thinks of all the layers & dimensions of what has been gone through by so many, – even to one with a very open mind and open heart & tiny bit of objectivity, it brought home the true depth of that Heart and Soul for which one may be so grateful.
    Thanks to Paul Mazursky – what a wonderful man, of a very special kind.

    p.s. I came across your website when searching for the DVD which I will get.