‘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.