High Like a Hasid

The premise of Holy Rollers—a new film based on the true story of Ecstasy smuggling by Hasidic youths hired as drug mules—promises an epic culture clash. It takes the dirty drug that had clubgoers dancing and dehydrated through the nineties and puts it in the hands of the fur-hatted, shoe-gazing mystery men who treat Brooklyn as their shtetl. Though the film’s leading Jews rub against good and evil, they fight for neither. What results is a sputter, not a showdown.

Director Kevin Asch isn’t the first imagine Hasids as criminals. In Guy Ritchie’s Snatch, thieves dress up as Orthodox Jews to commit a robbery. The scene made such an impact that last year a group of real-life crooks (captured in surveillance footage and documented by the New York Post) copied the strategy, donning coats and tails to get access to a Lower Manhattan diamond wholesaler. Though the story of Holy Rollers operates on a similar premise—that no one suspects the guy in the yarmulke—the movie sets itself apart from the precedent on several levels.

Firstly, it’s based on real events rather than inspiring them. In 1999, Amsterdam-based Ecstasy kingpin Sean Erez ran Hasidic couriers—most between the ages of 18 and 20—who made $1,500 per trip between Europe and Brooklyn. Though the Feds eventually caught on, the couriers supposedly never even knew the contents of their suitcases. “The older guys took in a very ripe bunch of gullible youngsters,” a lawyer representing one of the Hasids told the Daily News during a discussion of the case.

Secondly, unlike Snatch, which focuses on the ingenuity of the deception, Holy Rollers takes on the emotional journey of one of the incriminated kids. Its first half shows some of life in the Hasidic community, followed by a descent through clubs, raves, and the drugs that fuel them.

In the film, Shmuly Gold (Jesse Eisenberg), a 20-year-old rabbi-in-training, has a chip on his shoulder because he feels his family lacks status in the community. His insecurity makes him an easy target for his neighbor Yosef Zimmerman (Justin Bartha), who is already in cahoots with Jackie Solomon (Danny A. Abeckaser), an Israeli-American Ecstasy dealer who recruits young Hasids for transcontinental smuggling trips, telling them their bags are packed full of “medicine.”

Initially wary of the pan-Jewish crew, Shmuly (or Sam, as his accomplices call him) gets caught up. He sways shyly at techno clubs in Manhattan and Amsterdam, gets a wool-cashmere-blend suit, and falls for his boss’s blonde, Hebrew school dropout girlfriend, Rachel (Ari Graynor). He even samples the medicine. Eventually, inevitably, Shmuly takes scissors to his peyes, instantly transforming himself from angel in a black hat to just another bad-seed Brooklyn kid in a hoodie. From there on out, things unravel quickly; Q-Tip makes an appearance wearing Star of David bling.

Holy Rollers doesn’t fall prey to the up-to-no-good stereotype that follows Hasids in the media, through sex abuse scandals, bike lane controversies, and honeymoon suicides. Aside for some bargaining at the family fabric store, Shmuly and his clan engage in no plotting or scheming and aren’t presented as conniving, lecherous, or sinister. Over a million Ecstasy pills were smuggled into the country by the real-life ultra-Orthodox envoys, but their sheltered lives, the film (together with their lawyers) suggests, left them so naïve to the evils of the modern world that they can’t quite be held responsible.

Hasids, Holy Rollers tells us, are taught to stand by and wait for instructions. “The Rabbi will instruct me,” Shmuly says when porn-watching Yossef asks him what he knows about sex. On a date with a potential bride he’s equally deferential and spineless. Shmuly simply ends up taking orders from the wrong guy. Even the people who busted the real-life Shmuly placed the blame outside the shtetl. “[The Hasids] aren’t your hard-core drug traffickers,” an Associate Special Agent involved with the 1999 case is quoted as saying in the Daily News. “The Hasidic community is not responsible for this drug ring.”

Still, Holy Rollers fails to set its subjects apart from Hollywood’s vision of kitschy Jewish life. In the scenes of South Williamsburg, black-tailed men stroll like 18th-century specters, and a passerby asks, “Are you Jewish?”—all perfectly familiar and accessible to anyone who has visited the area. Besides an audience with the rabbi and part of a wedding ritual, Holy Rollers goes no further to give a privileged peek into the life of this separatist group.

Yet there are hints about something deeper. In a late scene Shmuly—now without his yarmulke and black suit—is approached by a Chabad kid in Amsterdam. The two huddle together while Shmuly does a mitzvah, wrapping his arm in leather bands of tefillin that look eerily like a tourniquet. They could just as easily be shooting up heroin. In this moment—one of the film’s strongest—Shmuly seems to feel the full force of his religious upbringing. It must be good stuff, since, soon after, he runs home to his family and double crosses his drug-trafficking friends. There’s no doubt that what the two boys have together in that mitzvah beats drugs, clubs, and women. They’ve got it—that profound, ancient, mystical thing—but from where the audience is sitting, it’s frustrating not to understand what it is.

Some are not so coy about Hasidic culture as the film’s director, or so weak-minded as its characters. On the frequently updated website Unipous.com (“News, commentary and writings by and for Chasids on the fringe”), along with blogs like A Hasid and a Heretic and The Other Side, among others, Hasids air the nice and the not-so-nice of religious life. A new book by Ayala Fader—not herself a Hasid—called Mitzvah Girl has won praise for its accurate portrayal of the lives of women in the faith. If Holy Rollers fails to compel with its depiction of Hasidism, it’s not for lack of information.

Sabrina Jaszi is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, NY. She’s written about Hasidic Jews for The Brooklyn Paper and Gothamist.com.