Lazar, an Orthodox American man transplanted to Jerusalem with his wife, is a bit of a schlemiel.
He has trouble holding a job. He tries to be a tour guide for English speakers, but no one will hire him after he wrecks his car.
It is late December, the season of both Chanuka and Christmas. When he is offered a job posing as Santa Claus at a local hotel — looking the part with his long beard — he faces a dilemma: Did God send him this job to help him provide for his wife, or should he, as an Orthodox Jew, decline the offer?
The story of Lazar, and his unlikely stint as Santa, is the subject of “A Jerusalem Tale” (or “Rabbi Santa,” in Hebrew), written, produced and directed by students at the Ma’aleh School of Television, Film & the Arts in Jerusalem.
Ma’aleh is the only film school in the world devoted to exploring the intersection of Judaism and modern life, and the unusual films created by its students — mostly Orthodox Jews — are screened regularly at film festivals worldwide, consistently winning top awards.
“The school was started 22 years ago by a group of people who saw there must be a film school for Orthodox people,” said Neta Ariel, its director.
Ariel was in Pittsburgh this week to address groups at both Duquesne University and Rodef Shalom Congregation, and to screen “A Jerusalem Tale.” Her visit was presented by Classrooms Without Borders, a Pittsburgh-based group that provides experiential, extended term professional development for teachers in the metropolitan Pittsburgh region. A group of local educators visited Ma’aleh last summer as part of a Classrooms Without Borders trip.
Eighty-five students are currently attending the four-year program at Ma’aleh, with about 20 to 25 enrolled in each class. The students typically enter the school following their army service. Lectures are conducted in Hebrew, and between 70 and 80 percent of the students enrolled are Orthodox.
Each student is expected to complete a short film as his or her graduation project.
“We never tell them what to make their movie about,” Ariel said. “The movies cover a lot of issues; they deal with Jewish issues. Some are Israeli issues, some are international things, and some are human rights.”
Ma’aleh is a unique place to learn, even in Israel, according to Ariel.
“Ma’aleh is a very special film school,” she said. “There are a lot of film schools in Israel, but most of the students there are secular. At Ma’aleh, the movies are very original. They have a very special point of view. I think we have the right combination between professional filmmaking and original issues.”
The school has provided a welcome creative outlet for Orthodox Jews in Israel who might find traditional film schools difficult to navigate given the limitations imposed by their religious observance, such as not working on Shabbat.
“I knew from the beginning this is where I wanted to go because I am religious,” said Oshrat Meirovits, a recent graduate of Ma’aleh whose film, “Sister of Mine,” is currently on the film festival circuit. “Sister of Mine” tells the story of a young Haredi woman for whom it is difficult to find a match because she has a sister with Down syndrome.
Meirovits believes Ma’aleh provides the support necessary to create films with themes linked to issues in the Orthodox world.
“Ma’aleh supports you being religious, and lets you talk about these issues, and get these issues out,” Meirovits said.
Although Meirovits is not Haredi, she spent some time in her Haredi grandmother’s neighborhood when she was growing up. Situations like that explored in “Sister of Mine” are not uncommon, she said.
“Things like that do happen; it’s true,” she said of young people being judged by who their family is when it is time to arrange a marriage. “The movie is about the fact that people are judging [the central character], but not by who she is. And people do that — judge you because of where you live, and because your family has this or that. I want people to judge me for who I am.”
“I make movies on whatever is burning in my gut, whatever activates me,” she continued. “I guess religious issues are within me. I love being religious, but it’s not always easy.”
Yet Ma’aleh’s aim is to make things easier for Orthodox Jewish filmmakers, said Ariel.
“If a student wants to do a story based on Jewish culture, we have the staff to help them,” she said.
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)