“Holy Rollers” was a derisive term coined to describe Pentecostal Christians who became ecstatic during worship. It’s also the title of a film with the unlikely storyline involving the recruitment of young Hasidic Jews in Brooklyn to smuggle Ecstasy tablets from Europe into the USA, which happened to be true. In their black hats, dark suits and side-curls, the stream of young Hasidic men flying home from Europe seemed unlikely to raise the suspicions of United States Customs officials. Hasidim means literally “loving kindness” and, ironically, is a branch of Orthodox Judaism that promotes spirituality and joy through the popularisation and internalisation of Jewish mysticism as fundamental aspects of the faith. The hero is Sam Gold, a young Hasidic Jew growing up in Brooklyn and being trained as a rabbi. His father hopes to arrange a excellent match for him, one that will raise him above the poverty his family has known. As the boy grows older, he shows an aptitude for business which his family firmly discourages.
As Sam begins to show signs of resenting living up to his family’s expectations, he is approached by the older brother of his best friend, who persuades both cloistered innocents to take an exciting trip overseas to bring back ‘medicine’ to those denied it in the US. His innocence is his protection at airport security desks and he becomes adept at muling large quantities of illegal substances. He becomes captivated by the lure of the life he has glimpsed and begins to form new relationships with the fast, exotic criminal world, starting to lead a double life. His business instincts prove valuable and are applauded by his Israeli dealer. Eventually Sam himself is recruiting innocent Hasidic kids and experimenting with the drug he smuggles. His parting words to his new recruits are..”mind your business and act Jewish.”
Sam is unable to keep his clandestine actions from his family and his community. As the ordered life pattern of his childhood begins to unravel, he becomes closer to the new, dangerous people in his life, only to realise that they are enmeshed in conflict and despair that neither he nor they can resolve. His own dilemma is whether to turn back to the securities of his former life or continue down a road he now knows leads to destruction.
The film is interspersed by snippets of Rabbinic teaching in Sam’s shul – the Adamic story is presented as a choice – when HaShem (Hebrew for ‘the Name’ – Lev 24:11) calls to Adam in the Garden, Adam has only two choices, to move closer, or to move further away. Sam struggles to rediscover his God on the quicksand between the temptations of the world and the straitjacket of his ancient traditions. Regardless of the choices he makes, he will hurt others in his life if he wants to save his own. The movie sharply demonstrates Chaucer’s Squire’s maxim that “bihoueth hire a ful longe spone.. That shal ete with a feend”, or,”he who drinks soup with the Devil needs a very long spoon”.
Today, I attended a “winter fayre”. The Old English spelling ought to be a dead giveaway. Lots of fat, aproned butchers carving up ucculentsay oastray orkpay (it’s Pig Latin, people, you’ll work it out), mulled ale, rosy-cheeked matrons, roast chestnuts and happy, laughing children warmly wrapped up in bright hand-knitted scarves against winter chills. Not. Instead, scruffy secondhand goods and kids stuffing themselves on junk food. To one who gets nervous at the Friday Market, this was purgatory par excellence, not least because the upside was that I went through my bookshelves like a devouring flame, removing all the tasteless impulse buys with attractive frontal imagery on Virgin’s bestseller stall bought in moments of cerebral meltdown, as well as titles which were letting the side down by having become dog-eared. I insist on a tidy library. It is now refreshed, cleansed, leaner and meaner. What was surprising to me is that I did not instantly find another stall and restock the shelves with more hundreds of pages of pulp. After disgorging the books I left almost immediately, which was only right since I hadn’t paid to get in, simply barged unchallenged to the front of the queue, shoving people to right and left with a large shoulder bag.
I’m not good with incompleteness, tasks unfinished, or tasks waiting to be finished. I get fretted if I have something to do that I haven’t really prepared for properly mentally. In consequence when I went through the bookshelves, I did so at high speed, knowing that I needed to leave the house in ten minutes and if I actually gave thought to whether or not a particular book was to leave home for good, I’d be lost in a welter of indecision and they’d all get put back on the shelves, as if handling them would confer some kind of sentimental attachment to them. I felt like a guard at Auschwitz.
So, job done. The books melted like snowflakes in May – I revisited the stall a few minutes after depositing them and almost everything had gone. Perhaps my cast-offs aren’t quite as unreadable as I’d thought.