Wednesday, March 13, 2019
When news hit of the measles outbreak in the Orthodox Jewish community in New York, I was shocked and appalled. And I felt a little bit to blame.
In 2013, as a junior in college, I was working as a teacher and an extra, going to set between classes, capitalizing on my Semitic facial features and access to Hasidic wardrobe items. One day, I responded to an ad looking for actors to play Hasidic men. There was even a Facebook group called Shomer Shabbos Artists, for people who observed the Sabbath and looked the part.
I gratefully accepted the role, happy that filming was on a rare day off from school: Sunday. A day later, I read an angry post by the group moderator about how it was bad for Hasidim to play roles that make Jews look bad. We shouldn’t contribute to anti-Semitism, he argued. Despite our small roles as extras, and the fact that filming would commence regardless of our protests, the acting veteran stood firm in his refusal to take part in this injustice.
I agreed in theory. But money is money. Pragmatism, nihilism and $400 in cash won over my apprehension.
We did the interior shots in the Washington Heights neighborhood of Manhattan, an inauthentic choice. In the scene, I played a Hasid whose family didn’t vaccinate themselves. Coming home from a London trip, I carried the disease and brought it over to the States. I was patient zero. The directors instructed me to slump, to display my illness. They wanted me to look sick, scratching my neck and acting depressed. I didn’t need to be sick to look like that. All I needed was to fly coach.
Acting notes that I was born to play. It was my starring role as Typhoid Mordechai. Or, as the production crew called me, Hasid No. 2.
For the exterior scenes, we drove 13 miles south to Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Here, Hasidim actually live, and the lively streets full of them were accurate and honest. Art imitated life, and my ethical qualms subsided.
Among some people — anti-Semites, but also quite a few Semites — there is the belief that Jews in public are either good for the Jews or bad for the Jews. Eliot Spitzer? Bad for Jews. Eric Cantor? Good for Jews. Bernie Madoff, very bad; Joe Lieberman … sort of good, and so on. The binary is amplified in the ultra-Orthodox community, who are often wary of media portrayals.
Where was I, a Hasidic extra, on that spectrum?
The artificiality of Hollywood is well known. It suspends reality and creates a new one. We don’t see the lighting, the grips, the tape or microphones. People — extras — play a role in the scenery, although we are now called by the more polite-if-less concise term of “background actors.” We weren’t there to be seen, but rather to be noted, realized on an almost unconscious level.
I was expendable, save for my facial hair, long coat and black fedora — props that got me “bumped,” earning me an extra $36. What is more New York City than Hasidim? You have the bodegas, the noisy trains, the Hasidim. It all adds up to a rich New York cinematic experience.
Here in Williamsburg, where they actually live — which was better than Washington Heights, where they don’t live — I reasoned that it was closer to the real thing, so it was a little better.
The other day, I received a message from an old acquaintance on Facebook: “Is that you I see on a NOVA piece on vaccines?”
It was. I watched in horror as the story played out. In the thinly veiled fictional documentary, I was a stand-in for a community that, for various reasons, didn’t vaccinate their kids and caused a measles outbreak in a city that had eradicated it 10 years earlier. As a symbol, I was retrograde, insular and ignorant. Quite simply … I was bad for the Jews.
Then there was a real measles outbreak in Hasidic Brooklyn. Art imitated life. I, or at least the borderline anti-Semitic film crew, was right. The Jewish community was to blame for the Middle Ages-era medical disaster. The community members were in fact not vaccinating their kids. Recently, with Orthodox and ex-Orthodox friends, I looked over the Hasidic-friendly brochures about the importance of vaccinations, handed out by the New York Department of Health.
Nice avatars, animations of smiling children, easy-to-understand science language and colorful infographics. And, of course, no pictures of women. Plus, it had the perfect cover — it was in Yiddish.
Was I to blame? I didn’t relish being right. Some Jews believe in the evil eye, that our actions have supernatural consequences. By faking that I didn’t vaccinate, did I, in fact, cause the outbreak? That would be crazy. Of course, it wasn’t my fault. Yet I still feel blameworthy. And obviously, parents should not engage in the dangerously negligent activity; they should take advantage of modern medicine and vaccinate their children.
Now my indignation and horror at being used as a prop for an ignorant cinematic story is replaced with sadness and anger toward bad parents and the community that fosters those dangerous behaviors. Since the brochure was released, vaccinations have been administered for free by New York City. Children are getting vaccinated. A grand rabbi, with ailing health, recently announced that he wouldn’t shake hands with people who don’t use Purell.
I’m hopeful that small measures like tailor-made public health initiatives will successfully nudge the large population into the right place. It’s not like they deny climate change or believe that vaccinations cause autism. Faced with facts and science, Hasidic parents will do the right thing and inoculate their kids.
If not, I have 400 more dollars to earn.
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