Actor Quits Big Break on Rabbis' Orders

An actor was ostracized until he was forced to quit due to Hasidic tradition.

NEW YORK March 18, 2008— -- It's every aspiring actor's dream -- the big break.

So 25-year-old Abraham Karpen was the envy of every Shia Lebouf wannabe when he was cast as Natalie Portman's husband in the film "New York I Love You."

But Karpen isn't going to be on the red-eye to La-la-land any time soon because last week the Hasidic Jew from Williamsburg, Brooklyn, said goodbye to his budding acting career and quit the film.

"He really didn't grasp that this was a movie and that Natalie Portman was a star. He thought it was more of a commercial, a short thing," said Isaac Abraham, a Hasidic community leader. "I think he was a little naive. He didn't grasp the magnitude of what he was doing."

The magnitude of what Karpen was doing became clear after photos of the budding actor walking with Portman under the Brooklyn Bridge surfaced in the media.

"We don't watch TV, use the Internet or see movies. It's against our religion and our traditions. There are strong guidelines about what you can and can't do," Abraham said.

Not surprisingly, getting a Screen Actors Guild card is not on the list of approved to-dos.

When Karpen's rabbis got wind of his activities, they ordered him to withdraw from the film or face the possibility that his children would be kicked out of their religious school.

The rabbis feared that Karpen's presence in the film would rattle the tightly knit and insular culture of Williamsburg Hasidim.

"Once he got the role, I think the rabbis may have thought to themselves, well, you know, people know him. They might want to watch him on the screen. And then where does it end?" Abraham said.

If that sounds harsh, well, you have to understand the faith-based Hasidic community.

'Like the Mormons'

"It's a bit like the Mormons. If you're excommunicated, likewise it would be reflected on your children," said Brandeis University professor Jonathon Sarna, an expert on American Jewish history. "Most American Jews would consider Hasidic Jews to be ultra-orthodox. I prefer the term fervently orthodox. They want to recreate the world their parents knew. Innovations are bad because they take time away from religious learning."

Hasidism was a mystical movement of Jews that developed in Eastern Europe. There are many different groups, or sects, within Hasidism, and each group is attached to a rebbe, or Grand Rabbi, to whom they submit themselves.

Hasidim limit their contact with outsiders, and while the lives of Hasidic Jews may be largely hidden from the rest of the world, their look is highly recognizable -- black hats, coats and long side curls for the men; head scarves and modest dress for the women.

This isn't the first time Hollywood has called on the Hasidic community. A 1981 film titled "The Chosen," starring Robbie Benson, revolved around the story of two Hasidic teenagers.

Sidney Lumet's 1992 movie "A Stranger Among Us" focused on Melanie Griffith as a cop who goes undercover in a Hasidic neighborhood -- a kind of Jewish "witness."

"New York I Love You" is a series of 12 short stories about love in the different neighborhoods of New York City. "It's a celebration of love and relationships," according to creator and producer Emmanuel Benbihy.

In an e-mail exchange, Benbihy said the controversy came as a "complete surprise."

The producers had been working "closely with representatives of the Hasidic community of Brooklyn in order to make sure that we are respectful of the traditions of a classic Hasidic wedding."

Portman and Karpen portrayed a young Hasidic couple about to get married.

Benbihy said, "Mr. Karpen was well-liked and highly regarded. We regret but respect and understand his choice to pull out from the movie. From our perspective, we felt very welcome in Brooklyn."

But the welcome mat isn't always out.

For instance, filmmaker Pearl Gluck was forced out of a location in Williamsburg by about 200 protesters recently.

Gluck, who runs her own production company, Palinka Pictures, has a unique perspective because she was brought up in the Hasidic community. But in the 1980s in order to go to a college of her choosing, she left. Although Gluck still considers herself a part of the community, many Hasidim do not.

Still her films, like "The Divan," focus on the traditions and culture of the community she grew up in.

"The sense of community is very powerful, the sense of charity. There really is a sense that we're in this together. Our main goal is to bring up our children in a faith-based environment and expose them to the richness of our traditions," Gluck said.

The recent protests on her film, Gluck said, had to do with "people seeing film sets and crews coming from the outside world. There is a fear of a lack of continuity and thinking that the next generation won't be like the last one."

And that's the same fear that sparked the problem on the set of "New York I Love You," according to Abraham.

After all, most of the previous high-profile films about the ultra-orthodox community, including "The Chosen" and "A Stranger Among Us," had actors portraying Hasidic Jews. In this case, Karpen really was a Hasidic Jew -- and that made a world of difference.