The founder of Hasidism is in a Ukrainian film for the first time in the history of world cinema

Oleksa Dovbush and the Besht. A freeze frame from the trailer for the movie "Dovbush," 2023.

Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer, better known as the Baal Shem Tov ("Master of the Good Name") and the acronym Besht, became one of the protagonists in the new Ukrainian film "Dovbush" (2023). It will be the first time in world cinema that an actor will play the founder of Hasidism and a great Jewish sage.

The famous Ukrainian director Oles Sanin shot "Dovbush" in the style of a historical action film. The movie has many battle scenes, dramatic twists, love, and the beautiful nature of the Carpathian Mountains. The storyline of Dovbush's relationship with the Besht adds philosophical and mystical intonations to the film.

Sanin said in an interview with Ukrainian television: "For viewers of this film, it will be a great revelation to learn that there is a whole Jewish epic about the Besht's friendship with Dovbush. When he preached, he had Dovbush's smoking pipe in his hands."

Sanin also noted that his new film does not illustrate a primitive plot of "Ukrainians against Poles", but rather the story of the struggle for freedom and justice against villains and oppressors.

The historical Oleksa Dovbush was the most prominent "Robin Hood" among the Hutsuls, a sub-ethnic group of the Ukrainian nation living in the southeastern part of the Carpathians.

Dovbush led a large detachment of opryshoks, groups of social brigands, when they fought oppression in 1738-1745. At that time, Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov lived and began to preach in the same areas of the Carpathian Mountains.

There are both Hutsul and Jewish legends, songs and stories on the theme of "Dovbush and the Besht/Opryshoks and Jews".

Old Hutsul stories mention Jews as among those from whom their glorified chieftain took money and property and destroyed the peasants' debt receipts. These same stories attribute magical and healing powers to a mysterious Jewish sage.

Jewish stories about the Besht and Dovbush emphasize cooperation and even friendship between them. In these stories, the power of the Jewish spirit, with the support of the Creator, defeats and calms the aggressive intentions of the Hutsul rebel.

In one story, the beginning of their acquaintance is described as follows: Dovbush mistook the Besht for an ordinary innkeeper, swung an ax, but under the gaze of this strange Jew, he could neither lower the ax nor even move his hand. His muscles began to move again when Dovbush apologizes to the righteous man.

Next, the Besht gives Dovbush advice and treats his wounds. In return, Dovbush guarantees the safety of the Besht and the Jews, and gives the Jewish mystic a smoking pipe.

In another story, presented in literature by the great writer Shmuel Yosef Agnon in his tale The Sword of Dobish, Dovbush attacks Rabbi Arie on Shabbat during the blessing over a glass of wine. Drops of wine fall on the chieftain's saber — and Oleksa cannot move it any further. Moreover, Dovbush's saber will no longer be able to move every Shabbat.

Prof. Larisa Fialkova, a specialist in Slavic folklore and literature at Haifa University, in her article "Oleksa Dovbush: An Alternative Biography of the Ukrainian Hero Based on Jewish Sources" cites one of the legends of the Jews of Halychyna about the origin of the surname of the rebels' future leader.

According to legend, at birth, he was a big boy, covered with thick brown wool. His mother, who was very poor, was helped with food by a Jewish innkeeper; when he saw the newborn, he said that he was "like a dovush" ("bear cub" in Hebrew, "dov" — a bear).

In this tandem "Jewish Righteous — Ukrainian Rebel," Baal Shem Tov is the personification of spiritual power and higher wisdom, and Dovbush is a symbol of physical strength. Spiritual and material, heavenly and earthly, which should be together and help each other.

The relationship between the Besht and Dovbush, according to ancient stories, was somewhat similar to the energy of repulsion and attraction of two brothers from the first book of the Pentateuch — Jacob and Esau.

Jacob is in seclusion in tents to understand wisdom; Esau is a dashing hunter who gallops through the woods, loves unbridled will and hunting, and kills easily. According to Jewish tradition, Esau was also born with thick brown-red wool, just like Oleksa.

But in the ideal ending of the relationship of the biblical Jacob and Esau, they should live, even if separately, but in positive cooperation. The Spiritual (Jacob, Israel, and the Jewish people in general) will fill the Material with content and raise it to Heaven, and the Material will protect the spiritual and fill it with the latest achievements of progress.

Another Jewish legend talks about how the Besht, walking along a mountain path in deep thought, almost fell to the bottom of an abyss. And then Dovbush and his men saw how the mountains moved and closed the abyss before their eyes.

Fascinated by this sight, the Hutsul rebels asked the Baal Shem Tov to pray for them and put his magic at their disposal. The Besht agreed on the condition that they stop persecuting Jews and ensure their safety.

According to the Besht's student, Rabbi Menachem Nachum Twersky from Chornobyl, his teacher said to the Hutsuls: "You will be the leaves of the vine, and we will be the bunches of grapes that protect the leaves."

For many years, Rabbi Menachem Nachum Twersky raised money to support the Jewish community of the city of Tweria (Tiberias) in the Holy Land. That is why his descendants took the surname Twersky; then, they were related to the descendants of the Besht himself.

Luzer Twersky as the Besht on the set (still frame from the video).

After ten generations, Luzer Twersky was born — both the successor of the Chornobyl Hasidic dynasty and the descendants of the Besht. The young man grew up in the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Brooklyn in New York, then left his community and became a film actor.

It was the blue-eyed Luzer Twersky who played his ancestor Baal Shem Tov in Oles Sanin's new film. For dialogues in Ukrainian, Twersky specially studied his text with a professional Ukrainian language teacher.

Filming took place in the Carpathians in the summer of 2021 and became the completion of a three-century circle of generations of his ancestors for the American actor.

Twersky was imbued with great sympathy for Ukraine. On the day of the start of Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, he posted a map of Ukraine on his Facebook page with the words "Glory to Ukraine!"

In conclusion — two (almost) mystical coincidences.

Dovbush's famous "lulkah" or "lolkeh" in Yiddish — the Besht's smoking pipe — was passed down within the Hasidic dynasties of his descendants as having great value. This smoking pipe was put up for sale only once at an auction in Jerusalem — and was sold for $160,000 (!). This happened on 10 February 2022 — just two weeks before the start of the great war against Ukraine.

The film "Dovbush" will be released on screens on 24 August 2023, on Ukraine's Independence Day — three days before the 325th anniversary of Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov's birth, who was born on 27 August 1698 (the Jewish date of his birth — the 18th of Elul — falls on 4 September 2023).

Text: Shimon Briman (Israel).

Trailer for the film "Dovbush" (in Ukrainian)