Yippee: A Journey to Jewish Joy

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PALM SPRINGS -- Paul Mazursky's first nonfiction film has the loose feel of a road-trip home movie, with the director often center screen. The occasion is his first visit to Uman, the Ukrainian town where 25,000 Hasidic men from around the world gather to celebrate the Jewish new year. As earnest interlocutor and class clown, Mazursky has a definite charm, bringing a secular Jew's love of Yiddishkeit to the proceedings. But even at 74 minutes, the docu -- making its U.S. debut at Palm Springs -- often feels indulgent. Although it's certain to be a hit on the Jewish festival circuit, it will be a tough sell theatrically.

The director learned of the gathering from his Los Angeles oculist, David Miretsky, who accompanies Mazursky on the trip and serves as one of several teachers to the 75-year-old student. The draw is the gravesite of 19th century spiritual leader Rabbi Nachman, a descendent of the founder of the Hasidic movement. Before dying at 38, he instructed his followers to convene every Rosh Hashanah in Uman, where for three days they share a communal ecstasy of prayer, dance and song.

Mazursky and his small crew do capture the surging energy and emotion in the event's final sunset prayers -- during "magic hour," the filmmaker notes. Encapsulating a nonreligious Jew's distance from faith, he also notes that he's not sure whether he's making the trip in search of a film subject or in search of an exultant, life-changing experience. The most intriguing notion here is the link between Jewish humor and a history of oppression and suffering, but it's more a motif than a developed idea.

Despite nods to Mazursky's grandfather, who fled Kiev and its anti-Semitism, "Yippee" doesn't dig deep. The prevailing sense is the filmmaker's adventurousness and easy connection with people. He's a master kibitzer, whether repeating a Borscht Belt joke or telling people "I'm a famous movie director." But whether we need to see him trying on funny hats at Oktoberfest, during a stopover in Munich, chatting up Uman shiksas or enjoying the local vodka is another matter.
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