NEW YORK (JTA) — Danny A. Abeckaser — or “Danny A.,” as he likes to be called — looks like your typical slick, smooth-talking Sephardic “playa” from Brooklyn.
He’s wearing a dark blue dinner jacket over a white V-neck T-shirt, showing a smidgen of his chest, where a gold chain and a white beaded necklace hang over low riding cross-stitched jeans held up by a leather belt that’s just the right hipster color amber.
With his slicked, gelled jet-black hair and thick uber-nerd-cool black-framed glasses, the 37-year-old night-club owner/actor-cum producer looks significantly different from Jackie Solomon, the sleazy Israeli-American drug lord/party boy he plays in the film “Holy Rollers,” which Abeckaser also conceived and produced in his first foray as a filmmaker.
If this sounds like blatant stereotyping, no worries, because this new, languid, low-budget indie feature revels in them.
The film tells the story of Brooklyn Chasidim who serve as drug mules to transport ecstasy from Europe to New York. The religious family talk is filled with schmaltz, using words like “gelt,” “bubbeleh” and “baruch Hashem,” and the other characters hurl epithets like “schvartze,” “goy” and “Polack,” or say things like “I never heard a Jew complain so much about making money.”
But for Abeckaser, “Holy Rollers” is simply a beautiful story that needed to be told. After he watched a documentary about Interpol and drugs that mentioned the Chasidic mules, Abeckaser (“I’m not a writer”) hired writer Antonio Macia. They put together a fictional story of Shlomo “Sam” Gold (the convincingly confused Jesse Eisenberg from “Zombieland” and “Adventureland”), who loses his way after a match with a potential wife falls through and is duped into transporting drugs, which at first he thinks is “medicine for rich people.”
As it says at the end of the film, “Holy Rollers” is based on the real crimes of an Israeli drug ring in 1988-89 that was responsible for transporting more than 1 million pills using the Chasidic patsies, who stuff the drugs in their fur streimels and suitcases. (In real life, the Israeli ecstasy cartel continued for many more years, bringing more and more pills, with Chasidic and other mules.)
“I grew up in that community and I thought it was fascinating that people don’t know what it’s like,” Abeckaser told the audience at a screening at Soho House in New York City, which showed the film in conjunction with the Woodstock Film Festival (which will feature “Holy Rollers” and other Jewish films in the fall).
Abeckaser was born in Israel, the sixth of seven children of Moroccan parents who immigrated to America in 1980. He attended yeshiva for sixth and seventh grades, then switched to public school for the rest of junior high and high school.
“Everyone sees that this is a story that could happen to anyone,” Abeckasser says, mentioning Shlomo’s struggle with his family, who throws him out of the house when they find out he is involved in drugs. Shlomo cuts off his (fake-looking) sidecurls, removes his big black yarmulke and other black garb, and looks like, well, like Jesse Eisenberg.
Shlomo, now Sammy, is drawn into the world of clubbing, Shabbat breaking and women (the inevitable blond hottie, played by Ari Graynor) — although he doesn’t fall as far as his friend Yosef (Justin Bartha from “The Hangover”), a real shyster who begins to take drugs and skim money off the top from his boss, Jackie Solomon.
Why did Abeckaser give himself the role of the dim-witted Israeli boss, the third lead?
“I didn’t think I could pull off the Chasid thing,” Abeckaser says with the right accent because he’s fluent in Hebrew.
“But I knew so many guys like Jackie, I’ve been around them. Growing up Israeli, it’s not a hard character for me,” he says. Besides, Abeckaser shrugs, “I always like to be the bad ass and not the good guy.”
The good guy, though, is not really so good, as he leaves his religion and starts recruiting his own Chasidic mules to do the dirty work. Jewish audiences might not like to see their own running drugs, to let the world wonder if what’s under a Chasid’s bekeshe — the long, black coat — are packets of drugs.
“I would say that’s sad,” Abeckaser says.
“I feel like we tell a beautiful story. You can see how beautiful the community is and how happy they are there,” he says. “Obviously everyone would like their children to be doctors or lawyers or rabbis, but people go on the wrong path.”
At one point in the film, Abeckaser points out, the rebbe warns, “All men must choose to be either closer to Hashem or further from Hashem.”
Shlomo, he adds, “strayed far away and yet he moves closer to Him [God] in the end.”
Abeckaser says he fought with the director for the last scene, in which Shlomo has regrown his sidelocks.
“I would never want to portray Jews in a bad way — he goes back to religion in the end,” Abeckaser says.
What would he tell those people who only see the world through the lens of “Is it good for the Jews?”
“I’m a big Jew and from a big Jewish family, and I want them to know this is a beautiful Jewish story because he goes back to religion in the end,” Abeckaser says. “The most beautiful thing about the religion is that God forgives everyone.”
(“Holy Rollers” opens May 21 in New York and Los Angeles, and May 28 and after across the country. For more information, visit http://holyrollersfilm.com/now-playing.)