The Wonders of an Unholy Jerusalem

Monica Richards discussed the acclaimed Israeli film The Wonders and contemporary Judaism.

PROVO, Utah (March 24, 2015)—We often clump practicing Jews together in one big group called Judaism. According to Hebrew professor Monica Richards from the Department of Asian and Near Eastern Languages, “It’s more correct to say Judaisms, because Judaism is a whole spectrum of belief and practice.”

Like Christianity, where there exists everything from orthodoxy and Catholicism, to Protestantism and Evangelicalism. “There’s an old adage that says if you put three Jews in a room, you have five ways that Judaism is being practiced or not practiced,” said Richards.

Discussing the 2013 film The Wonders, which follows several Jews in Jerusalem, Richards made the point that there are several different prominent practicing groups within Judaism. About 75 to 80 percent of the Jewish population is either secular or traditionalist, meaning, according to Richards, “if they practice Judaism, it is in a modern, friendly way.” Only 20 percent of the population is significantly more staunchly religious.


In the film, the group depicted is a sect of modern orthodoxy. “They differ from ultra orthodoxy in that they are still strict observers of Jewish law, but live in a much more modern way. They hold jobs; they serve in the military,” said Richards.

Richards described the The Wonders, whose title refers to miracles or wonderful acts,as a “charmingly quirky noir film,” with elements of religious intrigue, romance, comedy and mystery. “It’s a bit of a psychological thriller,” Richards said, “If at times you get a little confused and feel like you’ve fallen through the rabbit hole in Alice in Wonderland, you’re supposed to.” She noted that the film is actual, in part, a homage to Lewis Carol, the author of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

“You’re supposed to feel the tension of not knowing what’s going on, who to trust, what the real story is and who is playing whom. So, if you feel that: you’re right where you should be.”

Directed by Avi Nesher and premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival, The Wonders achieved significant box-office success in Israel and was called “The best Israeli movie of the year.” The actor playing the main character is a popular Israeli stand-up comic who had never previously acted. “He steals the show, with no acting training at all,” said Richards.

The film’s protagonist, Arnav, is a bartender and a bit of a criminal. His name—arnav—means rabbit in Hebrew. “He’s a graffiti artist that draws rabbits, and he’s stoned much of the time,” said Richards. “But the name fits, because he is this sweet, innocent, naïve, wouldn’t-harm-a-soul kind of guy.”

Early in the film, Arnav witnesses a mysterious prophet being smuggled into an apartment against his will. A private detective coerces Arnav to let him set up a surveillance system from his apartment, and they set out to find out what is going on with this man. Richards remarked that one compelling aspects of the film is that viewers see a side to Jerusalem rarely explored: the seedier, “less holy” version of the Holy City.

“Pay attention to the contrast between Arnav, our stoned-loser-graffiti-bartender guy, and the tough detective,” said Richards, “Watch their interplay and how they contrast each other.”

The rabbi who they determine to find and rescue is considered a prophet and promised deliverer. “He’s a purely righteous man,” said Richards, “Or is he? You get to decide.”

—Danielle Chelom Leavitt (B.A. Russian ’15)