His feet say yes, but his religion says no

Hasidic Jew Moshe Yehuda (Jos Laniado) and dance instructor Viviana Nieves (Karina Smirnoff) ponder how to enter a tango contest without touching.

By Richard Ades

Oh, those crazy Orthodox Jews. What bizarre dilemmas will their beliefs get them into next?

I’ve mentioned before that I’m a fan of Shtisel, the Israeli TV series about an ultra-Orthodox family living in Jerusalem. It’s partly because of my affection for the show that I thought Tango Shalom might be worth a look. Now making the rounds of Jewish film festivals (though it actually was shot several years back), it’s the story of Moshe Yehuda, a Hasidic Brooklynite who wants to dance the Argentine tango.

Since Orthodox men are forbidden to even shake hands with women who aren’t their wives, doing the tango with another woman is clearly off-limits. Yet Moshe (Jos Laniado) has what he believes are extenuating circumstances.

Moshe desperately needs money to support his family and to help younger brother Rahamim (Claudio Laniado) pay for his upcoming wedding. And if he wins an upcoming tango competition, he’ll take home enough cash to solve both problems. Surely the rules can be bent just this once?

Shtisel is full of such collisions between faith and personal needs and wants, but its approach is a bit more nuanced than the movie’s. Well, more than a bit. It’s like the difference between dropping a cherry on a sundae and dousing it with high-fructose corn syrup. For starters, some of Tango Shalom’s characters are such over-the-top stereotypes that it’s impossible to see them as real people.

Oy vey, do they drop a lot of Yiddish words! And oy gevalt, are they emotional! Example: When Rahamim shows up at a family dinner after shaving off his Hasidic beard, his mother (Renee Taylor) doesn’t just give him the evil eye. She bawls at full volume, even though her son’s fiancée and prospective in-laws are present.

Moshe, fortunately, is portrayed in a more restrained manner, but even he has his cartoonish moments. When a non-Orthodox woman tries to shake his hand, he recoils in horror like he’s just seen a ghost. And when a female doctor wants to perform an examination involving his private parts, he flees her office without even bothering to cover his backside (which probably violates a few Hasidic rules on its own).

Moshe (Jos Laniado) is comforted by the one woman he’s allowed to touch, wife Raquel (Judi Beecher).

A true family affair, Tango Shalom was directed by Gabriel Bologna and was co-written by his late father, actor Joseph Bologna, and Jos and Claudio Laniado, who are brothers in real life as well as onscreen. In addition, Joseph Bologna was the husband of cast member Taylor and played Father Anthony, one of several non-Jewish clerics Moshe turns to for spiritual guidance after failing to receive helpful advice from his own rabbi. Finally, the film’s lively score was co-written by the director’s wife, Zizi Bologna, and Zoe Tiganouria.

Other cast members include Judi Beecher as Moshe’s long-suffering wife, Lainie Kazan as Rahamim’s prospective mother-in-law and a surprisingly good Karina Smirnoff (of Dancing With the Stars fame) as a widowed dance instructor who urges Moshe to enter the tango contest with her because she has financial needs of her own.   

Despite its excesses and occasional inaccuracies—for one, Orthodox people do not as a rule enter non-Jewish houses of worship, as Moshe does early on—it’s hard to dislike Tango Shalom entirely. It creates a quirky situation and works it out in an ingenious way while beating a drum for religious tolerance. But it does all this in such an exaggerated, farcical way that only fans of old-fashioned Borsht Belt humor are likely to find it irresistible.

Rating: 2½ stars (out of 5)

Tango Shalom can be viewed online through May 2 (in Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia only) as part of Pittsburgh’s JFilm Festival. Visit filmpittsburgh.org/films/tango-shalom.