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In a delightful short film, a Hasidic bookbinder leads a secret online existence

Read this article in Yiddish.

Right from the beginning, “The Binding of Itzik”, a new short film playing in the online Yonkers Film Festival and winner of Best Narrative Short Film at the Berlin Underground Film Festival, treads into uncharted territory.

As innocuous piano music plays in the background, the film opens with a computer screen, where an unknown user is searching online for bookbinding materials. The first hits, predictably, are Plastic Binding Spines and Binding Machines. Then, a Craigslist ad for “binding lessons for submissive women” appears. The user pauses — will he click on it? — but then he quickly moves on to the next entry: “Cast Iron Industrial Stapler.”

In this unique 17-minute film by Anika Benkov, an unmarried Hasidic bookbinder played by Eli Rosen (who portrayed a rabbi in the Netflix miniseries “Unorthodox”), lives with his sister Rukhel’s family and doesn’t object when Rukhel (played by Malki Goldman) tries to set him up with single women in their community, but it soon becomes clear that Itzik’s interests lie elsewhere. He eventually does reply to the Craigslist ad, keeping his male identity a secret, and an unexpectedly passionate correspondence ensues between Itzik and the poster of the ad, a man who is seeking a submissive woman for an online sado-masochistic relationship. The “dominator”, who calls himself “MeatMaster500” has no idea that his virtual sex partner is a man; in fact, he seems to think he’s met the submissive woman of his dreams.

What’s masterful, and delightfully funny, about this film, is not only how Benkov establishes this contemporary ploy of mistaken and deceptive identities, but also how she contrasts Itzik’s supposedly serene conservative lifestyle and the wildly uninhibited, intense relationship that the two “lovers” are engaged in online. In fact, when MeatMaster500 finally asks his fantasy partner what “her” name is, Itzik replies: “Serena” – a play on the word “serene”. Benkov seems to be telling us that the calm surface that Itzik presents to the world is in itself deceptive, as it needs to be if he wishes to remain a “respectable” member of his community.

Rosen reveals himself to be a sensitive dramatic actor and a marvelously understated straight man in this unexpected comedy about a man confronting forbidden sexual desires.

The title of the film refers to the biblical narrative in which God tells Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac, on the altar as a test of Abraham’s commitment to his Creator. Just as Abraham is about to slaughter Isaac, God sends an angel to stop him, saying, “Now I know you fear God” and Abraham sacrifices a ram instead.

Although Talmudic sages argued that Abraham understood that God never intended him to sacrifice his son, Benkov’s play on words here forces us to link the biblical image of Isaac being bound on the altar with the sexual images undoubtedly flashing through Itzik’s mind as he engages in online sexual role play.

The obvious irreverence in equating the biblical story with Itzik’s fantasies is heightened by the fact that throughout the correspondence, Itzik never sees his “master,” in the same way that a person who prays to God never gets to see Him. The “dominator” speaks in a surprisingly velvety, even-tempered, baritone, not unlike God’s voice in Cecil B. De Mille’s The Ten Commandments.

Although MeatMaster500 plays his dominating role in this SM fantasy menacingly, he also reveals a surprisingly gentle side, as is the case in the scene when he asks Itzik why he has stopped replying to his messages.

“Dear Serena, did I say something wrong? ” MeatMaster500 asks. “I’m sorry if I did. I didn’t mean to offend you.”

The ultimate decision by the virtual lovers to meet in person heightens the suspense in the film, and provides an ending that is both touching and appropriate.

To watch the film online, click here.

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