Shuli Rand, internationally acclaimed screenwriter and actor who played the lead role in the award-winning film “Ushpizin”, is a rare combination of actor, singer, writer, and Torah scholar. He’s the type that seems to feel at home only in Breslev. His charisma and magnetic eyes have drawn thousands of people closer to their roots and to the teachings of Rebbe Nachman. “Ushpizin” was a teshuva catalyst that warmed millions of hearts.
Hashem gave Shuli the privilege of sanctifying His Holy Name on a mega-proportion scale. That’s no surprise when considering Shuli’s talents, inner strength, dedication, and commitment to the way of life he chose freely for himself. We were therefore especially eager to share Shuli with our readers.
BreslevIsrael: Shuli, tell us a bit about your background.
Shuli: I grew up in a national-religious family in Bnei Brak, pretty much a typical knit-kippa kid. I learned in Or Etzion, Rav Drukman’s Yeshiva, and then went into the army where I served in Sayeret Shaked, the Southern Command Special Forces.
BreslevIsrael: Remarkable! What was special about your army service?
Shuli: I was the stand-up comic of the unit. Anywhere I was, guys were laughing. I loved to put on shows for them. That’s what led me to acting school after the army.
BreslevIsrael: A religious boy that wanted to be an actor? Didn’t your parents object?
Shuli: My parents were the greatest. They always treated me with tons of love and patience. I know that my actor aspirations were a hard pill for my dad to swallow. But, he was never selfish. He treated me with the same loving warmth that he treated my religious siblings. In my eyes, he’s the symbol of a perfect parent.
BreslevIsrael: Where did you learn acting?
Shuli: In Nissan Ativ’s exclusive Studio of Acting, where he accepts only 14 students. I learned there for three years. The other students were top-caliber, such as Dan Toran and Shmulik Levy, both of whom became big successes.
BreslevIsrael: Then you started acting on stage?
Shuli: Yes – my career took off fast. At age 26, I won the lead role of Andzei Vida's famous play “The Dibbuk” in Tel Aviv’s prestigious “Habima” theater. The play was a hit that put me in the public eye. From there, I was offered acting jobs all over the place. I played “Hamlet” in Rina Yerushalmi’s theater, and I also appeared in the Camerie Theater.
BreslevIsrael: You raked in a load of awards for your acting, didn’t you?
Shuli: Starting from 1993, I was chosen several times as Israel’s Theater Actor of the Year.
BreslevIsrael: As an actor in Tel Aviv Bohemian society, did you completely break away from Judaism?
Shuli: Again, thanks to the open arms of my loving parents who always left me an open door home, never. I kept kosher, and didn’t eat chometz on Passover. Even in those dark years, I’d speak frequently to Hashem.
BreslevIsrael: You had money, fame, status – everything most folks dream of. What made you change your life and become a Baal Teshuva?
Shuli: Money and status yes, but a terrible inner feeling of emptiness. A chain of superficially mundane events came together like a puzzle that showed me a clear message from Above that my soul needs much more than what I was giving it. I started searching for Hashem and to put my head deep into Torah. To this day, the Torah is my joy – let me learn Gemara all day long, and I’m happy as a lark. Before long, I was observing Shabbat and putting on tefillin. Within a few short months, I became a completely observant Jew.
BreslevIsrael: How did you manage with a split personality of actor and observant Jew, especially in Israel’s anti-religious theater world?
Shuli: In the beginning, it was a novelty. I’ll never forget the waves I made when I was called on stage to accept the “Actor of the Year” award in 1995. I wore a Bucharian kippa. Soon, I couldn’t continue the schizophrenia. The theater had to go, because the Torah in my life was here to stay.
BreslevIsrael: What a sanctification of Hashem’s Name! How did you get close to Breslev?
Shuli: I was learning in a Kollel in Ramat Gan. Someone gave me a cassette tape of a Rabbi Shalom Arush's lesson entitled, “Love Thy Neighbor.” It was love at first hear. Two of my friends and I decided to go to Holon to hear Rav Arush in person. Then, it became love at first sight. He amazed me. When I introduced myself, he asked me what I do. I told him that I was an actor. Then he told me something even more amazing – that my tikkun, my soul correction, was to be an actor. Who has broad enough spiritual shoulders to say something like that?
Rav Shalom Arush, of course. Then and there, you became a student of his?
Shuli: You bet I did. The Rav told me to sanctify my profession. We founded a religious theater named “Ta’ir” and our first play was Rebbe Nachman’s tale of the “King’s Son and the Servant’s Son who were Switched.” That was an enormous professional challenge. Shortly afterward, The Israel Festival asked me to produce and perform the lead role in Shai Agnon’s classic play, “Yahrtzeit.” It was a smash hit that ran over 600 times. Everybody came to see it – religious and non-religious people. We won Israel’s version of an Oscar for “Yahrtzeit.”
BreslevIsrael: All this was done in a religious framework?
Shuli: It sure was. We had a religious theater company named “Shamayim”. Our producer was Yosef Nechama, who’s now general director of Breslev Communications.
BreslevIsrael: When was the idea of “Ushpizin” born?
Shuli: During the “Yahrtzeit” period, between 2000-2001. I wrote the screenplay then. The whole movie is the result of prayers – it’s probably history’s most prayed-for movie. My dream was to knock down the barriers of misunderstanding between the religious and the non-religious, and between the religious and Breslev. I wanted to reveal the hidden beauty.
BreslevIsrael: What in your opinion was the key to Ushpizin’s phenomenal success?
Shuli: Prayer, dedication, Rav Shalom Arush’s blessings and guidelines, and Yosef Nechama’s management. The logistics were tricky, to say the least. We needed separate rooms offstage for men and women. We needed glatt kosher food. Yosef Nechama arranged Torah study for the men between takes and babysitters for the children of those of our female extras that couldn’t leave them home. We had problems that no other movie set ever had, because everything was done in accordance with Torah and the laws of modesty.
BreslevIsrael: I know that Yosef Nechama made a tremendous contribution to the production of the film, but how was Rav Shalom Arush involved?
Shuli: The Rav read and critiqued the entire script. He visited the set almost every day. He solved problems and bridged arguments. Let me tell you about one small episode that threatened to destroy the whole film together with the cast and the crew: In one supersensitive scene, the two secular characters Yosef and Eliahu start grilling meat on a charcoal fire that they light in the middle of the Charedi neighborhood on Chol HaMoed. One of the zealot neighbors gets in their face and an argument breaks out that verges on a fist fight. Rav Shalom foresaw the potential explosiveness of the scene, and asked that I bring him to the set that day. Well, the scene was so charged with emotion that the argument continued way after the cameras stopped rolling. Thank G-d that Rav Shalom was there to calm everyone down. He's probably the only rabbi in Israel that everyone loves, charedi, religious, and secular alike. Making peace among everybody wasn’t easy – we had a staff of 110 people and a cast that included 800 extras.
Let me tell you something about Rav Shalom Arush – he’s a far-seeing tzaddik. This generation really needs him. He’s sensitive, but when it comes to quality, he makes no compromises as his books demonstrate.
BreslevIsrael: And thanks to Shuli Rand’s total commitment, talent, and connection with the tzaddik, the movie exceeded everyone wildest dreams of success. Now, what happens to Shuli Rand in the post-Ushpizin era?
Shuli: From one standpoint, I dream to totally immerse myself in Gemara. On the other hand, Hashem gave me certain tools that He wants me to utilize in sanctifying His name. Hashem is now leading me deeper into music. With the blessing of Bat Sheva, my wife of 22 years and mother of our 7 children, I’ve written and performed 11 songs that now comprise my new CD, “Good Points.” The songs are based on Rebbe Nachman’s teachings.
BreslevIsrael: We’ll be looking forward to its debut. Meanwhile, BreslevIsrael wants to thank you for your time and bless you with continued success always, with a special "Mazal Tov" on the occasion of your oldest son Daniel's wedding this week.
Photos from Shuli Rands new CD:
Listen here to “Ayeka” and “Nekuda Tova” from Shuli Rands new CD.