An Orthodox Jew Walks Into a Bar …

Holy Rollers tells the true story of what happens when religion meets drug smuggling

Despite the misleading title, Holy Rollers is not a film about an offbeat Protestant talking in tongues. It is, instead, a harrowing, fact-based footnote to the history of the illicit drug trade, involving a small group of Hasidic Jews who were recruited as mules to smuggle ecstasy from Europe into the United States in the late 1990s. For a period of six months between 1998 and 1999, officials estimate this small ring of young orthodox Jews imported more than one million ecstasy pills from Amsterdam to New York. Holy Rollers is about how they did it, and about one boy in particular who grew up so fast that his life changed irrevocably as a result.

Jesse Eisenberg is excellent as Sammy Gold, a nice Jewish boy from Brooklyn who works in his father’s fabric store on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, with an arranged marriage pending and plans to become a rabbi. Watching his family struggle to afford something as simple as a new stove while spending hours in Hebrew school and facing approaching manhood with no guarantee of economic security, Sammy is torn between the claustrophobic community of orthodox Judaism and the excitement of the secular world.

When a neighbor named Yosef is suddenly spotted sporting a new Rolex watch, Sammy’s envy is understandable. With tales of fast cars, beautiful girls and financial security, Yosef offers the curious Sammy $1,000 to import “medicine” from Europe. Stimulated by the idea of easy money, he naïvely decides to give the potentially lucrative job a try, so he and his best friend, Leon, fly to Amsterdam, spend one night in the heart of the red-light district and return with suitcases full of illegal ecstasy. It’s the faster road to luxury than Sammy has ever dreamed.

Suspecting something dangerous and immoral about their little caper, Leon is so traumatized by the experience that he retires after one job, but Sammy is hooked by the lure of prosperity. In Amsterdam, this corrupted innocent would still rather visit the Anne Frank house, but there’s no time. Instead, he gets his first vision-blurring hit of ecstasy from a party girl named Rachel (played by an Ellen Barkin look-alike named Ari Graynor, who has lit up many a Broadway stage) and an eye-opening tour of Amsterdam’s sex clubs, as well as of a serious Ethiopian drug operation, surrounded by security guards with machine guns, run by a gang of Israeli businessmen; it produces 100,000 pills an hour.

Learning fast on the job, Sammy becomes not only a trusty smuggler but a crafty salesman, too, moving the stuff on the streets of Brooklyn for a hefty profit—a valuable part of a transatlantic courier service that slips effortlessly in and out of J.F.K. undetected. Who could look less suspicious passing through customs than an orthodox Jew dressed in black and wearing a porkpie hat and long curls? Of course, it’s not long before Sammy’s double life goes haywire; his family disowns him; and he cuts off his Hasidic curls and graduates to the role of drafting new mules, dispensing the same sage advice he was taught: “Relax, have a good time, mind your business and act Jewish.”

Part of the film’s ability to hold attention must be credited to the guileless sincerity of Eisenberg’s performance. The direction by Kevin Asch and the sometimes clumsy script by Antonio Macia have their moments, but the film has obvious shortcomings. Holy Rollers is nicely staged, though not always dramatically engaging, and so lacking in structure that whole sections of the story seem to have ended up on the cutting-room floor. Why did Leon realize right away the bounty was something more threatening and lethal than “medicine for rich people,” but Sammy’s gullibility plunged him further in the direction of disaster?

It’s not easy to sympathize with a kid who knows the difference between right and wrong but still greedily and stubbornly distances himself from everything he’s been taught with full knowledge of the consequences. Young Eisenberg and a fine cast give Holy Rollers the ballast it otherwise lacks, but we’ve been down this road so often that there are times when I could only wonder why I was watching it at all.

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