If there is a more unlikely purveyor of Kabbalah than Steven Bram it’s hard to imagine who it might be. Bram, the producer, co-director, narrator and protagonist of the new film “Kabbalah Me,” which opens on Aug. 22, is a producer of sports films, a Jets and Rangers fan and a secular Jew who was raised in the classical Reform tradition. But when he approached his 50th birthday, he began to wonder about “the spiritual secrets of the universe.” He asked himself, “What am I doing here?” and realized that he didn’t have an answer.
The film follows his search through the mystical disciplines of Judaism, an exploration of several years’ duration (the film is unclear on how many) as he begins to examine the Jewish identity that he’d previously taken for granted. Despite his relative candor, it isn’t entirely clear why Bram was drawn first to Kabbalah of all the strands of Jewish belief and practice. The unstated subtext of much of the film, though, is that the spiritual search of most Americans of his generation (and, in all honesty, my own as well) begins in a rather superficial self-help quandary. As Rabbi Stuart Schiff of the Aish Center notes, studying Kabbalah without an understanding of the most basic Jewish practices and beliefs is “like [a diner] rushing to dessert first.”
To his credit, Bram seems to recognize that aspect of his own journey. When he meets a group of his Orthodox cousins for Sukkot in Brooklyn, he is all at sea, and a rabbi and two of his yeshiva-student cousins tell him not to start his Jewish education with Kabbalah. But he persists, gradually taking on the greater yoke of the mitzvot, becoming shomer Shabbat and eating kosher.
Also to his credit, Bram (and co-director Judah Lazarus) gives the Kabbalah Centre — the controversial center founded in Los Angeles by Rabbi Philip Berg — a brief look-in, bookended appropriately by Rabbi Adam Jacobs, also of Aish, noting that one cannot “learn this out of context.” The best argument against the deracinated brand of feel-good spirituality purveyed by the Centre is the interviews with two former members whose bubbly, air-headed interpretations of what they think Kabbalah is suggest just how utterly superficial their trip has been.
It would be easy for Bram to go down that same road. He certainly comes across as someone who could be an easy mark for the sort of enlightenment that American instant-spirituality all too frequently offers, and the “gee-whiz,” clichéd tone of some of his narration often belies the thoughtfulness to which the film aspires.
But the gradual awakening Bram experiences over the course of the film, and his final realization that the journey is unending, make the film more satisfying than its initial tone, a mix of the awestruck and the “aw, shucks,” portends.
Ultimately the failings of “Kabbalah Me” are sort of built into its subject matter. Rabbi Adam Sinay of the Israel-based Hasulam community says, “Material acts stimulate spirituality and activate it,” and the film is on firmest ground when its focus is on what only visual cues can convey. The moment when Bram confesses at the Kotel that “this is the first time I’ve really prayed,” tears streaming down his face, is a compelling realization of his search. When the filmmakers — and the many rabbis and spiritual counselors who appear on-camera — try to put the experience into words, they inevitably fail.
No film could totally capture Bram’s internal experience. Consequently, it might have been more useful to make a less personal film of the material. But the progression “Kabbalah Me” depicts is often fascinating, frequently moving and certainly worthy of a viewing.
“Kabbalah Me,” co-directed by Steven Bram and Judah Lazarus, opens Friday, Aug. 22 at the Quad Cinema (34 W. 13th St.). Bram will be present to take questions at several screenings over the weekend and after. For information, call (212) 255-2243 or go to http://www.quadcinema.com.