Pablo Elliott, a Jewish organic famer who lives in rural Virginia, admits that sometimes his family’s Judaism looks as if “we’re making it up as we go along.” True, they improvise. But their celebrations of Shabbat and community are full of sincerity and devotion. He explains, “We are inventing, creating a life. Every generation does this.”
This scene, from Paula Weiman-Kelman’s provocative new film, “Fringes: New Adventures in Jewish Living” — which debuted in New York City this week — might be a useful postscript to the recently released Pew survey. Individuals like Pablo and his wife, and the others featured in the film, are living full, joyous and meaningful Jewish lives that might go unnoticed by polltakers.
“I’m trying to do something that’s real life and not reality TV,” the writer and director says, while visiting New York City from her home in Jerusalem. While filming, she moved into the subjects’ homes, sharing meals, babysitting their children, experiencing the ordinariness of their lives and the uplifting moments, humor too. There’s a quality of intimacy, and it seems clear that these subjects are comfortable talking to Weiman-Kelman.
Early on in the film, there’s an image of the three strands of a challah being braided, like fringes of a tallit. The film too has three strands, that is, three stories that are loosely tied together; each true story has sweetness, yearning, a touch of holiness, and a lot of work sustaining it and moving it forward.
Segments of the film are framed by Jewish texts, usually brief quotes from traditional sources (plus some non-traditional sources), and the camera shifts between the goings on of two couples and a trio of friends working to build the Secular Yeshiva in Jerusalem. In addition to Pablo and his wife Esther, the other couple — Rabbi Leibush and Dena Hundert — run Montreal’s Ghetto Shul, a cultural center, café and synagogue, all in one building. All of these people are not so much involved with joining institutions, but crafting their own, and in doing so, expanding the communal tent. In these lives, there are more questions than answers.
In an interview, producer Jonathan Lopatin mentions that the title “The Choosing People” was considered, as these people all choose to live Jewish lives, at a moment in time when many fellow Jews make very different choices.
“Here are people making choices in interesting and unexpected ways,” he says.
The film is an open-ended conversation about Jewish identity — not who is a Jew, but how some Jews live serious Jewish lives. The usual markers of secular/religious or Reform/Conservative/Orthodox are not relevant here.
Esther Mandelbaum was born in the former Soviet Union and came to the U.S. as a 10-year-old. She doesn’t remember the exact moment when she was told she was a Jew, but she always felt proud. For her, life was always on the fringes, whether she was a Jew in the FSU, an immigrant in America, and now, a Jewish farmer in Virginia. Her husband Pablo converted to Judaism before they got married, and she, whose Jewishness comes from her father, also formally converted. They’re an inspiring pair, on this path together. Their Judaism infuses everything they do.
Very involved in their local (but not close-by) Jewish community, they are also connected to the larger Jewish food movement and the national organization, Hazon. They cook Shabbat meals with the produce they grow on Stony Lonesome Organic Farm, and share their harvest with local people who buy shares, as part of a CSA (Community Sponsored Agriculture) cooperative. Some viewers might be startled when she lights Shabbat candles and then lights the stove, and others might not notice. But her passion for observance comes through.
The young Israelis who organize the Secular Yeshiva have in mind young people like themselves who are at the point in life where they are wondering what they want out of life, and want to figure out how to connect the spiritual moments of their travels through places like India and South America with their own traditions. Even as they declare themselves secular, they say God is part of their lives. A young woman doesn’t realize that she’s almost quoting biblical text when she speaks of the awesome beauty she encountered; another says that he has experienced deep wonder, and is not going to be a Buddhist. They study together in the style of a traditional yeshiva, adding a modern and secular twist. Viewers see them doing the physical work of building, painting, filling bookcases, learning, dancing and singing.
Nir Amit, one of the founders, says “Human beings are more complex than simply Jewish or secular or religious. It’s not either or; it’s also this and this. Sometimes I’m all of them, even if it’s contradictory.”
Each story features music – Pablo is a musician; the yeshiva students are joined by Israeli singer Berry Sakharof, and Rabbi Leibush Hundert is a jazz saxophonist. Dena Hundert, who covers her hair, is a ba’alat teshuvah with young children, choosing a life different from her own childhood, “like a different religion, what I’m trying to create in my home.”
Rabbi Hundert, who is a follower of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, says, “If I can’t find my community, I have to create it.” In the Hunderts’ story, as in the others too, viewers see up close the financial strains of their efforts. Even as they build their lives in Montreal, Israel is a pull and eventually they make plans to close the shul and make aliyah..
The texts that fill the screen as bookmarks between segments are mostly drawn from the Talmud and traditional sources, like “Without bread, there is no Torah” (Pirkei Avot). The final piece begins with the only non-Jewish source, William James: “One should always talk of philosophy with a smile.”
Weiman-Kelman loves the mixture of texts and film. She notes that people’s brains work in different ways when reading words or watching something.
“We’re trying to demonstrate in a non-pedantic way, the notion of how we choose to live our lives as being related to texts, an embodiment of texts,” Lopatin says. “That’s something that a small part of the community might take for granted, others might dwell on that and be fascinated. And a large part would have no idea what I’m talking about.”
Weiman-Kelman, who is married to Rabbi Levi Kelman of Kehilat Kol Haneshama in Jerusalem, and Lopatin worked together on another film, “Eyes Wide Open,” about the experience of American Jews visiting Israel.
Lopatin, formerly a partner at Goldman Sachs, studied at The Jewish Theological Seminary for nine years and received a Master’s in Talmud, and now serves on the board of JTS and Mechon Hadar (he is president), where he studies several mornings a week.
“I want people to see this movie and ask the following question, Is it one thing that these people are all pursuing, that they’re all centering their lives around and, if so, what does it have to do with me? That’s the conversation I want to provoke in people’s hearts and minds,” he says.
“Fringes” will be shown on Saturday, Nov. 16 at Congregation B’nai Jeshurun (257 W. 88th St., Manhattan) at 6:15 p.m., followed by a talk with Paula Weiman-Kelman and Jonathan Lopatin. $8 for members, $13 for non-members. Registration is required, bj.org.