Ecumenical justice work
This week's portion: unleavened sacrifice

Hiding and Seeking


My friend Nate has an encyclopedic knowledge of movies, and his tastes are consistently interesting. Even on the rare occasions when I don't like one of his favorites, I always find his choices thought-provoking. So when he recommended that I see Hiding and Seeking: Faith and Tolerance After the Holocaust, I was inclined to listen. (Okay, so he gave it to me a while ago and I just tonight got around to watching it, but I knew it would be good when I finally watched it, and sure enough, it was.)

An Orthodox Jew and child of Polish Holocaust survivors, [Menachem] Daum has spent many years interviewing camp survivors about the impact of the Nazi "final solution" on Jewish religious faith. Daum worries his two sons' inwardly-focused version of Orthodoxy may be leading them into intolerance toward the world outside the confines of the yeshiva. He has similar misgivings over what he sees as growing insularity in Orthodox Judaism, both in Brooklyn, N.Y., where Daum grew up and reared his sons, and in Israel, where his sons have moved to immerse themselves in Talmudic studies.

So it's no laughing matter when Daum's wife, Rifka, comes home one night from a lecture with a tape of a rabbi openly preaching "hatred" of the non-Jewish world. ...[H]e flies to Israel, the audio tape in hand, to discuss the matter with his sons, who have adopted a strict Orthodox Judaism centered on study of the Torah and other sacred Jewish writings. Thus begins the difficult and revelatory journey documented by the Emmy® nominated filmmaking team of Menachem Daum and Oren Rudavsky, in "Hiding and Seeking."

(That's from the film synopsis at PBS.) What does Daum do when his sons admit that the teachings on the tape, while a little strident for their tastes, basically make sense to them? He takes his sons, and his wife, on a journey to Poland to find the "righteous Gentiles" responsible for their family's survival of the Shoah. And he brings a documentary film crew along for the ride.

"My chldren and grandchildren are growing up in a time when every religion is in danger of being hijacked by extremists," the film begins. That's Menachem speaking. I liked Menachem from the start. He says things like, "The goal of all religion is to bring us to a level where we can see the divinity that's all around us." He and I are on the same page.

Unsurprisingly, I had a harder time relating to his sons. I respect their immersion in Jewish text study, but their choices are not my choices, and their point of view on interreligious relationship is far from mine. "Many people would say that they view the non-Jewish world as -- I don't know if you'd call it a danger, but an influence, a secular influence, not an influence we want to be involved in, necessarily," says one son early in the film. Menachem counters, how do you know this kind of wall-building between peoples isn't what's holding up the Messiah?

"I'm glad my grandchildren are being raised in my father's traditions," Menachem says at one point. "My only concern is that they not inherit my father's beliefs about all outsiders." Those beliefs are starkly stated: Menachem's father, who endured Auschwitz, says that in his opinion the only trustworthy goy is a dead one. (Oy.) Even Menachem's father-in-law, who owes his survival to a Polish family, has mixed feelings about Menachem's intent to find that family. He wants to leave the past in the past.

Menachem doesn't apologize for his father's beliefs, but it's clear that he abhors the insularity they represent. And despite his father-in-law's ambivalence about the journey, he undertakes it anyway. As this review at points out, "Daum stands alone, stubbornly convinced that if he can find the actual source of some kindness, a historical evidence of Polish Christian chesed, then he can begin to pierce the wall of distrust and hatred that continues to exist between Christian and Jew."

I like the way the film chronicles Menachem's upbringing, and how he continues to navigate the tension between assimilation into American life and holding-fast to Jewish culture. I like the way it treats his sons, with whom he disagrees on this issue but who he clearly loves and admires nonetheless. I like the way the film's emotional high points are scored (one might say underscored) with the music of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach -- appropriate, since he was the teacher who helped Menachem come to understand that we are all children of the One God, Jews and non-Jews alike. (The original music in the score is by John Zorn. Carlebach and Zorn: hard to go wrong there.) Most of all, though, I like what the film, what Menachem, sets out to do: to show his sons that righteousness is not purely a Jewish quality, and that insularity isn't the only way to be Jews.

The trip to Poland doesn't work miracles. Menachem's sons are openly skeptical in the beginning, and though meeting the Polish family responsible for their family's survival is clearly a powerful moment for them, there's no proof that they are willing to regard these righteous Gentiles as the rule rather than the exception. Still, it's a remarkable documentary, even though -- maybe especially because -- the sons' internal growth is a little bit ambiguous, not cleaned-up for the screen. And who can know how the trip will impact Menachem's sons, and their children, as time goes by?

If the film interests you, as it does me, you might also enjoy some of the secondary sources available about it online. Hiding and Seeking was shown at the Yeshiva University film festival last fall, to great acclaim. The Yeshiva University Observer reviewed it, saying,

The film is meaningful and powerful not because in the end Daum convinces his sons that he is correct and they are wrong. The strength of the film lies in Daum’s tolerance and acceptance of everyone -- not only of the gentiles, but also of his sons. Ultimately, he treats all of the players in the film with absolute dignity and respect.

There's a good interview with Menachem here at; also really worth reading are the interviews on the PBS site, with Menachem and with Orthodox rabbi Irving "Yitz" Greenberg. Unsurprisingly, Rabbi Greenberg has smart things to say about the film:

[T]he film challenges us not to tolerance but to understand in an empathetic way the humanity of the other person and the power of their religion, to be able to hold contradictions together, to hold faith and doubt together, to hold a sense of group and yet a respect for the universal humanity I'm part of. Then it's possible to have a more humane set of relationships. Possible to develop pluralism where religions with strong commitments nevertheless make room for the goodness and the greatness of others...

Both of the interviews are also available as downloadable podcasts, available on the same page as the text.

In the end, what moves me about this movie is the personal bridges between people which are forged during the filming. How else does change happen, but between one individual and another? This is what continues to draw me to blogging, too. The value of genuine meeting.

Nate also recommended this duo's first film, A Life Apart, about Hasidism in America. Based on how good this film was, I think I'll be watching that one soon, too. Hiding and Seeking is thought-provoking and fascinating, and I admire both what Menachem set out to do and how he chronicled the journey wisely and well.

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