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Israel and Poland are, arguably, the two most emotionally fraught countries for contemporary Jews. The former is, doctrinally at least, the promised land, and the latter was, in all too recent memory, a killing field. Two new movies depict visits to those nations, where one filmmaker finds a bit of hope and another detects none at all. In these accounts, the land that engenders some confidence for the future is not Israel.
Either singly or collectively, Hiding and Seeking: Faith and Tolerance After the Holocaust and James’ Journey to Jerusalem don’t presume to offer definitive analyses of the countries they consider. The two films—an upbeat documentary and an acrid social comedy, respectively—focus on only a few characters, not entire societies. Still, both have broader implications.
Menachem Daum and Oren Rudavsky, who directed Hiding and Seeking, previously made the informative if overly cautious A Life Apart: Hasidism in America. That film was set primarily in Brooklyn but gazed back at Hasidism’s Polish origins. This time, the pair actually travel to Poland, but the catalyst is two people who would just as soon never look beyond Brooklyn and Israel: Daum’s sons, Tzvi Dovid and Akiva, both zealous Talmudic scholars. They distrust all gentiles—especially the Poles. This despite the fact that their mother, Rifka Daum, would never have been born if her father hadn’t been hidden from the Nazis by Polish farmers who risked their own lives by sheltering Jews.
Hiding and Seeking opens with a digest of family history (both Menachem and Rifka Daum are the children of Holocaust survivors) and then makes its first foray to Poland, with Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, who toured the country in 1989 and was greeted enthusiastically by mostly Catholic crowds. Daum is inspired by Carlebach’s message of universal brotherhood, but Tzvi Dovid and Akiva are not. Years later, they reluctantly follow their parents to Poland, initially contemptuous of Daum’s quest for overgrown gravestones and the sites of demolished synagogues. Yet they are profoundly moved when they find the site of the barn where their grandfather and his two brothers narrowly escaped being discovered by German soldiers—and a little embarrassed to be asked by the granddaughter of the couple that hid the brothers why none of them ever contacted her family after the war ended.
The Daums offer some belated gestures, establishing a scholarship fund for the Polish family and getting Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust museum, to recognize the Polish couple as Righteous Among the Nations. Yet at the end of their journey, Tzvi Dovid and Akiva haven’t changed their fundamental outlook. Rather than demonstrating that face-to-face communication dispels prejudice, Hiding and Seeking shows how difficult it is to uproot deeply held beliefs.
Daum, who directs the story both on- and offscreen, is clearly bewildered by this. After all, the world has changed dramatically since the ’40s, as he proves casually by connecting his father-in-law via mobile phone to the Polish woman who brought him food every day for 28 months during the war. While Rudavsky, who also shot the film, stays behind the camera, Daum functions as both the film’s master of ceremonies and its moral center. Like John Zorn’s klezmer-lite score, he’s unmistakably Jewish but not doctrinaire. A warm, outgoing advocate of tolerance and understanding, Daum deserves an audience more open-minded than his own sons.
James’ Journey to Jerusalem chronicles another pilgrimage: a South African Christian’s to Israel, where he hopes to visit the holy city of Jerusalem. But this grimy-souled satire dispenses with religion as abruptly as the airport immigration agents who put James (Siyabonga Melongisi Shibe) behind bars. The eager, wide-eyed Zulu is thrilled to be in the land of the Bible and to be meeting other People of the Book. To the bored, cynical Israelis who greet him, however, dreadlocked James is just another would-be illegal worker, seeking the sort of wages paid in the industrialized world. His only salvation is not faith but Shimi (Salim Daw), an Israeli specialist in under-the-table labor who bribes James out of the holding cell.
For director and co-writer Ra’anan Alexandrowicz, it seems, Israel’s forgotten promise is not spiritual but communitarian. The Palestine colonized by East European Jews who were socialists or communists as much as Zionists is, in his depiction, a humanist paradise lost, subverted not by dogma but by avarice. Enthusiastic, innocent, and English-speaking, James is just the sort of detainee likely to find himself essentially imprisoned in Shimi’s back-street Tel Aviv dormitory, working six days a week at odd jobs for pay that no Israeli would accept.
Because James is industrious and, initially, guileless, Shimi soon assigns him the most difficult job on his list: gardening for, and otherwise looking after, Shimi’s cantankerous father, Sallah (Arie Elias). The two clash at first but soon grow into a sort of friendship. (One thing that unites them is their attitude toward Shimi, although Sallah hates the black-market entrepreneur more than James ever could.) It’s Sallah who teaches James the movie’s sacred text: “Don’t be a frayer”—that is, a sucker. Inspired by this motto, James puts aside his trusting nature and remakes himself in Shimi’s image. Ultimately, he pays Shimi the greatest compliment—and most damaging insult: becoming his competitor.
Like Daum and Rudavsky, Alexandrowicz has a background in documentary. James’ Journey to Jerusalem is his first fictional feature, and its offhand feel and digital-video images intentionally suggest cinéma vérité. But the script, co-written by Sami Duenias, is carefully structured, a classic tale of an education in corruption complete with a telling subplot: James joins a mostly African Christian congregation, accepted at first simply for his faith and ardor. As James emerges as a successful businessman, however, his role in the church changes. The minister leans on him for money to buy choir robes and other holy incidentals, and James risks being a frayer for Jesus.
James’ Journey to Jerusalem is a harsh treatment of Israeli graft and greed—and, inevitably, a simplistic one. Characters like Shimi can be found anywhere there’s an underclass to exploit, of course, and the tale’s mockery is overly broad, especially during James and Shimi’s final confrontation. Yet the film works, mostly because of Shibe’s shrewd, engaging performance and the intensity of Alexandrowicz’s indictment. You can dismiss the details of his portrayal of rich, rudderless Israel, but not the passion with which it’s delivered. CP