Three Jewish styles of Contemporary Jewish identity
In “Fringes” we meet the founders and participants of the secular yeshivah in Jerusalem, Jewish farmers in rural Virginia and a Bratslav like rabbi and his wife in Montreal (who plan to make aliyah to Israel). We get to know and like the people in the film, all of whom represented non-mainstream positive attempts at creating a meaningful, contemporary, religious or spiritual Jewish identity.
Pablo Elliott who is a Jewish organic farmer who lives in rural Virginia realizes that sometimes his family’s Judaism looks as if “we’re making it up as we go along.” He further says that they do but that celebrations of Shabbat and community are full of sincerity and devotion. What he and his family are doing he explains is creating a live and that this has always gone on in Judaism. People like Pablo and his wife, and the others featured in the film, are living full, joyous and meaningful Jewish lives yet they are different from what many of us know what being Jewish is all about.
Director Paula Weiman-Kelman says that her aim with this film was to show real life and not a reality television version of it. She gives us, in the beginning of the film, an image of three strands of challah being braided into one bread and this, we can say, is the theme of the film—three stories coming together to make a larger whole with each story having its own sweetness, desires and ideas of holiness.
The different 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 that all share one building. The people that we meet here are not involved with joining established institutions but making their own and expanding the “sukkat shalom” of the Jewish religion. While there are no ready answers about what they are doing and how they are doing it, there are lots of questions. These people have chosen to live Jewish lives and this choice provides a beautiful backdrop for sustaining a religion that keeps up with the modern age. The choices that they make are interesting and unexpected and we return here to the eternal question of not what is a Jew rather how some Jews live serious Jewish lives. The usual markers of secular/religious or Reform/Conservative/Orthodox etc. are not relevant here.
We meet Esther Mandelbaum who was born in the former Soviet Union and who came to the U.S. when she was 10-years-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 Soviet Union, as an immigrant in America, and now as 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 couple whose Judaism infuses everything they do. Not only are they 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 they share what they reap with local people who buy shares, as part of Community Sponsored Agriculture cooperative. Some viewers might find it strange that after lighting Shabbat candles, Mandelbaum then lights the stove. Nonetheless, her passion for observance is seen in this simple act.
The young Israelis who organize the Secular Yeshiva reflect young people today who are at the point where they are wondering what they want out of life, and want to figure out how to connect the spiritual moments with their own traditions. Even as they declare themselves secular, they say God is part of their lives. 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 who is 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.”
One of the special treats of the film is that 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 has returned to Judaism and covers her hair. She wants a kind of life that is different from the way she grew up and this is what she is creating in her own home. Her husband, the rabbi, is a follower of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav and says that if he cannot find his own community, he creates one. As the Hunderts build their lives in Montreal, Israel is a pull and eventually they make plans to close the shul and make aliyah.
I feel fairly sure that if we met any of these three groups outside the lens of the film, we would be astonished at how they seemingly cope so well seesawing between tradition and a much wider world perspective on sex, lettuce and rock and roll. We will probably wonder how Leibish with his black beard, payot and ultra-Orthodox garb can run a music club with men and women mingling freely? How do Pablo and Esther live a satisfying traditional Jewish life so many miles from the nearest shul, and when they don’t sell their produce on Shabbat (the main market day for local organic farms)? What is a secular yeshiva whose study hall is populated with stacks of thick Talmuds were men and women study holy writings together? The film shows us the people here as part of the mosaic of modern Jewish life and that there are vibrant Jewish communities where pluralism and tolerance are the norm.