“Praying with Lior”
It is not very often that a movie is widely spoken about before it is seen by the general public. “Praying with Lior” (First Run Features) has been garnering praise for quite awhile now and if I had not heard about it around two months ago, I probably would not be aware as to what a powerful film it is. I received an email from Rabbi Eugene Levy of Temple Bnai Israel in Little Rock, Arkansas asking me if I had heard of the film. I had not but the very next day I got a pres release from Kelly Hargraves at First Run Films telling me that they had acquired the release rights. By this time I was really curious so I wrote Kelly and asked her to send me a screener. I received no reply so I waited a couple of weeks and wrote again. On January 1, 2008, Kelly wrote to me to tell me that the film was to be released for theatrical showings and the DVD release was some time in the future. She wanted to know if I had places to put my review and of course I did and the film was on its way to me. I am proud to say that all of the advance hype is honest and the movie is quite an experience, one that no one should miss. “Variety” hailed the film as “crowd pleasing…so interesting…so intimate and involving”. It is also engrossing,” wrenching and tender”.
“Praying with Lior” is a documentary that introduces Lior Leibling or as he is also called “the little rebbe”. Lior has Down syndrome and he has spent his whole life praying. Many feel he is a spiritual genius while others feel that he is a “vessel that contains everyone’s unfilled wishes and expectations”. Lior’s mother died when he was only six but her words still hover over him. The dichotomy we see here is that everyone who knows Lior knows that he is close to G-d but Lior is also a burden, an embarrassment, a best friend and an inspiration. Each of his family members has an opinion of him. When Lior begins to get close to Bar Mitzvah age, we hear from various people who provide us with some insight about him. It is at this point that the movie presents some difficult questions such as who really talks to G-d and what is a disability. The aim of the movie is to look at and change the way people with disabilities are regarded and received by communities of faith.
The society in which we live adores perfection. Individuals with cognitive and physical disabilities are dismissed and discriminated against almost everywhere. The faith communities should be the places where they should be most welcomed and from where the most comfort should be derived but they do not necessarily accept them with open arms. The film attempts to bring about change in the way the individual is valued by society and the story of Lior suits that purpose well because it shows that every person can make some kind of contribution regardless of how special he is. Lior shows us that his presence enhances everyone else’s religious experience and as wonderful as Lior’s Bar Mitzvah was for him, it was also wonderful for everyone else.
Everyone and every community has the right to grow and connect spiritually as well as to reach the highest level of potential and this will happen when faith communities are open to all individuals. The impact of Lior’s spirituality shows just this. “Praying with Lior” looks deeply at faith in the real world omitting the concepts of proselytization and condecesension. Lior, who is a rabbi’s son, is considered to be a spiritual genius, His prayer is powerful and he professes a close connection with G-d.
Ilana Trachtman, the director of this amazing film manages to capture the family dynamic of Lior’s family where he is not the only intriguing person. Lior’s mother, like his father was a rabbi but she died of cancer when Lior was 6. His father remarried and presented to Lior and his three siblings a new mother who was dedicated to the children. Lior’s older sister is in college, his brother, Yoni, who is in high school says he is Lior’s best friend. The youngest child, Ben, does not appear. Lior is very special, He may have Down syndrome but he functions at an exceptional level and seems very intelligent for his age. But he is also stubborn and has a speech defect. What really makes him special is his love “to daven”, to pray. He seems to feel G-d all around himself but will not answer questions about it. His brother states, “I don’t know if there is a G-d, but if there is, Lior is closer to Him than anyone I know”.
We witness Lior as he makes preparations for his Bar Mitzvah. Three hundred people attend the ceremony and Lior really gives them something to see. His name means “my light” and to those who know and love him, that is just what Lior is. It seems as if Lior has prepared for this day during all of his thirteen years. His dad, Mordechai, noticed that when Lior was only three that he had a special talent for prayer. He wanted every day to be Shabbat because he loved the Sabbath so much. His parents were surprised at their son’s spirituality.
Lior has Down syndrome but it is not what defines him. It is his special sense of faith that makes Lior so special. His life is the sum of the values of heart and soul in a culture where “accomplishments of the mind are usually valued above all else”.
We have a film which was inspired by the prayers of a disabled child and how his impact on the community, in turn, inspired a campaign for social justice. Lior is not a fully integrated member of his religious community but, rather, he is celebrated as a spiritual genius because of the way he prays.” Praying with Lior” is a unique experience—it breaks and warms the heart at the same time. In the film, Lior creates an answer to the wish of his late mother by making a place for himself in his community and thereby becomes an example for all of us. The movie challenges our beliefs about who speaks to G-d while it illuminates Lior’s beautiful spirituality, his place in the community and his family’s journey toward healing. What a beautiful and powerful film!