After training a sensitive lens on Hasidism, Menachem Daum rotated the camera, exposing his Orthodox sons to the humanity of others
Menachem Daum was working in geriatric research when his parents, Holocaust survivors from Poland, fell ill. He coped by making his first film. In Care Of was nominated for an Emmy, and Daum found a new career. With co-director Oren Rudavsky, Daum made A Life Apart: Hasidism in America. Their second collaboration, Hiding and Seeking: Faith and Tolerance After the Holocaust, chronicles an encounter between the Daums and the family who hid his father-in-law on their farm for more than two years.
How did Hiding and Seeking come about?
We started out making a totally different film about survivors, my parents and their cohorts, and how come some of them kept faith after the Holocaust. Every one of them, I ask, “You went through every conceivable horror. And yet you still say, ‘God is just in all His actions and merciful in all His ways.’ How?”
Well, for years I was looking. If I could just find that one survivor who could explain it to me and make sense of it all…but I realized there is no answer. That was a kind of epiphany. If we cannot defend our core beliefs against such obvious questions, how can I fault anybody for not believing the way I do? It knocked down one of the barriers that had separated me from outsiders.
How did those barriers go up in the first place?
We had just arrived in America. I was going to public school in Schenectady. My new friends are telling me this wonderful custom: You take a sheet, cut out holes, and go around with a big shopping bag and people give you nosh. It sounded good. My father came home when I was in the middle of cutting up the sheet, and he asked me what am I doing. I tell him, I’m going out with my friends, it’s Halloween and he tells me, “Bist a yiddish kind“—you’re a Jewish child, and this is not an activity for Jewish children.
I didn’t know really what it meant to be Jewish; it was the first time I realized it limited what I could do. And I remember sitting on the stoop, crying. I saw my friends with their bags, having this great time. A few weeks after that, my father gave up a subsidy from HIAS that we are getting as new immigrants. We moved to Bed-Stuy.
And that was a different environment?
Survivors who had just gotten here, they started building these modest schools named after the towns that were destroyed in the Holocaust. Most of my teachers were survivors, most of my classmates were children of survivors. And yet the Holocaust was never discussed at all. At all. It was like the third rail, you know: You touch it, you die. It couldn’t be absorbed into the usual theological explanations of life.
In his New York Times review, Dave Kehr compared your approach to secular humanism.
The term is simplistic. It implies that your values come from sources totally unconnected to your religious values, and I don’t think that would be accurate. On the other hand, I can’t say that my humanistic values are totally from the religious upbringing I received.
Brooklyn College was really my first contact with the outside world. Until that time, I had been totally surrounded by this cocoon. This was in the Vietnam era, and people were trying to fight for peace, human rights, profound things. And when I saw these people, whether I agreed or didn’t agree with them, I sensed that they were trying to improve the world in their own way. It opened up my eyes to the possibility of goodness in those in whom I had been led to believe goodness wasn’t possible.
What made you want to share this realization with your children, now that they’re adults?
My sons, as much as they’ve been raised by me, they’ve also been raised in the insular yeshiva world. We have texts that soar to beauty and social justice and embracing compassion for all humanity, but there are also teachings that go in a different direction. The one phrase that my father says in the film, “Tov sheb’goyim harog,” is a pretty horrible statement: Even the best goyim deserve to be killed.
Filmmaker Menachem Daum with his sons, Tzvi Dovid and Akiva
I understand we’ve been traumatized for so many thousands of years and persecuted. But I was reading Rabbi Kook recently and he writes that every derogatory depiction of other religions and other people in our own religion is a mountain that we now have to climb over if we’re serious about reaching God. Which is profound; he’s acknowledging we have such teachings but we can’t accept them uncritically. We have to struggle with them.
So the film is about this struggle?
Our previous film, A Life Apart, was an attempt to humanize haredim to the outside world. This film, Hiding and Seeking, is an attempt to humanize the outside world to haredim. I cut people slack if they had a sense of “We’re better than them.” That seemed harmless, a little chauvinistic. But after 9/11, I realized that this is dangerous and can’t be tolerated.
In theory, the Talmud mentions the righteous of the nations. But unless you actually meet someone, it’s just an abstraction. I didn’t know what we were going to find in Poland. I was hoping we would find somebody from that family that hid my father-in-law, but we were really, in a way, led on this trip to fulfill some unfinished business. I’m not telling my sons to naively drop their defenses and assume all people are good. But we can’t keep living in the past and allow hatred of the past to enslave us.
The last quote from Akiva is ambiguous and troubling.
My son was saying, “Okay, you showed me there’s a few good people in the world, there’s a few exceptions. But there’s a lot of not-good people, and most of them if they’re given an opportunity to do it again would.” Oren and I had this disagreement whether to include this, or just let people think that everything was resolved. A note of reality spills cold water in people’s faces.
That’s why I wonder if you feel that you accomplished your mission.
I don’t think my son would have acknowledged there’s a good few people before. He would have said, “All goyim, all Poles are evil.” We made a dent in his armor, so to speak.
It’s a difficult road. I want my sons to raise their children as proud of their heritage, their religion, proud of who they are, and almost being uncompromising. If they went to public school, watched the same movies, listened to the same music, there would be less of a barrier, but that would basically bring an end to this way of life that I value. So remain true to your traditions, but incorporate in that a sense of connectedness to the rest of mankind. I’m asking them to do a little tightrope-walking.
The Milken Archive is trying to capture American Jewish music, but the first CDs raise doubts as to whether it can properly be called archival