Director/Screenwriter: David Volach
By Marilyn Ferdinand
“You know what you know about life from your encounter with it, but you react to life while building it.” (David Volach)
David Volach’s much-honored debut film helps us encounter a world that is a self-protected mystery to many of us—that of the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Jews. As one of 19 children raised in a Haredi family in Jerusalem, Volach understand this world well. My Father, My Lord tells of one week in the lives of one such family—the elderly Rabbi Abraham Eidelmann (Assi Dayan), his much-younger wife Esther (Sharon Hacohen), and their 7-year-old son Menahen (Ilan Griff). In a well-honed Jewish method of teaching, Volach constructs his tale as a parable—actually, a sort of counter-parable to the biblical tale of the binding of Isaac.
In this tale, Rabbi Eidelmann is very much like his biblical namesake, Abraham. He is the extremely devout spiritual leader of a Haredi congregation in Jerusalem. We first meet the so-far nameless rabbi doing what rabbis usually do—studying scripture closely at a desk and making notes. We view him at lower than eye level through a space between the stacks of books piled around him. He is shaky, having trouble keeping to his task. Eventually, he stops, throws his head back, and starts to weep. We then see him going through the doors of his synagogue. The men of the congregation, engaged in animated conversations, pause and move to let him pass. The rabbi climbs the few stairs to the altar and leans wearily at the podium. He looks over at an empty seat with a brass nameplate. The subtitle translates it as “Menahen Eidelmann.” We assume he is weeping for this missing congregant, who must have died. A birds-eye shot passes over the congregation, with its table set with food for after the service.
In the next scene we meet Esther and young Menahen (could this be the missing congregant?) in a scene of domestic bliss. We hear Esther call to her son as the boy sits on the edge of a full bathtub, twirling with his finger some wet hair that must be his father’s floating on top. Menahen is a curious, observant boy, filled with wonder about everything, particularly things of nature. He has some breakfast and then goes with his father down the street to school. On the way, the rabbi quizzes him about the purposes of the prayer boxes called tefillin Haredi wear on their forehead and arm. To get high-quality tefillin, the rabbi tells his son, they will have to order them four or five years before Menahen’s bar mitzvah.
In class, the instructor is teaching them songs of praise to G_d; the song they are learning today is the story of the binding of Isaac. Menahen is distracted by a mother dove that has built her nest on his classroom’s window sill and is caring for two chicks. On the playground, he shows a classmate an educational card from a National Geographic set that shows a tribal African in exotic make-up beating on a drum.
At home, he shows the card to his mother and asks, “Is this idolatry?” Esther calls Abraham in to look at the card, and he confirms that it is idolatry. He orders Menahem repeatedly and harshly to tear up the card. When their son starts to cry, Esther suggests that he can have another card. The rabbi, angry, asks, “Next, are you going to reward him for observing the Sabbath?” Finally, Menahem holds the card in front of him and tears it in two.
Menahem is very excited that they are to spend time at the Dead Sea and goes through the bag of things his mother has purchased for the trip—plastic sandals, a new bathing suit. He asks her where the water wings are. She says they are in the bag. Then he says, “you don’t need water wings there. You just lay back and float,” a comment on the high salt content of the Dead Sea. On the day they are to leave in a private transport—a treat to Menahem from the rabbi—the teacher at Menahen’s school rushes out to the car to fetch the rabbi. He is brought to the nest of the dove, where he recites a prayer, and shoos away the mother bird in observance of a Torah commandment. Then he finishes the prayer asking G_d to honor him and his wife with many sons and daughters, which is part of the ritual. When Menahen asks him why he made the chicks motherless, the rabbi replies, “We do everything in the Torah without asking why.” Esther tries to reassure Menahem that the mother bird will come back to the nest. She knows that Menahen has observed the feelings—the souls—animals have, which his father has told him they do not.
Menahen’s love of nature and his father’s love of the Almighty will lead to the tragedy we fear is coming. Indeed, this is a film filled with love. I found myself quite moved by Menahen’s inquisitiveness and the beauty of the shots Volach shares with us—a window onto the soul of earth that even Abraham acknowledges is a wondrous gift from G_d—and fell quite in love with this sweet, little boy. Esther is a gift of a mother, gentle with Menahen and angry on his behalf over the torn card. She writes a note to Abraham when he comes to bed that night (not permitted to speak after she says the cleansing prayer of sleep) to express her anger.
But what of Abraham? He loses his son because he “was wrapped in the arms of the Almighty” at afternoon prayer. Does that mean he loves G_d more than he loves his family? It would be easy to judge Abraham as a kind of careerist too devoted to his work—or as a religious zealot, which a number of reviewers of this film have charged—but this is a complicated issue that doesn’t smack of zealotry to me. Abraham believes that the Lord determines the fate of men, and he must accept that this loss was G_d’s will. He also knows that the biblical Abraham was prepared to sacrifice his miracle son Isaac on an altar to show his love of G_d. He is an old man who has devoted his whole life to Torah; its laws are his life. He never learned how to deal with a little boy. His contrition in the face of Esther’s anger about the torn card shows he would like to learn, but unfortunately, he must learn about the sanctity of life the hardest way of all.
When Menahen and his father are at the seashore, the boy brings over a fish he has caught in a plastic bag from a nearby stream. Abraham says the fish is from the mountain streams that run to the sea. Since it is a freshwater fish, it will die when it enters the salt water. Now that Abraham has come down from the mountaintop and swum in the salt water of sorrow, what will happen to him and his faith? David Volach poses a worthy question in an incredibly moving and lyrical film. l