POV: What were you trying to accomplish with the film?
Menachem Daum: I’ve always been obsessed with trying to understand people like my parents who went through the Holocaust and, after having gone through all that they did, were able after it was all over to go back and resume their religious life, their faith. That motivated the previous film that Oren Rudavsky and I did called A Life Apart (watch clips), which was a study about the post-Holocaust Hasidic community, a community of faith. And in a way that was a tribute to that generation, my parents’ generation. It was also an attempt to humanize ultra Orthodox Jews to the outside world. They’d see these strange people walking on the street and would look at them like they’re from another planet. They have no human connection to them. And I think that one of the accomplishments of that film was that we succeeded partially in humanizing ultra Orthodox Jews. Our latest film, “Hiding and Seeking,” was the reverse of that. It was an attempt to humanize the outside world back to the ultra Orthodox world that my sons are very much immersed in. And in a way I was troubled by the fact that they are so immersed in their insular, parochial brand of Judaism that they have also lost, to some extent, sight of the larger moral universe that is outside the walls of their study hall. And that in a way troubled me.
POV: What forces led to this insularity?
Daum: Well, my parents’ generation, who had been traumatized by all they had gone through in the Holocaust and who had felt betrayed by humanity, they had felt that their trust in human decency had been misplaced. After they came out of that, my father renewed his commitment and faith in God but had sort of given up on mankind. And that community built these institutions to perpetuate the education and the values that had been important before the war and they succeeded admirably. And they created these Hasidic yeshivas where the schools that I went to as a child were named after communities that had existed before the Holocaust that were no longer there. Our teachers were Holocaust survivors. Everything about our institutions was permeated by the Holocaust, except the Holocaust was never mentioned, because, in a way, if we had mentioned it, you’d have to start dealing with an explanation. And so we kind of danced around it. But it also closed us off from the outside world. But over the course of a generation, now two, the schools that my kids went to and now the ones that they’re sending their children to are even more and more closed off to the outside world. And while in one way it’s admirable and I appreciate the fact that they’re perpetuating the values that were important to my parents and grandparents and great grandparents, on the other hand after 9/11 I realized that this sort of insularity has great danger. You know, you can perpetuate the tradition and be rooted in it, but you can’t lose sight of your connection to the rest of humanity. And that’s what I felt was the danger.
POV: In the film you take a trip to Poland with your family, and you end up meeting with the Polish family that harbored your in-laws during the war. What initially motivated that trip?
Daum: Coming from parents who lived through the Holocaust in Poland and who only have unkind memories of their Polish friends and neighbors, when I was growing up, all I heard was about Polish collaboration and Polish glee at the destruction of the Jews in Poland. So to us the Poles were the ultimate “other.” They were beyond redemption. They were as far from the pale as you can get. And I felt that by somehow taking my sons to Poland and finding exemplary behavior, that even during the darkest days of the Holocaust, when any act of decency was punishable by death, it was still possible to find people who could choose to do the right thing. I thought that that might impress upon my sons that no one is beyond redemption, that everybody who was created in God’s image has a potential to choose goodness.
POV: In one of the last scenes in the film, your son Akiva still seems to be skeptical towards others. Given that, do you think that you accomplished what you set out to accomplish with the trip?
Daum: I’m not trying to tell him that all people are good, what I was trying to tell him is that all people have a potential to choose goodness. And I think that much he picked up on. Because unfortunately there is evil in the world and there is hatred in the world. And I’m not trying to blind him to that or to tell him to drop your guard, you know, we’re living in a utopia. No, we’re not, but I really think that what is important is acknowledging the potential for goodness in the other. And I think that process has started.
The Talmudic sage Hillel said, “It’s not incumbent upon you to complete the task, you have to start it and do what you can.” And given my limited means and limited options, I did what I could and hope to continue doing that. Whether this is going to bring about the changes that I would like, I can only hope, but that doesn’t free you from doing anything. You have to do the best you can.
POV: How do you think the film speaks to traditions other than Judaism?
Daum: The problem is, in every religion, you have the beautiful universal teachings, you know, “My house is a house of prayer for all people.” But you also have the very parochial and very narrow kinds of teachings which are sometimes derogatory of the other. And if you are in a sort of religion that doesn’t allow you to pick and choose, you buy the whole thing as a direct transmission of God’s revelation, you can’t pick and choose teachings … I think in some ways this insular kind of Judaism demeans God. It reduces Him to a tribal deity who’s only interested in us, to the exclusion of everybody else. And that’s what I’m really trying to pass on to my sons and I think little by little they’re recognizing that.
POV: Who would you like to see the film?
Daum: I would like this film to be seen by people of all religions who feel that they have a monopoly on God’s love, on the truth, to the exclusion of others. It’s a film that takes place in the Orthodox Jewish world cause that’s the world that I live in. But it is not a film directed exclusively to Orthodox Jews. It’s directed to anybody — Muslims, Catholics, any kind of interpretation of a religion that feels we have an exclusive claim on God’s love to the exclusion of the other. That our certainties are a ladder to God. I mean in a way I feel that somehow or other certainties divide us. Cause what’s certain for you may not be my certainty. But in a way I think our doubts have a better chance of bringing us together because we all have our doubts in our honest moments. And somehow or other I believe that the idea of recognizing the humanity of “the other” can somehow come from recognizing that we’re all struggling to understand and we all share these doubts. So I have a problem with people who don’t profess to have any doubts at all.
POV: What did you finally take away from making the film?
Daum: Making Hiding and Seeking in a way really brought home to me the importance of being honest. Honest with ourselves, about ourselves. Acknowledging our strengths and our weaknesses. And also being open and honest about the strengths and weaknesses of “the other.” And if we avoid that, if we attribute to ourselves only our wonderful virtues and ascribe all the faults to “the other,” we’re never going to connect and overcome all those generations and centuries of animosity. We have to free ourselves from being enslaved by historical animosities. I can understand the way my parents feel about Poles, Germans, but I don’t think I’m doing my children a service by passing that on from generation to generation. I mean there are so many conflicts in this world that started generations ago that we already forgot the origins. Why are we hating each other so much? Rabbi Carlebach would always say, “Whoever teaches their children to hate is like injecting them with poison.” So I don’t think we’re doing our children or grandchildren a favor. Yes, we have to know what happened, we have to know our history, but we can’t be tarnished and infected by hatred from that history.
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