Abandoned synagogue in Dzialoszyce, Poland.
Most fathers should have Menachem Daum’s problems. An Orthodox Jew and child of Polish Holocaust survivors, Daum has spent many years interviewing camp survivors about the impact of the Nazi “final solution” on Jewish religious faith. Daum worries his two sons’ inwardly-focused version of Orthodoxy may be leading them into intolerance toward the world outside the confines of the yeshiva. He has similar misgivings over what he sees as growing insularity in Orthodox Judaism, both in Brooklyn, N.Y., where Daum grew up and reared his sons, and in Israel, where his sons have moved to immerse themselves in Talmudic studies.
So it’s no laughing matter when Daum’s wife, Rifka, comes home one night from a lecture with a tape of a rabbi openly preaching “hatred” of the non-Jewish world. Daum’s first reaction is to try to raise an outcry in his own Brooklyn Orthodox community. But community leaders and media mostly ignore him. His second reaction is to consider the “ethical legacy” he might — and should — be leaving his children. So he flies to Israel, the audio tape in hand, to discuss the matter with his sons, who have adopted a strict Orthodox Judaism centered on study of the Torah and other sacred Jewish writings. Thus begins the difficult and revelatory journey documented by the Emmy® nominated filmmaking team of Menachem Daum and Oren Rudavsky, in Hiding and Seeking.
Hiding and Seeking uncovers unsettling generational, social and philosophical rifts in contemporary Jewish life. When he plays the tape of the rabbi for his sons, Menachem’s struggle becomes clear – neither son gives the tape much significance. For the older, Tzvi Dovid, it is “of course” wrong but also understandable. The younger, Akiva, has a more combative view — the rabbi is only expressing the hard truth of Jewish experience, that Jews should have as little as possible to do with the world of the goyem (non-Jews). Furthermore, the brothers question why their father should worry about relations with non-Jews. Akiva even ridicules Menachem’s moral conflicts, insisting that nothing good can come from outside the complex life of Jewish scriptural study that both brothers have embraced.
For Menachem, Rifka and their parents, the struggle to reconcile the Holocaust with their faith was unavoidable. But for younger Jews like Tzvi Dovid and Akiva, the Holocaust represents the historical perversion of non-Jews. In that sense, it is not the Jews’ burden. Rather, they maintain that Jews should turn away and never again trust the world of non-Jews. The sons’ rejection of conciliation with the non-Jewish world challenges the moral core of Menachem’s life.
In Hiding and Seeking, the oldest generation — the grandparents who experienced the death camps — shares a view much closer to that of Tzvi Dovid and Akiva than Menachem. Only Menachem’s mother rejected blind faith in a God who would subject His people to such terrors; the other grandparents re-embraced their faith. They also frankly hated their persecutors, whom they tended to group with all goyem. Menachem’s father felt so strongly that, after coming to America, he gave up a good job in upstate New York and moved to Brooklyn so he could raise his family in an Orthodox environment. In the film he unapologetically expresses his antipathy to non-Jews, especially the Christian Poles who, in his view, had a hand in the camps and murders of his family and other Jews. When Menachem’s explains to his father-in-law, Chaim, that he and Rifka are taking Tzvi Dovid and Akiva to Poland to seek the family’s history, the old man warns Menachem against going to Poland, saying that all Poles are dangerous and treacherous. (Yet in an eerily touching moment, Menachem’s wheelchair-bound father remembers exactly his old address in Poland as his “home,” which he belatedly wants to see again.)
Rejecting his father’s faithful hatreds Menachem has evolved for himself, as did many first-generation Holocaust offspring, a conciliatory “Jewish humanism.” He saw in the Holocaust the lesson that only by seeing the spark of God in all human beings could humanity progress. He took much of his inspiration from the teachings and music of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach (featured in concert footage in the film). This vision of conciliation among all humanity as the highest fulfillment of his Jewish faith has guided Menachem through his life. Is it possible that his sons could find his worldview — his ethical legacy — irrelevant?
The trip to Poland brings generational tensions into relief with a string of revelations as the Daum band searches the Polish hinterland. Using old maps and accounts, Menachem leads the family to the ruins of Poland’s formerly rich Jewish life. He’s determined to perform appropriate Jewish prayers at such sites but, his posting of a paper with names and a prayer in the rubble of a former synagogue only elicits exasperation from Akiva. A visit to the broken-down graveyard where Menachem’s grandparents are buried, however, elicits more respectful attention from his sons, and the beginning of the realization that their dad may be on to something.
Also on the agenda is to find some memory or evidence of the rescue of Rifka’s father, Chaim, and his two brothers, who spent 28 months hidden in a pit under a haystack in the farmyard of a non-Jewish Polish family. The story of this Polish family, who at ultimate risk to itself fed the Federman brothers and bluffed their way through German searches, inevitably grows in significance in the running argument between Menachem and his sons. Surprisingly, after nearly 60 years, the very farm where the Federman boys were saved remains intact; even more surprising, the same Mucha family lives at the farm. The Daums first encounter the granddaughter. Then, astoundingly, they learn that her grandparents, the very people who as newly-weds helped save the three brothers, are still alive. The granddaughter brings out first her grandfather and then her grandmother. The grandmother — remembered by Chaim back in New York as a fetching girl — is now old and bent nearly to the ground but is sharp as a tack. She remembers everything.
What follows is the heartening and heartrending rediscovery of a passage in the family’s history. The story suddenly acquires immediate and tangible force. For the Daums, the encounter is steeped in unanticipated emotion — and the realization of a long unpaid debt. For the Polish rescuers, there is a kind of wistful reception of visitors long past expected. A story never before fully told — of individual humanity in the face of collective brutality — gets fully aired at last in “Hiding and Seeking.” It isn’t a simple story, for humans and their motives never are. On the other hand, actions taken at mortal risk often tell simple truths. “A person saved is a world saved,” says Rifka, quoting a Jewish proverb.
The rescue of the Federman brothers by a Polish peasant family, seen up close, forces everyone in the Daum clan to react. The family finds a way to repay its debt, but, not surprisingly, the meaning of the Muchas’ act ripples with different effect through family members. Do the Muchas prove or disprove the rule? It’s a question the Holocaust raised for all humanity, and is a question that even Tzvi Dovid and Akiva cannot escape.
Hiding and Seeking is the second in a trilogy of films about the Jewish world by Menachem Daum and Oren Rudavsky, who collaborated on the Emmy® nominated A Life Apart: Hasidism in America (watch film clips).
“Menachem and I began by working on a segment about Holocaust survivors and faith for PBS’ Religion and Ethics Newsweekly,” recalls Rudavsky. “It soon became clear to us that Menachem’s own fears and struggles over the direction of the Orthodox world were a window on contemporary Jewish life.”
“With Hiding and Seeking, I believe we are getting to the heart of the matter,” adds Daum. “Not answers, but certainly the questions that will bear heavily on Judaism in the 21st century.”