In “36 Righteous Men,” Argentinian director Dan Burman, who goes in this film by his newly discovered Hebrew name, David ben Leah, joins an organized tour of Orthodox Jews visiting the gravesites of Hasidic leaders across Eastern Europe. What brings Burman, a thoroughly secular Jew, on board a bus where only strictly kosher food is served, and where many of the participants sport beards and large yarmulkes, is a quest to learn about the 36 hidden righteous men in whose merit, it is said, the world exists.
Burman is curious about this phenomenon: What does it mean to be a hidden tzaddik, or a righteous person? Can a secular person be a tzaddik? Do these men know that they are among the 36 righteous? And is their righteousness somehow compromised when the secret becomes revealed? But Burman’s curiosity about the legend of the 36 righteous men, for which the film is named, falters as he finds himself inundated with information about a culture he knows little about — the laws of kashrut and Shabbat, for example, as well as Hasidic notions of God and Godliness.
And so, instead of exploring the legend, the film merely follows the group as it travels across Poland, Ukraine, Russia and Belarus, stopping in small villages and towns where the all-male company visits the gravesites of such figures as the famed Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav and Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liady. The trip is scheduled to conclude with a visit to the resting place of the Ba’al Shem Tov, founder of Hasidism, who died in the mid-18th century, and who, it is said, was one of the 36 hidden righteous men of his generation — until, that is, he revealed himself to the world at the age of 36. For Burman, who turns 37 the day after the visit, there is special significance to the fact that he will be spending his “last day as a 36 year-old at the grave of the Ba’al Shem Tov, who revealed himself at 36.”
The film, which is amateur at best, is in Hebrew and Spanish, and the English subtitles are poor translations of the conversations that take place on the bus and at the various gravesites. This is no great loss, however, since little of real substance is actually said. Instead, we listen in on largely predictable discussions about spirituality, faith and Judaism. Sometimes, this proves comic, as when Burman questions one observant man on the trip about Jews’ reliance on Torah for connecting with God. Isn’t there any other way? he asks. Of course, answers his new friend and mentor: Aristotle practically reached the gates of heaven with his wisdom… but how many of us are Aristotle? If you have to travel some distance and can either walk for many hours or drive for a few minutes, which route would you take?