“I was going through a quote-unquote midlife crisis to some extent,” says documentary filmmaker Steven Bram, whose spiritual journey is the focus of new documentary “Kabbalah Me,” which he co-directed. A series of traumatic events, among them losing his brother-in-law on 9/11 and the financial crisis of 2008-2009, caused Bram, a born-and-bred New Yorker who runs a sports film production company, to have some seemingly unanswerable existential questions. “I kept asking, is there more to life than just going through the motions?”
One day, a friend who took him to a New York Rangers game suggested seeking out a rabbi for help. “I never really thought of a rabbi as a therapist like that,” says Bram, who had lived a secular life to that point. One rabbi followed another, and today, he is actively spiritual and has a documentary to show for it. Elyssa Goodman spoke with Bram about documenting his quest for spiritual enlightenment in “Kabbalah Me,” and the role Judaism and Kabbalah now play in his life.
Elyssa Goodman: Why did you decide to make a documentary out of this experience?
Steven Bram: When I started talking to a rabbi, I realized I didn’t know much about my heritage. I started learning Torah for the first time. Throughout my learning he would say, this is what Kabbalah would say about this particular story or word. Every time he said “Kabbalah” my ears perked up. When I said I just want to learn Kabbalah, he said you need the basics of Judaism first. I wanted to go right to the deeper stuff. He introduced me to another rabbi who believed if you really want to do that, let’s roll up our sleeves, so I started learning it with him. I became very passionate about it. The film came when I kept saying to him, “How come nobody knows this?” He knew in my professional life I make sports documentaries, so he said why don’t you make some short videos and we can put them online? At first I just wanted to learn. As time went on, I realized I need to help get this word out. Maybe I could share what I went through and a modern secular person could connect to and benefit from this material.
In “Kabbalah Me,” you show that there’s tension among your friends and family over your study of Judaism and Kabbalah.
In the beginning, I was very pushy with my friends and my wife. I think that’s a danger when someone gets involved in a spiritual pursuit: They really want everyone to be right there with them. That’s not realistic. My wife felt I was coming on way too strong, that I was pushing her to do things she was not ready to do, nor did she want to do. I learned everybody has to be at a place where they’re ready to make changes. Now that I’m not being as aggressive, people come to me and want to talk more about what I’m doing.
How did the cameras affect your experience?
At the beginning I was very self-conscious. I don’t like being in front of the camera. After time, I didn’t notice them. I think in a way the cameras helped deepen my spiritual search because I had to be really thoughtful all the time.
How did editing “Kabbalah Me” affect the way you were able to reflect on your interaction with Kabbalah and Judaism?
In some of the emotional scenes, I would cringe. Suddenly I got to the point where it was me now, and the person on the film. The me in the film became like a character different from me. I would talk to my editors about myself in the third person: “I think Steven in this scene should be saying this to Miriam.” It enabled me to be objective and help in the editing process because I didn’t take it personally. The film is really about the beginning of a spiritual search. I’m hoping it’s going to have a universal feel that anybody who’s on a spiritual search can relate to. The person on screen seems a little naive to me. I’m a little more discerning now. I know what I’m trying to accomplish.
What is your practice and study of Judaism and Kabbalah like on a day-to-day basis now?
I’m focused on prayer now. I’m learning how to read Hebrew and do the morning prayer service. I’m 52 now, learning a new language is very difficult, and there’s so much. I just know that I have to let the process work itself out. One of the rabbis in my movie said, “If one drop doesn’t make a difference then a million drops don’t make a difference, either.” Each day I learn, each day I practice and I get a little bit better. I really want to be able to daven. When I go to a shul now, it’s still beyond me. I’m hoping in a year or two I become proficient. I also still learn with four different rabbis once a week.
What are the biggest differences you see in yourself from the Rangers game to right now?
One thing Kabbalah teaches you is to look at the big picture. By learning a lot about the big ideas and connecting to them, you take a lot of other stuff with a grain of salt. If someone says something critical or annoying to you, it’s not such a big deal. I don’t get upset as easily. As a father I’m more patient with my children, as a husband I’m a better listener. Kabbalah teaches you to pause a little bit before you react and not be so quick to judge.