“Kabbalah Me” is a fascinating and inspiring story about a man’s spiritual journey into the complex world of Jewish mysticism. But on another level, it is also a sad and revelatory documentary about how faith and religious observance are marginalized in our society.
Steven Bram is a successful filmmaker and chief operating officer of a New York City-based company that produces sports films. His brother was on the 102nd floor of the World Trade Center on 9/11 and, though he doesn’t say it, presumably died, leaving behind a wife and children.
This is what started Bram’s soul-searching pilgrimage, his hunger for what he calls “a deeper kind of spirituality.” Both Steven and his wife, Miriam, were raised in secular households. His father came from — and rejected — what Steven calls an Orthodox background, but is apparently Hasidic.
As part of his quest, Bram travels to Brooklyn to meet his Hasidic cousins for the first time. He spends Sukkot with them. Initially, he feels like a visitor from another planet. Soon, however, he feels another emotion: “Part of me is a little jealous that they have this intense spirituality,” he says.
Bram begins regular meetings with a rabbi about Kabbalah and begins, Madonna-like, to immerse himself in it — at least superficially. Because of the pop star’s interest, Kabbalah has become something of a rage, attracting far more dilettantes than serious students.
Bram seems to fall somewhere in between. He seeks guidance from numerous rabbis, attends large religious gatherings in Madison Square Garden and Met Life Stadium in New Jersey, and even travels to Safed, Israel, in his odyssey.
Everyone is warm, welcoming and encouraging. There is only limited discussion in the film of the need to study and understand Torah and Talmud before delving too deeply into Kabbalah. That is understandable. This is, after all, a general interest film, not a tutorial, but a tad more explanation is warranted.
Much of what the rabbis say are platitudes. “Kabbalah is not teaching you, but directing you to knowledge that is already in yourself,” one tells him. But platitudes or not, whatever it is seems to be working. Bram becomes increasingly observant and laid back.
But while he became calm, I became increasingly agitated — by his wife, Miriam, who is content to find her spirituality in yoga.
“I don’t want to follow [kosher] laws,” she tells him. “I don’t want to not drive on Shabbos. Can’t you just study Kabbalah and not be a religious person?”
Several times she talks about not wanting him to become religious. In her defense, you sign a contract with someone, it’s not fair for them change the rules mid-stream.
But some of what she does strikes me as indefensible. She and their children attend the Sukkot service in Brooklyn, but she sits there looking like someone who received a lump of coal in her Hanukkah stocking. Invited back for Purim, according to Steve, she declines, since “she put in her time, so she decided to stay home with the girls.”
Put in her time? Not only does Miriam deny her children a potentially fun dress-up-in-costume day, she keeps them away from family and their heritage.
It’s a tribute to Bram that he kept a less than complimentary portrayal of his wife in his film. Hopefully his honesty will be rewarded because it adds nuance to what already is a very positive experience.
“Kabbalah Me” opened in New York City August 22 and in will open in Los Angeles September 5. Hopefully strong reviews will push the box office sufficiently to prompt additional venues to sign up. If not, please note the name. It may show up at a Jewish film festival near you.
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