By Elias Savada.
I’ve known critic-archivist-filmmaker Gerald Peary for at least a dozen years. He sought me out in 2007 to do some copyright research, and I’ve worked for him on numerous projects (For the Love of Movies: The Story of American Film Criticism, Archie’s Betty) ever since, although I’m not involved with his latest film, The Rabbi Goes West, which he made with his wife, Amy Geller. Well, I did fork over $50 during the film’s Kickstarter campaign two years ago, picking the Real Mensch package, which allowed me a website and Facebook thanks and an online screener, which arrived a month ago.
The 78-minute film centers around the evangelical life of Rabbi Chaim Bruk, a Brooklyn (NY)-born-and-trained and now distantly installed Hebrew scholar. His current home is about two thousand miles away in Bozeman, Montana, which already had a miniscule Jewish population when he landed in the southwest part of Big Sky Country 10 years ago. This city of 50,000 was founded about a century after the 250-year-old Chabad-Lubavitch strand, on the Orthodox side of Judaism, developed, but it is now part of the sect’s growing universe of emissaries sent to far-flung corners of the globe to preach its beliefs. Apparently there are about 5,000 Shluchim (husband-and-wife rabbinic teams, including Chaim and his wife, Chavie, and their numerous adopted children) around the globe. Initially, Bruk’s mission seems to be the placement, on the right side of the entry doorpost of every Jewish home in the state, of a mezuzah. These are the small cases, usually two-to-three inches long and a half-inch wide, often decorative in nature, which contain a sacred parchment with the Hebrew prayer Shema Yisroel. The short prayer is a cornerstone of the religion.
The bearded, bespectacled, and oh-so-passionate teacher is an energetic, easy-going charmer, pushing the notion of outreach to unaffiliated Jews, and his proselytizing seems benign enough in the Treasure State. Until it isn’t. He’s marketing a brand of Judaism and it’s not to everyone’s liking. Therein lies this film, which shuffles between the praise and loathing that Bruk’s arrival has brought.
As the filmmakers trail along, being (mostly) silent flys-on-the-wall (or passengers-in-his-car), the rabbi espouses his honest-to-God, straight-shooting (yes, he does believe in gun rights) beliefs, to “whoever’s ready to listen.” There are funny and heartfelt tales of the rabbi’s arrival in the area 10 years earlier as “God’s salesman,” even if it means encroaching on members of the few other synagogues in the area, including Congregation Beth Shalom (catering to Reform Judaism), spiritually lead by Rabbi (and former trial lawyer) Ed Stafman, and Rabbi Francine Roston of Whitefish, all who take issue with Bruk’s uninvited encroachment in their territory, despite his good intentions. Retired Rabbi Allen Secher, also from Whitefish, adds, with a determined voice, “But Chaim, don’t be a pain in the ass about it!”
Maybe a hundred years ago, when the copper business was booming, Butte was apparently home to the biggest Jewish community between Chicago and Los Angeles. Today, not so much. Actually, 20 years ago, there were very few Jews in any of Montana’s major cities. Today, there might be 1,500 statewide.
On occasional visits back to his Crown Heights roots, Chaim ‘s greeted like a conquering hero, gaining praise from family and fellow members of his community. Yet, as easy-going as Rabbi Bruk is, he’s still stubborn enough to shy away from any interaction with other Jewish leaders in the state. He doesn’t legitimize women rabbis. Women must be separately seated in houses of worship. Any number of seemingly innocuous rules (to all but the Orthodox Jew) preclude him from becoming a communal participant. They have to bend to his rules, not the other way around. “Not at the cost of breaking the (religious) law that is so dear to me,” he proclaims during one of his many appearances on camera.
Women’s rights takes up an important segment of the film, especially in a heated discussion between Chaim and Ed. For Chavie, she’s content with her role as mother and rabbi’s wife. She considers herself co-executive in the family, often talking before groups of men and women – just not from her husband’s synagogue pulpit.
Bruk’s role is similar to the missionaries of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints knocking on doors (as satirically examined in the Broadway musical The Book of Mormon). Thankfully, video doorbells have become an important preventative tool in these instances.
In 2017, Neo-Nazi extremists took up verbal arms against the rabbis in Whitefish, promoting a troll storm of hateful phone calls, emails, etc. This mushroomed into a national news story about small town America. Thankfully neighbors (non-Jews uniting) came to their aid. Naturally, Bruk added his own spin on the situation.
The Rabbi Goes West is a bare bones and sometimes raw cinematic examination. Without any fancy special effects or silly animation. There is a sense of equal time being given to all sides, like (supposedly) in the U.S. presidential elections. It’s an absorbing film, I think, whether you are and aren’t Jewish – and will find a receptive audience on either side of the aisle.
I’m pleased to state that anyone can stream the film as part of the online IFFBoston (Independent Film Festival Boston), a virtual version of the event where the film would have been shown in the filmmakers’ back yard. (Peary was a critic for The Boston Phoenix and is a programmer for the Boston University Cinematheque; Geller was the Artistic Director of the Boston Jewish Film Festival and teaches at B.U.) So, consider this your word-of-mouth warning that you have until June 4th to fork over $8.99 for a 72-hour rental window on Vimeo, with proceeds shared with the festival. On May 31st, YouTube has a special live Q+A with the filmmakers and Rabbi and Chavie Bruk.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He is an executive producer of the horror film German Angst and the new documentary Nuts! He co-authored, with David J. Skal, Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning (a revised edition will be published by Centipede Press).