Friday, November 9, 2007

Out of Faith - a Review

Out of Faith is a documentary, produced by L. Mark DeAngelis and directed by Lisa Leeman ( It is about the lives of Leah and Eliezer Welbel, two Auschwitz/Birkenau survivors who find their way to each other after the war. After a failed attempt to make a life in Israel, where their children are born, Leah and Eliezer end up in Skokie, Illinois. Once in America, they become, to their great sorrow, part of the statistics that reveal 50% of Jewish families have children who marry outside the faith and 30% of the next generation stop defining themselves as Jews. The filmmakers started out telling the story of a concentration camp survivor but soon realized they had to tell the compelling outmarriage story as well. The film has been around for a while and is making the rounds at Jewish film festivals: .

If there is a better subject for a case study of the dilemma of outmarriage, I can’t imagine where you would find it. Eliezer is a man so tortured by his memories that as he ages his nightmares, awake and sleeping, suggest he is approaching insanity. Leah is a woman driven by the conviction she was spared for a purpose. She was in Birkenau when Mengele came to close down the camp in November 1944. For reasons of efficiency, he determined it was best to kill most of the inhabitants. He lined everybody up to decide, quite arbitrarily, who had the strength to be useful, and stopped the woman in front of Leah. While he was engaged with her, Leah sneaked ahead in the line and escaped the examination. She then learned the woman behind her was shot on the spot as well. Even tougher on Leah's memory was the death of a cousin by a beating which took place in front of her eyes. She returns to Birkenau decades later to beg forgiveness.

It's brutal stuff to watch. I’ve seen and heard countless narratives of concentration camp experiences, since 1960 when I first went to live in Munich, but I’ve never been brought so close emotionally to the experience before. I went because of the theme of outmarriage. I’m not sure I would have gone if I had known so much of the film would be on the concentration camp experience and the torment that nags for a lifetime. (How many people run down a list, see “Holocaust movie” and say “Let’s have a pizza and then go to see that?”)

Leah is a classic Jewish mother. Lives, and believes her entire family lives, for her latkes. Hounds her son for not calling her. Grabs her granddaughter and hugs her like a long-lost soul she thought was dead, each time she comes to visit. Fiercely matriarchal.

Survivor guilt, which elsewhere gets bandied about in terms academic and sociological is painstakingly portrayed as a central driving life force. They tried to kill us, Leah says. Did kill us, Leah says. Not me, Leah says. I’m here for a purpose and that purpose is to keep Judaism alive. It's not the religion – I don’t go to synagogue – it's the family, being Jewish is. And in my heart.

Leah illustrates, for those who have not reflected on this before, that the American practice of labelling Judaism a faith is a cognitive error. An error which is not corrected because it is useful to go on speaking of ourselves as having a tradition of "three faiths" (and we are now adding Islam as a fourth). It provides a national justification for extending the space we allow for religious identity to ethnicity (and never mind this is not a perfect match, either -- we need another word, something like "peoplehood"). But while academics and politicians struggle with categories, the efforts for a people to survive are played out in all their apparent contradictions, in the narratives of people like Leah and Eliezer.

One of their sons marries a Christian who converts to Judaism. The boys are raised as Jews. Jewish Family is preserved. But the son of one of these boys has relatives who are catholic and grows up with a tolerance of difference, and an affection for his cousins, that enables him to see catholics as "us" and not "them." This, we suppose, opens the path for him to marry a Christian who, unlike his mother, does not convert. Leah does not recognize the marriage. Cannot. The family agonizes. Understands, sympathizes and agonizes. Then another daughter marries out. She keeps the relationship with the Jewish granddaughter but never speaks to the non-Jewish daughter-in-law.

The story makes plain the reasons for Leah’s obsession. You cannot help, no matter where you position yourself in the spectrum of thought on outmarriage, but see the world through Leah's eyes. The filmmakers' have captured something on screen that would not readily persuade otherwise just in the telling.

At one point in the story, a rabbi comes to counsel Leah. He tells her this story (I have added names to make the telling easier):

Moshe and his wife Sarah are having a marital problem. They seek advice, one at a time, of their rabbi. “I see your point,” says the rabbi to Sarah. “You’re right.” Then he meets with the husband. “I see your point, Moshe” he says, “And you’re right.” David is listening to the rabbi tell the story. “But rabbi,” David says, “They can’t both be right!” “You’re right!” says the rabbi.

Keep an open mind and an open heart, the rabbi tells her. It’s not like back in the old country where you didn’t know non-Jews and if by some awful chance somebody married out, you sat shivah and never spoke of him again. Here, where the attractions of outmarriage are strong, you have to work harder to keep the family together. Keep your arms open. Keep your house open.

It doesn’t work. Leah is a realist. She understands the statistics (whether or not she knows the statistics). The 50/30 numbers mean that, if the pattern continues, there will fewer than a million American Jews by 2075.

The gruesome nature of the concentration camp details – and the even more gruesome look at its aftermath in the souls of its victims decades later is not gratuitous. It forces respect for Leah’s obstinacy. There is considerable discussion of the phenomenon that for many years after the war the topic of the Holocaust was taboo. Leah wore a bandaid over her tattoo. Now she and her husband are committed to a life of telling the story, working against the tide they know will come when there are no longer eye-witnesses to call the lie to the Holocaust deniers. All of this gives weight (and no small amount of pathos) to the otherwise seemingly irrational argument that Jews must subordinate individual desire and happiness for Jewish community survival. It provides the framework to counter the enlightenment value which stresses the rights of all individuals over the tyranny of groupthink. To this individualism, it provides a parallel universe. If Jews choose voluntarily to marry "in," the enlightenment value kicks in and the individual is supported in his or her choices. But, just as it has become fashionable of late to raise the question of the universal value of democracy, here’s another question – to what degree should one support the right of a community to survive at the cost of individual choice? How far can one go with social pressure?

The film will not likely find much of an audience outside of Jewish film festivals. It ought to have one. The battle over the survival of a world community of Jews is a question non-Jews may have a right to ignore – or dismiss as a distraction in the quest for universal human rights. Serious exploration of the possibility of a “parallel universe” should not be. Societies have formed to avoid “language death.” Instinctively we understand the tragedy in the story of Ishii – the “last of his tribe.” We know what it can mean when species die out and we celebrate the fact the whooping crane has returned from the brink at 19 creatures and is now up to 300 and rising. Should we not deal with respect with the alarms being called by the Leahs of the world?

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