A scene from Eyal Datz's 'Hidden Face'.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Eyal Datz’s Hidden Face is a moving and engrossing documentary about Yekusiel Yehudah Halberstam, the founding rebbe of the Sanz-Klausenburg dynasty, which focuses on how his Holocaust experience shaped his life and later work.
There are two upcoming screenings of the film at the Jerusalem Cinematheque, one on October 18 and one on October 22, where Datz will be present to answer questions following the film.
The movie also details present-day life in the Kiryat Sanz neighborhood in Netanya, which was founded by Halberstam, who died in 1994, and his followers. It focuses on a recent wedding celebration of one of the rebbe’s great-granddaughters, which bookends the film.
The story of Halberstam’s life during and after the Holocaust is presented through archival footage and interviews with those who knew him and have worked to preserve his legacy, which includes the founding of Laniado Hospital in Netanya. Among the interviewees are Moshe Reich, Moshe Roth, Shira Leibowitz Schmidt, Dr. Baruch Schmidt, Moshe Goldstein and Menachem Look.
The movie tackles head on the difficult and ultimately unanswerable question of how the rebbe was able to keep his faith in the face of Nazi persecution and brutality and was able to convince others to keep theirs as well.
Halberstam was right alongside his followers through the ghettos, death marches and concentration camps, and had to cope with the fact that his wife and, eventually, all 11 of his children from his first marriage were killed in the camps.
He was asked many questions regarding his continuing belief in God and the Jewish faith both during and after his ordeal, and as the movie shows, he answered these questions in often unexpected ways.
On one of his most difficult days in the camps, he was asked whether he would still recite the blessing thanking God for choosing the Jews among all the nations. He replied, “Maybe until now I didn’t say it with enough intention, but now, when I say ‘You chose us among all nations,’ I’ll say it more intently and joyfully than ever before, because I’m lucky to be a Jew, because if I weren’t ‘chosen from among all nations,’ I’d be like that Nazi.”
One of the most moving parts of the film is how Halberstam became a leader of the religious survivors in the displaced persons camps in Europe, building schools and distributing Torahs, mezuzot and other religious items. He established halachic guidelines to help those who had lost spouses in the Holocaust remarry according to Jewish law.
The film also follows the leadership he showed in guiding his followers first to America, following the war, and as soon as possible to Israel, where he settled them in the unlikely spot of Netanya.
In an exchange with David Ben-Gurion early on, the prime minister asked him what he hoped to find in Israel.
“The minimum I see in this country, it will be a place where I can go out on a Sabbath morning wearing my shtreimel and my hassidic coat, my white socks and a prayer shawl on my shoulder, and no one will ever do me any harm,” he said. And the maximum? “I see you in a shtreimel.”
Datz has managed to make this more than the usual talking-heads documentary by carefully working with the archival footage to bring it to life and by illustrating the community’s strength by focusing on the details of the wedding preparations. Particularly memorable is a moment when the caterer inventories all the food, including three tons of cholent.
Interestingly, Datz himself is not religious but is a Tel Aviv journalist who first became aware of Sanz Hassidim when he covered a wedding in the Netanya community for television. The grandson of secular Holocaust survivors, he was intrigued, and maybe the fact that he isn’t part of that world is what allowed him to delve into just the questions about faith and struggle most secular people would like to pose to religious authorities.
The movie is well structured and the cinematography is particularly good and tells the story with little need for exposition.
For those who know hassidim only from the outside – and have experienced often negative encounters, such as being spit on for wearing clothes that aren’t considered modest enough – this movie will help explain why people choose to be part of these communities.
The movie is set to have its US premiere at the Miami Jewish Film Festival in January 2019.
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