A personal exploration of Kabbalah

In the documentary ‘Kabbalah Me,’ director Steven Bram puts a lens to Jewish mysticism and himself.

US FILMMAKER Steve Bram (right) dances with Orthodox Jewish men during a visit to Israel, as seen in ‘Kabbalah Me’  (photo credit: Courtesy)
US FILMMAKER Steve Bram (right) dances with Orthodox Jewish men during a visit to Israel, as seen in ‘Kabbalah Me’
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Steven Bram is a documentary filmmaker and Jew, but the two paths converged when he realized that his reconnection with Judaism through the study of kabbalah’s mystical secrets would make the perfect subject for a film. Now three years later, his documentary Kabbalah Me is coming to Israel for select screenings across the country. You can see the film on May 18 and 19 in the Old City in Jerusalem at the Aish HaTorah center, with additional screenings in Safed and Tel Aviv on May 20-21.
What is kabbalah?
Depending on when you ask me, I have a different answer. The more I learn, the more I realize how little I know. But I would say kabbalah is like the “why” of everything. In Judaism, there’s a lot of focus on what you’re supposed to do, how you’re supposed to do it, and at what time. Kabbalah asks, why? I think that’s what kabbalah really talks about and it’s what got me interested in my Judaism in the first place. I wasn’t interested in someone saying to me, “At 6:18, this is what you have to do, and this is what you can’t do on this day.” I grew up as a very Reform Jew in New York City. What was taught to us was, “Be proud to be Jewish, be proud of Israel, but Judaism is about doing what you want, how you want. You decide what it means to be a good person and how you want to be a good person.”
That’s how I lived for a long time. When I started learning more about kabbalah, I started realizing that these things that seem like hassles are actually freeing.
They expand your consciousness; they don’t restrict it.
That’s a big part of what kabbalah has done for me. It’s enabled me to understand that.
Is that what inspired you to make this documentary?
I started learning because I had a friend who was very involved with the Aish center here in New York, and I was at a Rangers game with him when we started talking about Judaism. He asked if I wanted to meet a rabbi that would come to me and learn with me on my schedule.
So, I decided to do it. This rabbi was very traditional. He started teaching me a lot of rules and regulations. At that time, I wasn’t open to hearing that, so I asked if we could just learn Torah. Because my whole life going to Reform temple, the rabbi opens the ark, and we feel this awe because there’s the Torah, but nobody knows what’s in it. None of us had really read it.
So, I spent a year going through all the parshiyot with him. Every once in awhile he would comment, “Kabbalah says this about this story.” Just hearing that really excited me. I kept wanting to learn kabbalah with him, but he said I wasn’t ready yet; that I had to learn more talmud before I would be ready. So I switched to a different rabbi, who right away wanted to teach me kabbalah because he knew that was the way to keep me interested in my Judaism. I kept learning and I just thought that it was unbelievable. I kept asking him why no one is learning this stuff.
I’m a filmmaker by profession; I’ve been the co-owner of a film company that makes sports documentaries for the last 15 years. He suggested since I’m a filmmaker and I have all these resources that I should start teaching people about kabbalah. I didn’t want to do an educational video because I felt I wasn’t qualified and it would be too dry. So, I sort of let it go. Then, I learned about the Pardes story, where the four men go in to pardes (the orchard) and Rabbi Akiva is the only one who goes in peace and comes out in peace. I was really interested in the fact that these people were getting really into some intense meditative stuff, and going up into these upper realms. They were really expanding their consciousness and freaking out; only one could handle it. I started thinking that would make a good model for a movie.
We would follow four people as they start learning kabbalah, and see how it affects their lives. But it became very expensive to follow four different people, both logistically and financially. As I was looking at footage, the other people involved kept saying that the film should be about me. I didn’t want that. I’m a producer; I don’t like to be front and center. But eventually, I realized, after everyone kept telling me, that the dynamics between my family were the most interesting, and it became about me.
When all is said and done, how long did this documentary take to complete?
It was exactly three years from the time we first started working on it to the opening at the Quad Cinema in Manhattan.
How did you pick the title, ‘Kabbalah Me’?
It was going to be called, “The Orchard” because that’s what the story is called that was the inspiration for the film. But people kept telling me that no one would get the reference. They said if the documentary is about kabbalah, then I had to get kabbalah into the title. Because people are on Netflix, and they’re browsing through a thousand titles. If they see “The Orchard,” they’re just going to keep going. But if they see the word “kabbalah,” they’ll read the synopsis or watch the trailer. In the end, the title is simple and catchy, and we went with it.
How does (Jerusalem’s own) Rabbi Yitzchak Schwartz feature in the documentary?
My second rabbi, who wanted to teach me kabbalah right from the start, his name is Adam Jacobs. As I was learning with him, he suggested two rabbis in Jerusalem, who he thought I would connect with. One of them was Rabbi Schwartz. I still learn with him once a week on Skype. He is so warm, welcoming and kind.
He’s also hip and cool. He has a background that I can relate to. When we learn together, he will start strumming his guitar and he’ll tell me just to close my eyes and repeat the word “shema.” I just gravitated to him.
More importantly, my wife Miriam connected to him in a big way. That’s a huge part of what the movie is about; me getting into kabbalah, and her resisting. She uses Rabbi Schwartz as more of a personal life coach, and it’s been amazing for her.
Has kabbalah become too commoditized?
I believe that Jews are looking for deep connection (and non-Jews too.) Especially in America, Reform and Conservative Jews have not found the meaning that they’re looking for. 90 percent of Buddhists in America are Jews. They didn’t find that connection growing up.
If someone is reading the Zohar and shouldn’t be, but it strikes something deep in them and takes them on their path, it’s good. I do hear about the kabbalah center and they are in the documentary a bit. The majority of the people there are not Jewish. Now, observant Jews would say that’s absurd; you cannot teach those people this information. The criticism is that they’re messing with some really powerful stuff and they’re not equipped to handle it. But my general philosophy is that we need to be connected.
If the Arizal was still alive, what would he think about this documentary and would he be involved?
With the Arizal, we went from the spiritual era of Tohu (shattering) to the era of Tikkun (rectification).
He changed everything. Part of changing everything means that people are going to have to find out who they are and what their purpose is toward making the world a better place. I can’t begin to imagine what the Arizal would think, but I can only hope that he would think this is why I’m here; to share my story and my enthusiasm for reconnecting with my Jewish heritage.
For more information on the documentary, visit kabbalahme.com.