‘Fringes’: Documentary explores different ways to be Jewish

The film follows two families and one clutch of young men over the course of about a year.

Esther, Aryeh, and Pablo Elliott on farm  Virginia 370 (photo credit: Evan Abramson/Vassar)
Esther, Aryeh, and Pablo Elliott on farm Virginia 370
(photo credit: Evan Abramson/Vassar)
NEW YORK – Fringes, a documentary following the lives of three families of Jews in disparate parts of the world, had a successful New York premiere at the Manhattan Jewish Community Center on November 5. The film, while a bit rough around the cinematic edges, poses interesting and pertinent questions about the practice of Judaism and what defines a Jew at a time of much hand-wringing over the future of the Jewish people and the disappearance of the less-religious sects.
The film follows two families and one clutch of young men over the course of about a year: a young farmer couple, Esther and Pablo, in rural Virginia, who start a family and are trying to keep their farm afloat; an Orthodox couple in Montreal, Leibish and Dena, who founded, and throughout the film are attempting to sustain, a shul called the Ghetto Shul; and a group of young Israeli 20-somethings, just out of the army, who decided to leave Orthodoxy and found the Secular Yeshiva in Jerusalem.
Thematically, the film draws very interesting parallels between the three disparate lives. In many ways, all three stories feature start-ups ventures or start-up relationships that experienced failure: Esther experiences a miscarriage, the Ghetto Shul shuts down while Leibish tries to find time with his children, the Secular Yeshiva struggles to find funds in its first year.
Fringes runs only around 73 minutes, and thus leaves the viewer feeling as though each story has a little more to offer than what was shown. For instance, while the film touches on the challenges of being a small independent farmer family who is trying to keep Shabbat, it doesn’t really delve into that potential financial and cultural struggles of that dichotomy, choosing instead to focus on that the Jewish journey of both Esther and Pablo as they welcome their new son, Aryeh.
Similarly, the story of the Secular Yeshiva touches on their financial struggles and shows a bit of the Yeshiva’s reception by the wider Jerusalem community, but in the end chooses instead to focus on the general philosophy of the Yeshiva in its first year. The story of Leibish and Dena features a small aside about Leibish’s distinctly secular musical activities, a story that begs for more exploration, but instead revolves around their familial struggles while trying to run what is essentially a start-up business.
In the end, all of these people represent ways of embracing Judaism and Jewish identity without conforming to mainstream Judaism, but are still striving to validate their Jewish identity. In this way, director Paula Weiman-Kelman told the audience at the Manhattan JCC, the film is meant to offer comfort for those who don’t exactly conform to the Jewish “ideal.” Producer Jonathan Loupatin added one of his favorite lines lines in the film comes from Nir, one of the founders of the Secular Yeshiva, who says at one point, “I’m not either religious or not religious. I’m both.”
This is not Weiman-Kelman’s first film: she is a veteran of 16 previous documentaries, some of them solo shoots, and many of them focusing on Jewish or other religious themes.
Even so, some of the camera work seems a bit amateurish. Camera angles are a bit bewildering and the camera work shaky at times; at one point Dena, the rebbetzin from Montreal, is interrupted by a bystander wandering through a doorway and straight through the shot.
Fringes premiered in Jerusalem in December 2012 at the Jerusalem Jewish Film Festival at the Jerusalem Cinematique, and currently has screenings scheduled at film festivals in Budapest, Bucharest, Tuscon, and Washington DC.