'Torn' between two worlds

A new documentary tells the fascinating story of Jakub Weksler, a Polish-Catholic priest who has moved to Israel and wants to make aliya.

Jakub Weksler (photo credit: Courtesy)
Jakub Weksler
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Can a priest be Jewish? That’s one of the many questions raised by the new documentary, Torn, which will be screened tonight at the Jerusalem Cinematheque at 7:30.
The film, which was directed by Ronit Kertsner, tells the compelling and moving story of Jakub Weksler, a Polish-Catholic priest who has moved to Israel and wants to make aliya. Born Jewish in 1943, his parents managed to convince a Polish family to take him in and adopt him. His biological parents were murdered in the Holocaust and no relative came back for him after the war, so he grew up thinking he was Romauld Waskinel. You may have heard stories like this before, but this one is different, because Weksler, who was a devout Catholic, became a priest. But in his thirties, when he learned of his Jewish identity, he struggled to figure out his place in the world, eventually coming to the conclusion that he could never repudiate his Jewish identity. Appalled by the anti-Semitism of the Catholic Church in Poland, he decided, in his mid-sixties, that he must come to Israel.
At this point, things got really complicated.
While Weksler wanted to live in Israel and learn Hebrew on a religious kibbutz, he also could not deny his Catholic faith. Churches in Israel did not want to take him in because he was Jewish, and he searched hard for a religious Jewish community that would allow him to attend church on Sundays.
Formally requesting to be granted citizenship under the Law of Return, he entered the Kafkaesque labyrinth of the Israeli bureaucracy.
Director Kertsner met him while filming a previous documentary, The Secret, about Poles who learn as adults that they are Jewish.
When she decided, ten years after the completion of that film, to check on what her subjects were up to, she learned that Weksler was planning to move to Israel and she reconnected with him.
“His story is a true tragedy in that there can be no good solution,” says Kertsner, who, along with Weksler and others who participated in the film, will be present at the screening to take questions from the audience.
Although many believe that anyone born Jewish can get citizenship here based on the Law of Return, Kertsner explains that a provision in the law forbids citizenship to anyone who has chosen to practice another religion, without choosing to abandon the other faith when moving here.
BUT FOR the painfully honest Weksler, his Catholic identity is critical to who he is. A respected member of the priesthood, he taught philosophy at the Catholic University of Lublin and had a comfortable, established life there.
“There’s no question that in many ways, he would have been happier if he had stayed there. He was a very respected and beloved teacher,” says Kertsner. “But he couldn’t do that.”
After a struggle, in which he was helped by his friend, Nina, who lives in Israel and has a similar background to his, he found a place at Sde Eliahu, a religious kibbutz with an ulpan, where he lived for about a year. Even there, however, the kibbutz leaders were not comfortable with the idea that Weksler would attend church, although they said he could worship privately in his room.
Making a film about him during this difficult period of his life wasn’t simple, says Kertsner.
“It was good for him in a way to participate in the film, but there were many times when he didn’t want to be filmed. There were things that he didn’t want to tell us. Paradoxically, he flowered in front of the camera. . . When he would talk to me, it would bring up his story and all its pain over again. It was a tough experience.”
In spite of his pain, she says, “It was important for him that people hear his story. People ask him to speak all the time. Sometimes he’s happy and sometimes he breaks out crying.”
One disagreement the director had with her subject was over the title of the film.
“We have between us not exactly an argument. He says he is not torn. He says he lives in peace with the his two identities. I say that people see him from outside as torn.”
In spite of the pain he has experienced upon learning of his two identities and all the difficulties involved in making a new life in Israel, “He told me that for the first time, living on the kibbutz, it was the first time in his life he feels secure.
All his life in Poland he didn’t feel safe all his life in Poland, even though he didn’t know exactly why. . . But he said he feels more at home on the kibbutz and in Jerusalem than he ever did before.”
Recently, Kertsner says, Weksler has found himself through working at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, where he works on Polish documents.
“It’s as if he’s piecing together the parts of his own puzzle,” she says.
“And it’s the only place in Israel that accepts both his identities completely.”