Wisdom from the past

Rebbe Nachman stars on the silver screen, in a film shot around Jerusalem.

Yehuda Barkan and Amichai Fishman as the king and the ‘Turkey Prince.’ (photo credit: JENNY KLINCOVSTEIN)
Yehuda Barkan and Amichai Fishman as the king and the ‘Turkey Prince.’
(photo credit: JENNY KLINCOVSTEIN)
"Today everybody is preoccupied with one sort of screen or another,” laments Jerusalemite author and film director Tzvi Fishman with a thoughtful stroke of his gray beard. “Even my twoyear- old grandson leaps straight for his father’s smartphone whenever he gets the chance, and operates it with ease.”
Everyone in the Western world knows that this trend is impossible to ignore, and it leaves many troubled; yet Fishman finds in it a subtle invitation to utilize the screen as a “new teaching tool for the modern age.”
Having written several books intent on making Jewish tradition and values more accessible and palatable to the younger generations, Fishman’s newest project is a filmed version of some of the most celebrated parables famously told by Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, appropriately titled Stories of Rebbe Nachman.
With a budget of only $150,000, cobbled together from his own savings along with some humble donations and an Internet fund-raising campaign, Fishman set out in early 2014 to assemble a cast and crew that would help bring to life four of Rebbe Nachman’s illustrious fables, an idea he has dreamed of realizing for close to three decades.
Prominent among this crew is beloved Israeli actor Yehuda Barkan, who out of shared enthusiasm for the project agreed to participate for symbolic pay. With him came a motley assortment of actors, most of them volunteers: friends of Fishman from his local synagogue in Kiryat Moshe, two of his own sons, plus a lifelong friend from his brief time in Hollywood, Daniel Dayan, who himself has since become an avid follower of Rebbe Nachman’s teachings.
The locations chosen for the movie set were equally unconventional. Most scenes were shot in any makeshift spot around Jerusalem that could be arranged at the time. “Visiting the home of our talented set and wardrobe designer, Francoise Coriat, I realized her living room area had an old-fashioned feel to it and was highly decorated with antiques… It was absolutely perfect for some of the scenes in the movie.”
Other scenes were shot at two particularly beautiful stone houses in the German Colony neighborhood, owned by a real estate contractor who was excited to offer his property for the movie’s use in return for a cup of coffee with Yehuda Barkan. The Renaissance Hotel kindly offered one of its main halls, and Beit Hansen permitted use of a few of its historic stony rooms that serve as a leper hospital during the British mandate.
Truly, necessity is the mother of invention – such a creative choice of locations could only have been conceived under the constraints of a tight budget.
At first glance, it may seem difficult to find modern relevance in old hassidic stories from the 18th century.
But an open mind will quickly perceive the applicability of the tales to the challenges of modern life. The four stories featured in the film were selected precisely for the universality and timelessness of their messages.
One story tells of a king whose beloved son is struck one fateful day with the conviction that he is a turkey, and so behaves as one – a rather comic portrayal of what nearly every modern parent encounters when a rebellious teenage son or daughter drifts into unruly behavior and refuses to listen to reason. The crisis is resolved when a Jewish sage manages to slowly bring back the crown prince into the fold by acting like a turkey himself, thereby winning the boy’s trust. This is perhaps a call for today’s parents to speak to their children at eye level, with willingness to understand the younger generation rather than simply reproach it.
Another fable relates the story of a powerful king whose limitless riches leave him wholly unhappy, and increasingly envious of a lowly peasant who dwells in a squalid shack, but finds there all the happiness one can hope for in life. Any 21st-century viewer will identify with the wisdom that material wealth and success can never quench our fundamental thirst for personal connections, love and spiritual fulfillment.
Beyond the relevance to us on an individual level, these centuries-old stories carry a message to be heard by the Jewish nation at large. Having lived at the height of the Haskalah (Jewish Enlightenment) Movement in Europe, Rebbe Nachman was warning through his parables of the danger and folly that he recognized in the rush of many Jews of his day towards European culture and intellectualism, and away from Judaism.
As such, the tale of the two brothers, one intellectual and worldly and the other a simpleton, in fact pits the scholars of the Haskalah who fell under the sway of modernity against the hassidim of Eastern Europe, who held on to tradition. Ultimately the tale ends with the latter finding peace and success in life, the former spiraling into a vapid abyss of misery.
The allegory remains equally powerful in 2015, when the tension between cosmopolitan Tel Aviv and traditional Jerusalem embodies one of the most significant fault lines in Israeli society that will determine the character of the country in our generation.
Rebbe Nachman, living today, would agree with Fishman – that Israeli society will find its prosperity only by a healthy return to its Jewish roots and values; and likewise the Jewish people at large will find their fulfillment only in the ultimate return of all Diaspora Jews to the Land of Israel.
His mind already bustles with ideas for more projects. Fishman dreams of filming another movie that will be set in Jerusalem and showcase the city’s unique beauty, and will also celebrate one of many fascinating figures that fill the pages of our long national history – something that he points out has hardly been done in film thus far. “There is a lot of room for a Jewish hero,” his face lights up. “Rabbi [Abraham Isaac] Kook’s story for example, butting heads with the ultra-Orthodox community of Jerusalem, the secular Zionist pioneers and the British authorities, is an extraordinary tale that demands to be filmed.”
Until such future plans are under way, Fishman invests his energies and contagious enthusiasm in promoting the charming Stories of Rebbe Nachman. Already, the film has been screened in schools and cultural centers across the country, under the auspices of the Education Ministry. The next public screening was set to be held in the capital on October 22, at the Jewish Institute for the Blind. Fishman wishes the ripe fruits borne of the creativity, dedication, resourcefulness and sheer passion of all people involved in this initiative to be reaped by as many people as can possibly be reached.
“If we looked down at Earth from space, we would see today many tiny lights coming in from all corners of the world and congregating in Israel, where the combined light is growing brighter and brighter every day,” remarks a starry-eyed Fishman.
We can only hope that his beautifully crafted film will add that much more light to us all here in Israel, and to the entire world.
For more information regarding Stories of Rebbe Nachman: www.rebbenachmanmovie.
com Full screening and lecture by Tzvi Fishman: November 4 at 8 p.m.; Partial screening (“The worldly sun and the simpleton” story): November 15 at 8 p.m. Both at Israel Center, 22 Keren Hayesod Street. Cost: NIS 25 shekels. Details: 054-924-8785.