Sunday, February 04, 2007

The Movie of the Rav: Lonely Man of Faith

I attended the New York premiere of Lonely Man of Faith, the Rav Soloveitchik biopic, last night at Yeshiva University's Lamport Auditorium, the room where the Rav used to give his big public lectures.

As expected, the event began on Jewish time, about eight o'clock or so. R' Brander said a few words of welcome, as did one or two others, but then Ethan Isenberg, the filmmaker, spoke for 20 minutes, droning on and on thanking everyone who had helped him with the film - the interviewees, correspondents, R' Nordlicht the keeper of the tapes, the foundations that produce books, the relatives who allowed him to use photographs, the YU leadership for all their help, the camera operators, the key grip, etc. etc. Twenty minutes of this.

Finally the film began. After some initial technical difficulties, it went pretty well. A number of people I know spoke on the film about the Rav and their relationships with, and experiences of, him: R' Saul Berman, R' Reuven Cohn, R' JJ Schachter, R' Shalom Carmy, R' Kenny Brander, a number of Boston people who I didn't know, and most affectingly, his sister Dr. Anne Gerber.

It really brought out how New York was always a source of tension for him, even if that was where his main talmidim (students) were, towards the end he worried that some were listening to him in search of something on which to "get" him, much as some have speculated that yeshivish guys listen to R' Herschel Schachter's shiurim on to find grounds on which to criticize him.

Boston, however, was home. He was always relaxed there, his wife and children were there, the school that was his pride & joy (although his wife, and later his daughter Dr. Twersky, really managed the school on a day-to-day basis). After the difficulties of the early years, when he was falsely accused of racketeering in his efforts to clean up the kosher meat business, and encountered opposition from assimilationists over the founding of Maimonides, Boston became his center, his base.

The Rav was a caged tiger during shiur, through the early 1960s, one rav recounted. Flashing black eyes, darting to and fro. If he called on you, and you understood the material, he wrote down "yada" (knew it). If you didn't understand it, he wrote "lo yada" (didn't know). If you looked like you knew it but didn't understand it to his satisfaction, he wrote down "shakran" (liar).

The annus horribilis of 1967, when he lost his mother, brother and wife in a thre-month period, changed him, mellowed him. At one point in the 1970s, R' Haym Soloveitchik stopped in during shiur, and when someone came up with an answer, the Rav said "not too bad, could be". R' Haym noted afterwards, "since when did Papa say 'not bad' to such nonsense?"

The film stated outright that the final illness was Parkinsons. The Rav was aware and thinking right up to the end - one of the rabbeim came to visit near the end, and said something about a shaila in the Rambam, and the Rav quoted back several paragraphs out of Hilchos Yesodei HaTorah.

The film concluded with the controversy over defining what the Rav was: rav, posek, teacher, philosopher, for/against secular studies, for/against this or that. It was noted that he gave different answers to different people, and even beyond that, different students who were in the room at the same time could come away with different impressions of where the Rav stood on any given issue. R' JJ Schachter said, The Rav was a complicated man.

We left immediately after the film and went to the seforim sale, hoping to beat the worst of the crowding, so we didn't get to hear the panel discussion afterwards. I expect that will be recorded on within a few days.

Someone who used to daven at my shul has recently set up a great resource and links site on The Rav. R' Brander noted it by name in his opening; please check it out. Full disclosure: he links to my notes on some R' Rakeffet lectures on the Rav from 1993.

I think Isenberg's too-long speech may be due to youth. Isenberg had been in computers, then switched to film school. He was scrounging around for a project, his first one, and R' Rakeffet mentioned that he was looking for someone to make a film about the Rav - so the shidduch was made. It's his first feature film project. I've been to other screenings of a documentary, e.g. Trembling Before G-d by Sandi Simcha DuBowski. DuBowski gave a 3-minute speech introducing the film, we saw the film, then there was a panel discussion. Worked just fine. Improvements will come with age, I'm sure.

I highly recommend the film, and hope it comes out soon for wider distribution, so we can show it at our synagogue.


SF said...

Very good review, although I think you were too kind to the director. :)

SF said...

Actually, I have one more comment about the technical difficulties. The first half a minute or so ran without sound, and yet they didn't rewind the film, probably because the director already wasted so much time.

Then later in the film inexplicably it jumped back about 10 minutes and they had to fast forward. How did that happen? Could it have been a poorly mastered DVD? If only the director had spent more time making sure the film would run smoothly, and less time on his long-winded, irrelevant, and self serving introductory remarks.

dw said...

I loved the film with some exceptions. I couldn't sit thru the director's speech. And, I didn't understand some of those interviewed, especially the older ones. There should have been sub titles for most. The panal discussion did not interest me and I actually fell asleep for part of it. Pizza, across the street, was a bonus.

thanbo said...

I thought they could have mentioned the Rav's early exposure to Tanya, which apparently led to his being somewhat less antagonistic to Chassidus than most of the Briskers.

It was glossed over with "in Khaslovich, unable to find a suitable tutor, R' Moshe himself tutored his son."

Full disclosure: commenter SF is my chavruta, with whom I saw the movie. Someone else in the car parodied the filmmaker's confession-introduction as "I started in computers, but couldn't figure out the .NET architecture, so I decided to make a film about the Rav." Does this matter? He made a film, let it stand on its merits.

Nachum said...

Hey, if he hadn't spoken so long, a bunch of us who had been caught in traffic might have missed the beginning. Always look on the bright side...

SF said...

"He made a film, let it stand on its merits."

I agree, that is what he should have done. But he didn't. And I don't believe he was even on the agenda. It's not like this was a free screening. I paid $10 to attend and expected to watch a movie and hear a panel discussion. I did not expect to hear a "making of" the film.