When Yossi Klein was growing up in Brooklyn's Boro Park, the bedtime stories his father told him were about the Jews and the Holocaust.
By the time he was 20, in 1973, Yossi Klein had been an activist since sixth grade and had gone to Moscow to protest the plight of Soviet Jewry. But when he returned home, he began to wonder whether there was more to Jewish life for him than being, in his own phrase, "a professional demonstrator."
Filmed over a span of seven years, Steve Brand's warm and intimate documentary, "Kaddish" (at the Nuart Sunday through next Saturday), presents an exceptionally reflective, thoroughly likable young man struggling to achieve maturity before our eyes. The unusually long stretch of time in the film's making, encompassing a cycle of birth and death, brings universality to the very specific challenge of growing up as the child of a Holocaust survivor. Any thoughtful person will surely recognize himself or herself in Yossi Klein and in his loving, though sometimes argumentative, relationship with his father, Zoltan.
Yossi's attractive, sensible mother, Breindy, tells us that her husband didn't want to bring children into this world, but she had insisted. No wonder Zoltan felt as he did; he escaped Auschwitz, which claimed his parents along with thousands of other Hungarian Jews, only by hiding from May to October, 1944, in a bunker he and several friends dug in a forest, where they were protected by a Romanian peasant.
By 1950 Zoltan managed to emigrate to America, soon marrying and establishing a wholesale candy business. When he had a son and then a daughter, he loved them deeply but also feared for them. As a child, Yossi and his playmates, as offspring in the country's largest community of Orthodox Jewish Holocaust survivors, were already planning escape routes through Boro Park's sewer systems.
We witness over the years the various stages in Yossi's coming to terms with himself, his father and his heritage. Along with attempting to fulfill the normal desire of a young man to leave home and make his own way--and as a journalist, not a businessman like his father--Yossi must also ask himself if life is only preparation for another Holocaust and if his religion is only a dead ritual.
He is involved in nothing less than a spiritual odyssey, which culminates at the 1981 World Gathering of Holocaust Survivors, where, he says, he's "wearing two yarmulkes," as a reporter and as his father's son. With its reunions, its sermons or remembrances in six languages and its immense bulletin boards with thousands of messages requesting information of long-lost friends and relatives, this profound emotional experience at last allows Yossi to see Zoltan not as a victim, but as a survivor.
"Kaddish" (Times-rated Family, although concentration camp footage is too intense for the very young) takes its name from the Jewish prayer for the dead, but it is finally a film of affirmation. Its occasionally amusing, almost home-movie, family-scrapbook quality makes personal the very serious and timeless issues it illuminates so beautifully. As perhaps no other documentary has, "Kaddish" accomplishes the great task of suggesting that to be a member of an oppressed minority can actually be, rather than a curse, a privilege--but one which carries with it both a heightened awareness of the preciousness of life and a sense of responsibility for its preservation.