In 1996 Rabbi Hanoch Teller debuted into the world of film, with his docu-drama, “Do You Believe in Miracles?” It was an overnight blockbuster earning a shelf-full of awards including The New York Times “Critic’s Choice.” Since then the renowned author has been rather silent in the video department until the release of Reb Elimelech and the Chassidic Legacy of Brotherhood, a 63-minute documentary detailing the rise of the chassidic movement, the master, Reb Elimelech M’Lizhensk, and the outcome of his doctrine of seeing the good in others.
I am not sure if we will ever know what prompted Teller to undertake this venture, but the fact is that over 30,000 pilgrims a year ― in the dead of the Polish winter and at significant expense ― travel to the remote Galician village of Lizhensk for Reb Elimelech’s yahrzeit. What draws so many people to make such sacrifice for just a few hours? The phenomenon begs an explanation and the movie provides the answer.
This truly touching film is anything but a travelogue promoting a destination. Rather, Reb Elimelech and the Chassidic Legacy of Brotherhood will catch the viewer by surprise. Beginning in a chassidic court amid hundreds of chassidim dancing in circles that rotate and spin; uncoil and swirl, the audience is transported into a riveting history lesson by the celebrated scholar and historian, Rabbi Berel Wein. Throughout his portrayal of the dismal period in Jewish history when Polish and Ukrainian Jewry were devastated by the Chmelnitzky massacres, the frequent blood libels, pogroms, the Sabbetai Zvi and Jacob Frank debacles, rare archival material, famous artwork and the places described― shot on location ― are screened.
The future of that region’s Jewry was hardly certain and hung in the balance. It was the advent of the chassidic movement that gave the despondent a purpose to live. More than anyone else, the Baal Shem Tov came to the people’s rescue. Orphaned at a very young age, the Baal Shem was no stranger to difficulty and without fire and brimstone or righteous indignation, he built up the bitter souls with a message of love. Love for one Jew toward another, and unrestrained love of the Lord.
It is here that Rabbi Dovid Gottlieb, senior lecturer at Ohr Somayach, Jerusalem, is able to portray with an eloquence that marks the entire film what chassidus was trying to accomplish and how it went about conveying its message.
The floundering chassidic movement embraced Reb Elimelech as their leader, making Lizhensk the capital of chassidus in Galicia. From that humblest village, Reb Elimelech was able to lead and inspire his followers in a way that would change the face of Jewry. The famed author and psychiatrist, Rabbi Dr. Abraham J. Twerski, spellbinds with his descriptions and practical gleanings from this chassidic master.
Rabbi Hanoch Teller who wrote, produced and directed the documentary, also weighs in with a storyfest of chassidic tales about Reb Elimelech. After watching this raconteur no one will question as to why he is known as the King of the Storytellers.
Alas, chassidus had its opponents (known as the misnagdim) and in Reb Elimelech’s time they took off their gloves in their rejection and antagonism. This was war ― except that one side refused to fight back! At the behest of Reb Elimelech, the misnagdim were not to be confronted. Their hostility, he maintained, emanated from a good place.
Reb Elimelech bequeathed a legacy to see the good in others and never focus on their drawbacks. His message is as relevant today as it was in pogrom-ridden Poland of the 18th Century. Rabbi Moshe Weinberger from Aish Kodesh in Woodmere, another luminary interviewed in the documentary, expounds upon the practical applications of this lesson and how it is mainlined into the chassidic psyche.
Avraham Fried, the famous singer who rendered the words of Reb Elimlech’s tefila into a stirring tune, also opines about how critical ahavas Yisrael has always been for the unity of our People. Dayan Chanoch Ehrentreu from London explains why this is the very essence of a Jew.
By the time the film takes it’s decisive segue to the message and application of ahavas Yisrael in our time, the viewer has already had a veritable education regarding the early chassidic masters. The audience has also traveled to major chassidic centers the world over and gone behind the scenes at a tisch, hakofos sheniyos and heard what the men on the street have to say.
In a feat nearly unimaginable, the viewer is allowed into the closed world of the chassidic court to see ― indeed experience ― thousands of chassidim dancing with ecstasy. Suddenly the doctrine of the Baal Shem Tov ― that everything is to be done with paramount joy and a constant awareness of God’s presence in all of life’s facets ― has been captured on film. This is extraordinary photo journalism!
After viewing Reb Elimelech and the Chassidic Legacy of Brotherhood, loving one’s fellow person will need no more promotion and the question of “how?” will be thoroughly academic.
The viewer goes on a world tour from sedarim in India to tomchei Shabbos in Los Angeles and everywhere in between. Gemachim, Bikur cholim, foster care, Hatzolah, Yad Eliezer, Camp HASC, Simcha-etc.; the list is endless and so are the possibilities. You cannot watch this film and emerge without a strengthened resolve to assist others.
Independent of the exceptional camera work, the superb editing, the drama, the pathos and, yes, the humor, the film is a musical tour de force. From the opening moment until the dramatic ending, no holds are barred on Suki Berry’s unparalleled, musical genius. The movie is as much a concert as it is a powerfully dramatic presentation.
In as much as the musical accompaniment of the documentary is breathtaking, it is mere backdrop to the unprecedented duet of Avraham Fried and Abish Brodt’s rendition of Adrabba. Listening to the two of them harmonize will fool you into thinking you’ve been admitted to Heaven.
Reb Elimelech and the Chassidic Legacy of Brotherhood is an unequivocal five stars and double thumbs up. The only way to see this film is to arrange a screening (www.hanochteller.com) and there cannot be a more appropriate show to view during the sefira, Three Weeks, chol hamoed, Ellul ― any time! It is appropriate for every stripe of Jew no matter what their religious affiliation. It is equally appropriate for youngsters and oldsters; it is the ultimate family film.