A modern journey into the ancient world of Kabbalah
There are less time-consuming, less all-encompassing ways of dealing with a midlife crisis than the path chosen by Steven Bram.
But having chosen to give his life over to a spiritual journey centered on the study of kabbalah, Bram — a New York-based writer and producer of sports documentaries and the COO of Bombo Sports & Entertainment — not only fully embraced his path, he also made a movie about it.
“When you have touched something really profound, you want to share it,” Bram said. “When you’re juiced, you want everyone to be juiced.”
Co-written and co-directed by Bram, “Kabbalah Me” follows the documentarian’s five-year journey to connect more deeply with his Jewish heritage through regular study, prayer, a trip to Israel and — most significantly — through the study of kabbalah. The film will be distributed by First Run Features and will open for a limited engagement at the Laemmle Music Hall and Town Center Theatres on Sept. 5, and Bram will appear at a handful of screenings to conduct post-show Q-and-A’s.
Although his goal may be to send the message through his film about the power and accessibility of kabbalah study, Bram’s dedication to his path figures to continue long after “Kabbalah Me” has run its course in theaters.
“It’s still a big part of every day of my life,” he said. “I still work with the same four rabbis once a week each, and two of them are in Israel, so we Skype. I want to learn how to pray and how to daven, and I don’t know Hebrew. The hardest thing is learning Hebrew and how to pray.”
These may not sound like the aspirations of a typical middle-class Manhattanite who has made a living producing documentaries about the Boston Red Sox, Shaquille O’Neal and other sports luminaries. But as his film makes clear, Bram felt a void in his life well before his interest in exploring his Jewish roots intensified. He describes himself as having been a “secular modern Jewish person with not much connection to my heritage.”
“We had Rosh Hashanah dinner, fasted on Yom Kippur and [had] a seder at Passover. That was about it,” said Bram, who became a bar mitzvah but confessed, “I had no idea what I was reading.”
Between the approach of his 50th birthday and the death of his brother-in-law in the north tower of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, Bram began simultaneously “kind of freaking out” and “asking myself deep questions” along the lines of, “Where am I going?” “What have I accomplished?” and “What do I want to do with the rest of my life?”
The questions led Bram to a discussion with a close friend at a New York Rangers hockey game at Madison Square Garden. Bram’s friend asked him if he had ever closely studied the Torah under the guidance of a rabbi. Bram answered no. His friend then asked if he would he like to; Bram immediately said yes, and he quickly began studying with a rabbi through the Aish Center in Manhattan.
Then someone switched on a light
“Each week, I read the weekly parasha, and eventually I heard the word ‘kabbalah,’ ” Bram said. “Something about that word struck deeply inside me. It blew me away. I told the rabbi I wanted to learn kabbalah, and he said, ‘No, it doesn’t work that way. It takes time.’ I said, ‘I want to learn kabbalah now.’ ”
The film is diplomatic and deliberately vague in its characterization of exactly what kabbalah is and for whom it is intended. Is it the deeper spiritual interpretations of the Torah and Talmud, reachable only by Jews who have studied for dozens of years? Is it a path to inner fulfillment, a social fad embraced by celebrities such as Madonna, Mick Jagger and Gwyneth Paltrow? Or is kabbalah — as the Kabbalah Centre New York characterizes it — “an ancient wisdom that provides practical tools for creating joy and lasting fulfillment … an incredible system of technology that will completely change the way you look at your world”?
Whatever its purpose, kabbalah has a universal appeal, according to Bram. “Probably 80 percent of the people who go through the doors of the Kabbalah Centre are not Jewish,” he said. “There’s a real thirst. I’m told Muslims in Iran go online and look for courses in kabbalah.”
Bram’s interest in kabbalah dovetailed with his desire to explore his family’s Orthodox roots, although, as he points out, his path leading first to kabbalah and from there into his religious heritage — instead of the other way around — is somewhat unusual. The film follows Bram and his family to a Sukkot celebration with some of his Orthodox cousins in Brooklyn. As his journey deepens, Bram meets more relatives, samples more elements of the culture, and speaks to kabbalah instructors all over New York City and in Israel.
He is, in many ways, a student on a quest for knowledge, an onscreen persona that co-director Judah Lazarus characterizes as both genuine and charismatic. In other words, that American we observe cutting loose with 250,000 religious Jews in an Israeli mosh pit at the beginning of “Kabbalah Me” is not putting on an act.
“He is very honest and open in front of the camera, and he has an easy rapport with people,” Lazarus said. “Unlike me, Steven grew up in the Reform tradition, not Orthodox, and what he did was very valuable for me. He really had a love and an appreciation of observance of religious Judaism. He saw the beauty of those traditions in a natural and organic way, and I think he envied them.”
The deeper he delves into religious practices and kabbalah, the more Bram seems to leave his family behind. His wife, Miriam, and his two daughters are shown in the film asking questions and expressing some doubt over changes in Bram. Miriam Bram, who was also raised Jewish, admits she doesn’t connect to the spiritual and religious aspect of the faith with the same intensity as her husband, and says in the film, “I’d prefer he not be too extreme, since that would be in contrast with what I want.”
Miriam Bram had not seen the completed film prior to one of the screenings after the theatrical release of “Kabbalah Me.” But she said she is proud of her husband’s accomplishment.
“We have come to a better understanding, and we’re more united,” she said. “He has been clear he’s going to do his thing, but not in ways that would affect or uproot our family life as it is. I’ve been more open to learning from a spiritual standpoint.”
For his part, since going on his quest and making the film, Bram reports being more patient and being a better listener.
“I’m not saying I’m all the way there, but I’ve made strides,” he said. “I think I care about people more than I used to. I’m trying to see my life in the context of all of human creation. When you do that, how can you be upset over someone saying something bad about you?”