A tale of love and loss and the Holocaust, in Yiddish

When Naomi Jaye, who has been making short films in her native Canada for the past 10 years, told friends she was embarking on her first feature film, they cheered.

When she added that the project would be the first Canadian movie in Yiddish, which neither she nor her lead actors knew, the friends questioned her sanity.

Five years later, the result of her perseverance is “The Pin,” a story of love and loss during the Holocaust, of faithfulness to a promise and the question of whether a sense of humanity can survive in a world transformed into a slaughterhouse.

The movie’s first scene shows Jacob, somewhere between adolescence and manhood, emerging from a hole in a forest, glancing around warily, and then running as if escaping an unseen enemy.

In the second scene, set in a morgue, an elderly Shomer, who guards the body and soul of the dead until burial, reads psalms from a prayer book while occasionally glancing at a body resting on a gurney, covered by a white sheet.

In a long flashback, the Shomer recalls his youth. The year is 1941, Nazi armies have overrun his hometown somewhere in Eastern Europe and have killed his entire family.

He finds shelter in a barn that seems empty, but soon encounters a young Jewish girl, Leah, whose family has met the same fate and who has also gone into hiding.

After initial suspicion and confrontation, the two orphans move toward each other, emotionally and physically, fall in love, and eventually conduct their own impromptu wedding ceremony.

When Leah hears of an empty train that travels “across the border,” she and Jacob plan their escape and a happy life together. But fate and a quarrel interfere, and the young lovers are separated, neither knowing what happened to the other.

What about “the pin” of the title?

Jaye says the inspiration for the story and title came from her grandmother, who throughout her long life had an obsessive fear of being buried alive.

As she aged, she made her son, Jaye’s father, promise that when she died, he would prick her hand with a pin, to make absolutely certain that she was actually dead before placing her body in a coffin.

This story, Jaye said, “always fascinated me, because it required an act of true love that was also an act of violence.”

Decades later, when Jacob, now the aged Shomer, lifts the sheet and looks at the body beneath, he realizes that lying before him is his youthful love, Leah. He remembers her fear of being buried alive, his promise to her, and he starts looking for a pin.

It would be an unpardonable spoiler to reveal the end of the story, but, to Jaye, the tale, and the movie, represents the ultimate triumph of the human spirit.

In an interview, she explained this assertion by noting that the chief protagonists, “caught in a terrible situation, are able to find beauty and love.”

Some viewers may find it difficult to accept this hopeful evaluation, or appreciate the extremely slow pace of the movie, marked by long, wordless pauses in semi-dark settings.

Jaye has a cogent explanation for using this technique. “The lives of people in hiding, as for soldiers in war, are marked by long periods of waiting,” between occasional bursts of extreme action, and, the director said, this was the mood she was trying to convey.

Her main problem in casting the movie was the lack of any young actors in Canada who knew Yiddish.

She solved the problem, quite effectively, by putting Grisha Pasternak, who plays Jacob, and Milda Gecaite, as Leah, through a six-month Yiddish course, and the results are quite satisfying.

Both actors arrived in Canada as children, Pasternak from Ukraine and Gecaite from Lithuania. Neither is Jewish, and both show considerable talent.

Veteran character actor David Fox, as the Shomer, has few lines but lets his expressive face do most of the talking.

“The Pin” will have a local benefit premiere on Oct. 24, 7 p.m. at the Laemmle Royal Theatre in West Los Angeles. Jaye and the cast will be on hand for a Q-and-A and to share refreshments with the audience. Tickets, at $25 each for this evening, can be ordered at https://thepinfilm.eventbrite.com/?ref=elink. Unsold seats will be available at the box office.

Starting Oct. 25, “The Pin” will continue at the Royal Theatre at regular prices, and at the Sundance Sunset Cinema in West Hollywood. On Nov. 1, the film will start screening at Playhouse 7 in Pasadena, Town Center in Encino and South Coast Village 3 in Santa Ana.

If Only

Two words work to keep us from deeper, more spiritual lives: if only. Sometimes it seems that life would be more meaningful, spiritual and religious, if only we could find the time. If only we could separate ourselves from our day-to-day concerns. If only we could tune out the noise of the world and concentrate. If only the phone would stop ringing. If only we didn’t have to worry about the bills. If only everyone would just leave us alone.

This week, the Torah introduces us to a type of person seeking an extra level of holiness. In biblical times, a Nazirite would voluntarily take a vow to adopt extreme limitations on his behavior and accept three types of restrictions: he wouldn’t eat grapes or grape products, wouldn’t cut his hair, and would avoid any contact with a dead body. For a minimum of 30 days – sometimes for much longer – the Nazirite led a life of careful avoidance of these activities.

Why these three restrictions in particular? Traditionally, the Nazirite vow is understood as an effort to transcend some of the baser and more materialistic forces of the world in favor of greater spirituality. Spiritually vacuous temptations abounded in ancient days – just like today. By curtailing his alcohol consumption (no grape products) and abandoning physical vanity (no haircuts), the Nazirite tried to remove himself from some of the more tangible examples of worldliness. And by avoiding contact with corpses, he did away with physical reminders of human mortality, which might spiral into hopelessness or emotional paralysis. In this biblical form of asceticism, the Nazirite freed himself from encountering everyday physicality.

Why would someone take on such a vow? The Nazirite needed a change in his life. A jump-start toward holiness. Perhaps he knew his weaknesses with some of the baser pleasures of life – as many of us do – and needed more boundaries than society’s typical rules offered him. Perhaps he sought a closer relationship with God – as do many of us – and saw the threefold abstinence as a way of reaching for that higher kedusha (holiness). Or maybe the Nazirite simply looked around him and saw a world unable to transcend the physical, and he sought, in his vow, an escape.

Whatever the motivations of the Nazirite, the Torah seems to applaud his efforts. He is called “holy to God,” and “one who does something astounding.”But then something even more astounding occurs. At the end of the abstinence period, what does the Nazirite do? Does he throw a party? Does he recite a blessing? What would you do, after it was all over? How would you mark the moment? The Torah tells us what the Nazirite has to do: After abstaining, he is obligated to bring a sin-offering to God.

Why? How has the Nazirite sinned? What has he done wrong? Remarkably, the sin – according to some traditional interpreters – is in becoming a Nazirite in the first place. Yes, he’s “holy” – but holy with a price. The requirement for a sin-offering reveals the Torah’s critique of the Nazirite’s extremism. With his vow, a Nazirite avoids pleasures as well as risks. Wine, while potentially dangerous, is also a source of holiness and conveyor of joy. Cutting one’s hair is a symbol of participation in society – a significant Jewish value. And exposure to death is an essential part of life; contemplation of mortality leads many people to greeting life with increased passion and meaning.

What is holiness? Is it a life of quiet meditation, separation from the world, all soul and no body? Not to the Jewish mind. The Nazirite teaches us that the holiest moments come from engagement, from taking risks and surviving them, from facing the hardest challenges. If only we can find holiness in everything we do.

Shawn Fields-Meyer of Los Angeles is rabbi of Congregation Etz Hadar in Redlands. She is instructor of liturgy at the Ziegler School