Other Israel Film Festival: ‘Torn’ and ’77 Steps’

The premise of “Torn,” a documentary premiering in the U.S. this week at The Other Israel Film Festival in New York, sounds a bit like the classic rabbi and priest walk into a bar joke. Except that unlike the joke, the Jew and the Christian in the film are one and the same—Romuald Jakub Weksler-Waszkninel.

Jakub, as he is called throughout the film, was born a Jew during the Holocaust in Poland. His birth mother, who perished along with Jakub’s father and brother, left him in the care of a Polish Catholic couple who raised him ignorant of his Jewish background. At 23, Jakub was ordained as a Catholic priest.

If the story ended there, it would merely be an interesting footnote in the tragic history of the Holocaust. But when Jakub was 35, his adoptive mother, believing that she did not have much time left to live, told her son about his Jewish origins. That led to years of exploration and soul searching, culminating with Jakub’s decision, at 67, to move to Israel.

“Torn,” by Ronit Kertsner, tells the story of Jakub’s attempt to gain recognition as a Jew under Israel’s Law of Return. Despite being a victim of the Holocaust, the state won’t let him enter as a Jew since he refuses to renounce his Christianity.

Like most of the films at the Other Israel Film Festival, now in its fifth year, “Torn” gives voice to the marginalized and excluded, to the communities who can’t assimilate into the Jewish mainstream due to intolerance or legal obstacles. The festival was founded in 2007 by Carol Zabar to showcase the stories of minorities in Israel, especially its Arab citizens, though other groups have been included as well, including migrant workers, Ethiopian immigrants and Christians such as Jakub.

Jakub’s path to residency, if not citizenship, takes him to a religious kibbutz where he wishes to study Judaism and Hebrew. When he meets with the admission committee of Kibbutz Sde Eliyahu, he asks to be given leave to go to Tiberias on Sundays to pray at a Franciscan monastery. They politely tell him that this is an impossibility.

“Who are you, Yaacov?” a Sde Eliyahu representative asks in Hebrew. “Are you Jewish? Christian?”

Both, he might have answered had his Hebrew been up to snuff. Not that this would have been an acceptable answer to the government, which allowed him to remain in the country on a visa granted to monks but will not give him the Jewish recognition he craves.

The cruel irony in all of this, Kertsner observes, is that the state does acknowledge his Jewishness in some capacity. His parents were posthumously honored as Righteous Gentiles for rescuing a Jewish child. For the purposes of honoring them, the government considers him Jewish, but when it comes to immigration, he is not.

“His sister could move to Israel as the child of Righteous Gentiles,” Kertsner told JTA by phone, referring to his Polish sibling who is not mentioned in the film. “If he is a Jew, he is not their son and therefore he can’t [move to Israel as a child of Righteous Gentiles]. But if he is a Jew, then why can’t he become a citizen?”

Jakub perceives the indignity in his situation and chokes up at times when discussing his treatment by the government, insisting “I am a Jew.” Yet despite his tenuous immigration status, “I want to be in Israel,” he affirms.

A similar impulse underlies the predicament of Ibtisam Mara’ana, 36, at the start of her new documentary, “77 Steps,” which chronicles her relationship with a Jewish man, Yonatan Ben-Dor.

“I want to belong to this place,” she says in the film.

“This place” is Tel Aviv, a city both culturally and geographically distant from Fureidis, the fishing village in northern Israel in which which Mara’ana, an Arab Israeli, was raised.

Mara’ana explored the history of Fureidis (Arabic for “paradise”) in her first film, “Paradise Lost.” Her mother, who still lives in their village, appears in “77 Steps” only as a voice on the other end of a phone call, urging her to return and resume a traditional lifestyle that includes a husband and children. She has not watched most of Mara’ana’s films because she does not approve of her daughter’s vocation.

In this refusal, Mara’ana’s mother is joined by many in Israeli Arab society. Though feminism is not among the dominant themes in “77 Steps,” it is apparent in the very act of filming her premarital relationship with Ben-Dor, which Mara’ana said is a revolutionary act for an Arab woman. In fact, a screening of the documentary in an Arab town was halted due to the perceived impropriety of the subject matter.

For this reason, Mara’ana felt compelled to leave Fureidis and move to Tel Aviv, where she would have more creative freedom.

“As a woman, as a liberal, as a progressive, as an artist, as a director—I want to belong to this big city,” she told JTA. “When I came to Tel Aviv, I had a lot of questions about my Israeli identity, about my Palestinian identity, about my female identity.”

Though she felt free enough to explore these competing identities in Tel Aviv, she acknowledges that “it’s still a city where if you are a minority—Arab, not Jewish—it’s still not really a place that’s happy to hug you.”

Indeed, the film begins with Mara’ana trying to rent an apartment in Tel Aviv. She is rejected by a broker who had been willing to show her a flat until she revealed her Arabic first name. Eventually she finds an apartment and meets her neighbor, Ben-Dor, a Canadian expat also trying to adapt to his new surroundings.

“We met as strangers,” she said.

Ben-Dor was trying to find his place in his new homeland and she was trying to gain acceptance and respect for both sides of her—her Israeli citizenship and the Palestinian roots—in the country of her birth. Like Jakub, she discovers that insisting on seemingly competing identities alienates her from the mainstream. This was especially obvious toward the end of the film when Ben-Dor and Mara’ana’s breakup seems imminent.

“I understand the limits of our relationship,” Ben-Dor tells her, referring to her inability to celebrate Independence Day with him because for her it is the Nakba, or catastrophe, as Palestinians refer to Israel’s creation. But because he can easily identify with Israel and celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut, Ben-Dor, who had only been in the country for six years, will have an easier finding his place in Israel than many Israeli Arabs.

Unlike Jakub and Mara’ana, he only has to check one identity box. Yet despite the breakup, Mara’ana ends “77 Steps” on a note of quiet uplift.

“As a woman, you have your own space to create, to live, to make love, to hate, to be what you want to be,” she said, invoking Virginia Woolf. “For now it’s my apartment in Tel Aviv and I’m happy for that.”

Priest, born Jewish, is ‘Torn’

In the opening scene of the documentary “Torn,” an official asks an elderly man for his name, and he replies, “Romuald-Jakub Weksler-Waszkinel.”

This name encapsulates the fate of Jakub (Yankele) Weksler, born 1943 in Lublin, Poland, to Jewish parents during the Holocaust years and adopted by a Christian Polish family to save his life. At 17, the one-time Yankele enters a seminary and eventually becomes Father Romuald Waszkinel, a Catholic priest.

As his Polish mother lies dying, she tells the 35-year-old priest that — like thousands of other Jewish children hidden by Catholic families and in convents during the war — he was born a Jew.

In the remainder of “Torn,” Israeli filmmaker Ronit Kertsner documents a man’s struggle to reconcile two faiths that he sees as one, but which the Christian and Jewish outside worlds view as mutually exclusive beliefs.

The man’s internal struggle is given external expression in his small bedroom, where a painting of Jesus is flanked by an engraving of the Shema prayer and a small menorah. Adjacent are faded photos of his Jewish and Christian mothers.

Over the years, the priest’s conviction grows that he must go to Israel to study Hebrew, and in his mid-60s he arrives at Sde Eliyahu, an Orthodox kibbutz, to enroll in its ulpan (intensive Hebrew-language program).

But here, as in Poland, Weksler-Waszkinel’s insistence that he is both Jewish and Catholic stumps even the generally sympathetic kibbutzniks and Israeli bureaucrats.

For one, Israel’s Law of Return, which grants automatic entry to any Jew, does not apply to those practicing a different faith, and no Christian monastery in Israel will accept him in their own ranks.

Weksler-Waszkinel, now known as Yaakov, is at first indignant (“You mean secularists like Marx and Trotsky are Jews, but not me?”), then agrees to forgo saying Sunday Mass at a church in Tiberias, but he refuses to take the final step.

“I can deny everything [about Catholicism], but not Jesus,” he proclaims, but adds later, “I am convinced the God of Israel loves me, as I love Him.”

As Yaakov continues his struggle, his great friend is the American-born chief rabbi of Poland, Michael Schudrich, who becomes the mediator between Yaakov and his would-be Israeli compatriots.

One unforgettable picture symbolizes Yaakov’s duality. As he approaches the Western Wall in Jerusalem, he carefully adjusts his priestly Roman collar, and then his embroidered kippah.

Currently, Yaakov works as an archivist at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem and appears happy, filmmaker Kertsner said. He has been officially classified as a “permanent resident,” which allows him three years to decide whether to apply for Israeli citizenship.

Kertsner said that of the many thousands of Jewish children saved by Poles during the Holocaust, she knew of no other instance of a born Jew becoming a priest.

She brings a special empathy to the subject of her documentary. “When I was around 35, I learned that I had been adopted as a child, and then I went through a severe identity crisis,” she said.

Her American parents moved after World War II to Israel, where Ronit was born in 1956. She started, and continues, her career as a film editor, partly due to the influence of her uncle, the American actor David Opatoshu. As producer of “Torn,” she decided to also direct it when no one else wanted the job.

Her other documentaries — “Menachem and Fred,” “I, the Aforementioned Infant” and “The Secret” — also deal with identity crises. Asked if she plans on doing any feature films, she answered, “Why should I, when real life is so fascinating?”

The Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival will screen “Torn” on Aug. 10 at the Museum of Tolerance as part of its “Midsummer Night’s Film Festival” series. The film starts at 7:30 p.m., followed by a panel discussion with Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder and dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center; the Rev. Alexei Smith, director of the Office of Ecumenical and Interfaith Affairs of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles; and director Kertsner. Rabbi Mark S. Diamond, executive vice president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, will serve as moderator.

For tickets or information about the screening, please call (800) 838-3006 or visit www.lajfilmfest.org. For more background on “Torn” and its director, visit www.go2films.com.