February 22, 2020

“My Hero Brother”: Special Needs Adults and their Siblings Scale New Heights


The Yiddish word, chutzpah, doesn’t translate so neatly into English, although the dictionary definition of “shameless audacity” is a good try. And it was that singular word, chutzpah, that keep repeating in my mind as I watched the new Israeli documentary, “My Hero Brother” that chronicles the adventures of 11 pairs of young adults with Down syndrome who together with their non-disabled young adult siblings, traveled from Israel to India for a trekking expedition in the Himalayas.

It all started when Enosh Cassel, a Tel Aviv University film school graduate and film producer, took his brother, Hannan, who has Down syndrome, to Nepal on a three-week trek in the Himalayas which he documented on film. Israel’s Channel 2 featured a news item about the trip, which generated many positive responses, including some from other adult brothers and sisters who also had siblings with special needs.

This inspired Enosh, together with his friend Itamar Peleg, (a guide and organizer of challenging tours around the world), to create the project “My Hero Brother” with the goal of taking a larger group of brothers and sisters of young adults with Down syndrome on a similar trek.  Noted Israeli filmmaker Yonaton Nir joined the duo, with the goal of sharing this exceptional journey as a documentary. And this is where the word “chutzpah” comes to mind. Just traveling overseas with 11 young adults with special needs, some with special health needs, would be challenging in and of itself, let alone an arduous wilderness trek of many days that included schlepping along kosher food, as some of the participants were observant. Yet, somehow, they all make it, even if the siblings with Down syndrome needed to ride on a horse in order to get to the summit.

As the documentary unfolds, viewers get to know the sibling pairs, all of whom have different types of relationships. There’s Irena, who says, “At the age of 22, I became the mother of a nineteen-year-old with Down syndrome.” She became the legal guardian of her brother, Amar, after their mother died four years earlier after a long struggle with cancer. In contrast, there’s Inbal, the sister of Ilan, who also has Down syndrome. She says that she never felt all that close to him; from the moment Ilan was born, her parents focused all of their attention on her brother and she felt pushed aside. Now that their parents are aging, Inbal wants to get closer to Ilan, and with the realization she will someday have the sole responsibility of taking care of him, she softens her attitude both toward Ilan and her parents.

And then there’s Harel, brother to Golan, Harel is a stereotypical Israeli former soldier, who spent his military service in the Israeli Defense Forces as an officer in the Golani Brigade specializing in counter-terrorism. Harel is shown pushing Golan to keep moving, even when Golan is exhausted and feeling homesick. After numerous conversations with some of the other non-disabled siblings, mostly with the sisters, he gradually shows a kinder side. In reflecting on his decision to take Golan on the trek Harel says, “Like most things in their lives, it’s something we chose for him. Sometimes, I ask myself who gave us the right to make this choice?”

This film is tender, funny, and most of all filled with heart and of course, chutzpah. It’s showing at many film festivals, in Hebrew with English subtitles. As part of Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion month events in February, “My Hero Brother” will be shown on Thursday, Feb. 9th at Sinai Temple at 8 pm, sponsored by Mati Center/IAC. Tickets are $20 and are available at http://www.maticenter.com/events/me-hero-brorher/

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