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Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Documentary Maker Excavates Sexual Abuse Case Against Cantor in ‘Rewind’

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From the get-go, Sasha Joseph Neulinger knew he’d face turbulent waters in creating “Rewind” (May 11 on PBS). However, the 30-year-old also knew confronting his demons was a necessary step toward healing.

Marking his film debut, “Rewind” is an autobiographical documentary that recounts how from ages 3 to 8, he was sexually abused by an adult cousin and two uncles, most notably “Uncle Howard,” Howard Nevison, the much respected and admired longtime cantor at Temple Emanuel on Fifth Avenue in New York. It is a family awash in intergenerational predatory behavior. The investigation and three trials that ensued dragged on for eight years (1998-2006) and generated a lot of media coverage.

Neulinger still struggles with how the venerated synagogue unquestioningly rallied to Nevison’s defense and literally paid for much of it. Prior to the #Metoo movement, the cultural climate was not predisposed to believe a child accuser and was, in fact, hostile toward him, Neulinger said.

He’s aware that for many Jews, the whole event — the trial and now, the film — presents yet another conundrum: the deeply rooted concern that the public airing of such episodes confirms anti-Semitic tropes and, indeed, encourages anti-Semitic sentiment. In fact, a Reform rabbi spelled it out to Neulinger, asserting the movie would only succeed in hurting Jews.

Speaking to the Journal by phone from his home in southwest Montana (he doesn’t want to specify the city), Neulinger stressed, “This is not a Jewish, Christian, black, white, gay, straight issue. It is a human issue. Sexual abuse doesn’t discriminate. And Temple Emanuel’s position was not peculiar to Temple Emanuel. It’s a problem within all organized religion, which can become a trap. We take every word our religious leaders say as the truth and in so doing, surrender our cognizant reasoning.

“There’s deep fear. If my religious leaders, those who connect me to God, are sinister or even evil, what does that say about my faith? This is complex. It’s just easier to say something didn’t happen than to acknowledge the possibility that a cantor abused a child. What incentive would I have had to go public in order to endlessly defend myself? This was not a civil case. There was no money involved. It was about justice.”

“Rewind” initially was slated to open in Los Angeles theaters on April 3, with a national rollout to follow, but because of the COVID-19 outbreak, it was pushed onto a digital platform. The film premiered at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival, where it received the Special Jury Mention Award, and it won Best Documentary earlier this year at the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival.

Photo courtesy of FilmRise

Old home movies, recording happy times, serve as the story’s backdrop, presenting a stark contrast to the darker truths that existed behind the scenes and cast a long shadow. Interspersed throughout, Neulinger interviews his mother, father, sister and psychiatrist — among others —  recalling their growing realizations that something rotten was transpiring in their own home and the culprits were close family members.

Neulinger’s behavioral changes and plummeting grades were the touchstones. When he was 8 years old, he disclosed what was happening to his psychiatrist, with his mother present. In turn, they told his father, who revealed that he, too, had been sexually abused by both his brothers. Neulinger’s father is one of the more remarkable figures in this film. When, at the age of 10, Neulinger told his father he wanted to drop the family name (Nevison), his father accepted and supported his son’s decision. He chose the name Neulinger in honor of his maternal great-grandfather, Joseph, who heroically risked his own life to lead his family through treacherous terrain to escape the Nazis and make it to America.

Like many documentaries (“Capturing the Freedmans” and “Escaping Neverland” come to mind), this one also raises questions about memory (its distortions); the thin line between private and public arenas; self-revelation and exhibitionism.

Neither Neulinger nor his family saw these as roadblocks, although his sister (admittedly for different reasons) couldn’t understand why he needed to make the film and relive the atrocities, especially after having been through so much already.

“This is not a Jewish, Christian, black, white, gay, straight issue. It is a human issue. Sexual abuse doesn’t discriminate.”  — Sasha Joseph Neulinger

“She felt things were going well for me. I had gotten through it. I was surviving,” Neulinger recalled. “In many ways, she was right. I was doing well in school, had a good internship and was in a place I loved: Montana. I love the outdoors, nature and hiking. Montana was also as far away from Ground Zero as I could get. But I still felt trapped in a secret. I continued to feel dirty, unlovable and responsible for what happened to me. I had to acknowledge and own the story, embrace my childhood self and by extension, embrace who I am now. I struggled with what public disclosure would do for me. That was a big hurdle. Not everyone responds to trauma in the same way. If nothing else, I felt the film might help someone else. That was a big part of my motivation.”

Raised in Montgomery County, Pa., Neulinger grew up in a world of filmmaking. His father, who made his living in film production, was always moving around the house, camera in hand, forever shooting away at big events, small events, even non-events. He had stored well over 200 tapes.

From an early age, Neulinger had his sights set on a film career, although he never thought he’d be launching it with an autobiographical documentary. But, like so much else in life, it came about organically as he began sorting through his father’s old videos in an effort to cobble together a cohesive whole from the chaotic threads of his childhood.

WATCH A SPECIAL CLIP FROM THE DOCUMENTARY HERE.

“I got through six of them and discovered that with each question I answered, I had three more questions, and that’s why I decided to interview my mom, dad, sister and others who were part of my life at the time,” he said. Thus “Rewind,” was spawned, a seven-year project that started when Neulinger was still a film student at Montana State University.

Along with bringing courage and solace to children and adolescents who have been sexually abused, Neulinger hopes the film speaks to religious institutions and makes them own up to their culpability if they remain silent, refusing even to acknowledge the possibility of evildoing within their own ranks.

“They say it takes a village to raise a child,” Neulinger noted. “It also takes a village to rape one.”


Simi Horwitz is a New York-based award-winning feature writer/film reviewer.

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