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Couch Trip 

A quest for lost furniture yields a rich portrait of Orthodox Judaism

Wednesday, Aug 11 2004
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Born into an intensely devout Hasidic community in Borough Park, Brooklyn, Pearl Gluck grew up listening to tales of her Hungarian great-great-grandfather's couch (or divan), on which not one but four revered rabbis had slept. Until she was 13, this only daughter in a family of five children expected to follow in the footsteps of generations of Gluck women before her, forgoing college (Hasidic girls are not allowed to attend university), marrying at 18 -- preferably a Talmudic scholar -- and churning out babies. If things had gone according to plan, of course, the now-30-year-old Pearl never would have made this documentary.

At 13, Pearl inadvertently read a book not approved by the elders of the community, and she suddenly realized that there was a whole other world out there. Her parents' divorce allowed her to explore that world when she chose to live with her mother -- outside the confines of the religious community. Refusing to sanction her decision, her beloved father stopped speaking to her. Divan is the younger Gluck's attempt not only to heal the breach with her father but also to explore her own conflicted feelings about her faith.

The film follows Gluck to Hungary (on a Fulbright Scholarship) as she attempts to find and retrieve the family couch. The journey is filled with both humor and pathos as she meets long-lost relatives and encounters elderly members of the once-vital Jewish community of Rohod, where more than 90 percent of the Jewish population was wiped out by the Nazis. She locates the family heirloom on what was once her great-great-grandfather's estate, and while waiting for her cousins to decide whether she may take it (they never wanted it until she showed up and expressed interest in it), she retraces the journeys of the four rabbis who slept on it. Everywhere she stops and every person she meets has heard the legend of the couch or actually knew one of the participants.

Interspersed with Gluck's own story are the ruminations of a half-dozen other, former Orthodox Jews who, like her, chose a secular lifestyle but still retain intense and loving feelings toward their Hasidic past. "I miss the innocence, the feeling of belonging," says one woman sadly. "You're born into it ... and you can't just throw it away," laments another.

While all of the "break-away" Jews Gluck speaks with have more or less been rejected by the communities from which they sprang, all have retained some measure of their faith and remain committed to Judaism in one form or another. Their continued attachment -- really, devotion -- is one of the film's more unexpected revelations. To an outsider, the insular, regimented life dictated by Orthodox Judaism seems horrific, a living hell. And it must have been for these young men and women to turn their backs on it. Yet the pain of separation is palpable and, at times, seems to almost outweigh their desire for a secular life. "You feel as if a part of yourself has been amputated," says one.

By and large, the women who left seem to have adapted more easily than the men, perhaps because their lives were so circumscribed in the male-dominated, heavily ritualistic society. At one point, a Hasidic man Gluck is interviewing complains that her short-sleeved shirt is "upsetting" him. Another tells her to tie back her curly, disheveled hair because it is "misbehaving" (Hasidic women must hide their hair under a scarf or cap). The only way any of these women will be forgiven is if they marry and return to the Hasidic community -- and with attitudes like that (which represent only the tip of the iceberg), it is something none of them is willing to do.

Luckily, humor is as much a part of Jewish life as sorrow and devotion are, and the film is filled with moments of sly and gentle wit. A Hungarian rabbi listens as Pearl explains the subject of her documentary. He shrugs and counsels her, "I don't think this is a subject that will sell." The amiable, Orthodox upholsterer she hires to refurbish the century-old divan is consistently amusing.

The film is hampered by a somewhat confusing chronology and seems to take an unnecessary detour toward the end, when Gluck returns to New York and then embarks with her father and 30 other Hasidic men on a tour of Israel. On that tour she consults with several matchmakers to see if they might have somebody for her. She actually seems to be toying with the idea of returning to the fold.

Gluck provides the film's narration. It makes sense for her to do so, but unfortunately, she does not have the most appealing voice. The film does have wonderfully readable subtitles, however (for the Hungarian and Yiddish dialogue). Other filmmakers should take note.

About The Author

Jean Oppenheimer

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