An older man sits in his living room armchair, relaxing in striped button-down pajamas while crunching loudly on a raw root vegetable.
“Daddy, what are you eating?” asks his son, sitting on the sofa across from him, clad only in boxer shorts.
“Horseradish,” the balding father responds in a thick Israeli accent, shaking his right forefinger.
“Raw horseradish? Are you crazy? Uch. How can you eat that — it’s so bitter!”
The father-son discussion over the physical and spiritual merits of horseradish continues, as the black-and-white, two-dimensional animated film explores the significance of maror, the bitter herbs consumed in the eighth section of the Haggadah.
“The bitter herbs are the most important part,” the grandfather explains to his son, referencing the Garden of Eden as a place of both bitterness and paradise. “Without a choice, none of our decisions mean anything.”
Produced by artist Hanan Harchol, this animation is just one of 14 short films produced by individual artists as part of a collective attempt to explore the meaning of the seder through an online venture called Projecting Freedom. The project, funded by a grant from the Covenant Foundation, is the brainchild of the Skirball Center for Adult Jewish Learning at Temple Emanu-El in New York, an adult learning center that promotes art and diversity, under the direction of Rabbi Leon Morris.
Artists received a small $1,000 stipend and attended nine classes together over the span of a year. Complementing other creative ventures like the Artists’ and Writers’ Beit Midrash, Projecting Freedom aims to convey Jewish text through film, and create original visual commentary, according to Rabbi Morris.
“It’s about the power of having a broader group of people own Jewish sacred text. At its core that’s what Skirball is about,” he said. “In a way, these filmmakers and video artists added a commentary that only they could add.”
Not only did they add fresh, new observations to age-old traditions, but the artists said they took much knowledge and insight from the experience as well.
“The whole experience was very enriching and I think it was especially positive to combine study, discussions and research around Judaism with our artistic processes,” Harchol said.
Out of all the steps of the seder, Harchol was excited that he was able to work with maror, which was his first choice.
“I quickly picked maror,” Harchol said. “The reason I picked maror is that I see the Jewish experience and Jewishness as containing a lot of suffering, pain and struggle. But it doesn’t end with that. Inside that struggle and pain there’s also hope. And maror in Passover is one crucial element in a story that is ultimately about freedom. So I felt that maror was the best way to encompass this Jewish experience.”
While his film is entirely fictional and all of the words are his own, Harchol says that the exchange between father and son was inspired by his own relationships with his parents.
“The inspiration for what I wrote was that both of my parents tend to be more on the pessimistic, ‘what can go wrong’ side, which can really bring me down,” Harchol said. “But at the same time, when I’m really down, they tend to lift me up. Within that bitterness there’s always a striving and a hope.”
And now the hope is that people might even incorporate the videos — or at least the messages found in the videos — into their personal seders.
“People who have seen the videos — and this includes myself — are bringing to the seder new perspective that they didn’t have before,” Rabbi Morris said. “It will be impossible for me to be eating at a seder this year and eating maror without thinking of Hanan’s film and even voicing a line.”
Harchol added, “I plan this Passover to play some of the videos. Passover is very much about a time to read the story and be together with the family, but also to question things. I tried with my animated short to bring up something that would lead to a lot of questions.”
Another of Harchol’s favorites among the 14 videos is filmmakers Ilana Trachtman and Zelda Greenstein’s double feature, “Rachtzah” (washing hands) and “Nirtzah” (the seder conclusion), which collectively focus on fertility and childrearing. “Rachtzah,” which begins with vigorous hand-washing and a physician performing a surgical scrub, tells the story of a couple’s struggle with infertility, but ultimately ends with a happy infant in a tub with its tiny foot in the camera center.
“The challenge was to continually bring it back to water, continually bring it back to washing,” said Trachtman, who recently produced a popular independent film, “Praying with Lior.”
In “Nirtzah,” a baby’s whimpers along with a moonlit backdrop highlight both the beginning and the end of the film, while the same couple takes care of their newborn twins throughout.
“Life now feels like it’s going to be a series of firsts, all these beginnings,” says the new mother, as she sings a rendition of “Who Knows One” in line with the seder’s conclusion. “That’s a great way to live.”
“It’s an exhalation,” Trachtman explained. “If we think of the whole Passover as a journey to the new people and to a birth, then putting the babies to sleep and looking forward to the future, then it is an ending and anticipation of new beginnings.”
As for new beginnings, Rabbi Morris said that by next year, the videos will be available on DVD along with an accompanying study guide, and in advance of 2012, he hopes to receive enough funding to produce similar videos in cities throughout the world. Already, three community centers have embraced the films, with a premiere two weeks ago at the Skirball Center, a second launch at the JCC for London last week and an event at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco on March 31.
Using the Web as a platform to spread the films globally, Rabbi Morris hopes that Jews all over the world will benefit from these new commentaries and analyses, provided by characters like Harchol’s amiable armchair animation.
“When life serves you nothing but bitter herbs and you choose to believe anyway,” the father figure says, “even though all you can taste is bitterness, even when everything in life is telling you not to believe and you still believe anyway, there’s a name for that in Hebrew — emunah [faith].”
The films will be screened April 1 at 7:30 p.m. at the JCC in Manhattan. They can also be viewed at www.projectingfreedom.org.
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