On the surface, brothers Levi and Hudi Riven lead ordinary lives.
Levi, the older sibling, is studying psychology at Concordia and plays guitar in his spare time. Hudi is training to become a chef. Both date, party, and love music.
However, there was a time when everything was decided for them. They were not allowed to listen to non-Jewish music, eat at McDonald’s, or even tie their right shoelace first. Levi and Hudi were born into a Loubavitch Hasidic sect, a world that they eventually left because of its religious constraints.
Early in the film, Levi recounts an anecdote about waking up as a child.
“Whenever my father was present, he would always knock my hands away from my eyes, because you’re not supposed to rub your eyes . . . until you purify your hands.”
The Riven brothers are not alone.
At seven, New York singer-songwriter Basya Schechter had a dream about the eagle that would take all the pious to Jerusalem and precede the coming of the Messiah.
“Everybody on the block left their houses, went on top of the eagle, and I was left scraping the ice off the window, watching. And it was understood in the dream that I couldn’t go.”
Ultimately, Schechter’s artistic desires put her at odds with a faith in which women are not allowed to sing because their voices are judged to be sexually charged.
Because girls are more closely guarded, they face more obstacles in trying to leave the religion. Most are married off between the ages of 17 and 19 and soon become trapped in an unending cycle of pregnancies. As a result, three quarters of those who set out are men.
Director Eric Scott cannot underscore enough the drastic nature of leaving the ultra-Orthodox world.
“It was very difficult to find people who have left the fold,” he said in an interview last Thursday. “It’s not like these kids are listed in the Yellow Pages. It’s extremely shameful to leave, so many of them were very reluctant to speak about their experiences onscreen.”
Even in Jerusalem, the spiritual home of the Hasidic world, there are stories of people leaving the fold.
Z comes from a long line of rabbis with branches in New York, London, and Jerusalem. Born and raised in New York until the age of 19, he barely speaks English. Less than a year ago, he shocked everyone in his community by leaving his wife and two children. Z describes his first sexual experience as rape, as much for his young bride as for himself.
Most of those who join the secular world are ill-equipped to live in it. For boys, secular education stops at a grade 3 level, whereas their religious knowledge is very sophisticated. Many only speak Yiddish or a stilted Hebrew that is usually reserved for prayer.
Z and Sara met through a group called Hillel: Open Gates (not to be confused with the student organization) that helps former Hasidic members integrate into secular society. It is there, in a room full of used clothing, that Sara appears on camera for the first time.
Her sister was caught wearing pants in Mea Shearim, one of the most militant Hasidic sects of all. The neighbours who caught her beat her bloody with the help of boys from the local religious school. Eventually, hundreds broke down her family’s door and forced them to leave.
Perhaps the greatest strength of Leaving the Fold is the inclusion of the other side. The narrative is framed by the attempts of the Riven brothers to reconcile with Pinchus over the Sukkot, the Jewish Thanksgiving feast. As per tradition, Levi and Hudi help their father build the “sukka,” a wooden shelter where the family will share meals for 9 days.
Another moderating voice is Rabbi Snir Bitton, who stands between tradition and modernity as a holy man who reaches out by using popular culture to bridge the gap. He used to be a secular man who had it all – the cars, the women, and the nightlife – but turned to the Hasidic religion to find more meaning in life.
In the end, Leaving the Fold is about making choices.
“Whenever we leave the path of our parents, we leave the fold,” said Scott. “It’s about becoming who you are, and the extreme lessons that you must sometimes learn to get there.”
Leaving the Fold runs at Cinéma du Parc (3575 Ave. du Parc) from Sep. 5 to 10.