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Menachem Daum, filmmaker who built bridges between religious Jews and non-Jews, dies at 77

During his final months, Daum, known for his films “A Life Apart” and “Hiding and Seeking,” intensified what he called his “anti-anti-goyim crusade”

Courtesy of Menachem Daum

Jan 8, 2024 2:15 PM

Updated: 

Menachem Daum, an Orthodox Jewish American filmmaker best known for his 1997 film “A Life Apart,” which showcased the beauty and complexity of Hasidic life to a national audience, died on Sunday at age 77. Daum had been diagnosed with a serious heart condition several months earlier.

A child of Holocaust survivors and a longtime Brooklyn resident, Daum was known for his passion for building bridges between Hasidim and non-Jews, which he half-jokingly called his “anti-anti-goyim crusade.” His belief that one could love and criticize Hasidic life at the same time earned him skeptical glances from his Borough Park neighbors. “They have this thing called ‘kids at risk,’” Daum told Shtetl in March, referring to a phrase used for teenagers who stray from communal norms. “I’m a zayde at risk!”

In the last months of his life, Daum credited Satmar Bikur Cholim for helping him access expensive medications needed to address his heart condition. But as he knew he would soon die, Daum also showed a heightened need to call out problems he saw in the community. In August, he told Shtetl that he had reached out to the Haredi advocacy group Agudath Israel, objecting to a fundraising campaign that he felt contained a bigoted depiction of non-Jewish people. He also expressed critical views on inadequate secular education in Haredi schools, the community’s handling of sexual abuse, and unwelcoming attitudes toward gay people.

“Menachem was an unusually generous and open-minded person,” Oren Rudavsky, Daum’s longtime filmmaking partner, told Shtetl. “He was a tzadik, really.”

Daum was born in a displaced persons camp near Munich in 1946 to parents who found each other after they both lost spouses and children in the Holocaust. His family relocated to Schenectady, New York, but later moved to Brooklyn to be closer to other Hasidic families. He became a gerontologist, but later pivoted to a career in filmmaking. 

A Life Apart,” Daum’s first film, explores Hasidic life and culture in Brooklyn, was produced for PBS and narrated by celebrities Sarah Jessica Parker and Leonard Nimoy. Daum’s other two films echoed the theme of bridge-building: “Hiding and Seeking,” which explored Jewish attitudes toward Poles who had protected Jews during the Holocaust, and “The Ruins of Lifta,” in which he visits a Palestinian village that was depopulated during the 1947–1948 war in what was then still Mandatory Palestine, and draws a connection between the Holocaust and the Nakba, the mass displacement of Palestinians that coincided with the establishment of the Israeli state.

At the time of his death, Daum had been working on another film focused on a group of “Memory Keepers” — mostly Christian Poles — working to restore and preserve Jewish cemeteries in Poland. According to Rudavsky, the film was incomplete at the time of Daum’s death.

Daum’s longtime friend Rabbi Mayer Schiller told Shtetl that he believes Daum’s work had a positive impact, if only a modest one.

“I know of many sensitive people — not a mass movement — who were influenced by a lot of what he did,” Schiller said.

“I think sometimes when it comes to these things, to have a worldview is in itself worth something, even if it doesn’t yield practical benefits,” he added. “If one person thinks with understanding and empathy, that in itself is worth something in the eyes of God.”

Read more in Shtetl: Menachem Daum is a ‘Zayde at Risk’

Lauren Hakimi is a journalist whose work has appeared in The Forward, Jewish Telegraphic Agency, New York Jewish Week, WNYC/Gothamist and more. She graduated from CUNY Hunter College with degrees in history and English literature. Hailing from an Iranian Jewish community on Long Island, she looks forward to shining a light on stories that matter to the Jewish community. Follow her on Twitter @lauren_hakimi.