People

Menachem Daum is a ‘Zayde at Risk’

The documentarian behind A Life Apart talks Woodstock, cemeteries, and changing Hasidic attitudes

Photo courtesy of Menachem Daum

Mar 23, 2023 4:45 PM

Updated: 

When I met Menachem Daum in Boro Park for lunch, I don't think anybody in the kosher pizzeria would have imagined that the bearded man sitting before me grooved to Joe Cocker at Woodstock in 1969. A college student at the time, Daum had just gotten married and was visiting his parents in White Lake, New York, just a few miles from the dairy farm where the legendary event was held. 

Some hotels still barred Jews, but there, in the Catskill Mountains, Hasidim spent their summers at resorts and bungalow colonies that catered specifically to them. That week, the music festival had brought so many visitors into town that traffic slowed to a halt. Daum recalled how local Hasidim reacted when festival-goers abandoned their cars on the highway and traveled toward the party on foot. 

“It was hot, and these hippies were walking toward Woodstock, and Hasidic women and kids set up tubs of water and cups for them on the side of the road,” Daum said. “These Hasidim had nothing but contempt for hippies and what they stood for, but when they saw how hot it was, and these poor stragglers just dragging themselves another 20 miles, they provided something.” 

Daum, 76, has lived in Brooklyn for most of his life. In the 1980s, long after that summer at Woodstock, he stepped outside of his job as a gerontologist and began making documentaries. Most famous of these was his 1997 film, A Life Apart — narrated by Sarah Jessica Parker and Leonard Nimoy — which introduced audiences across America to some of the joys and challenges of life in Hasidic Brooklyn. This past December, Brooklyn College released over 60 hours of previously unavailable footage from that documentary and made it accessible online. That same month, a restored, high-resolution version of the film premiered at the New York Jewish Film Festival. 

Daum’s goal for A Life Apart was to honor people like his father, Holocaust survivor Moshe Yosef Daum, who he said couldn’t live without Hasidism. He also hoped to challenge some of the stereotypes that non-Hasidic Americans held about the community. In later films, Daum pivoted, flipping his focus and intention. Instead of filming his own community to educate wider audiences, he focused on Poles and Palestinians in order to challenge Hasidic stereotypes of those groups. 

This shift reflects a change that Daum and his co-producer, Oren Rudavsky, perceive in the Haredi community. “The community’s become more conservative,” Rudavsky told me over Zoom. “The access that we got 25 to 30 years ago, I don't think would be allowed right now.”

On the day after Purim, I met Daum at J2 Pizza across from Gravesend Park hoping to find out what changes he has seen take place in the Haredi communities over the years and to learn about his life as a film director living in Haredi Boro Park.

Still from Hiding and Seeking, courtesy of Menachem Daum

Daum was born in a displaced persons camp near Munich in 1946 to parents who had both lost spouses and sons in the Holocaust. “Before the war, my parents never would’ve never gotten married [to each other]; they were from different social classes,” he said. His father went to a yeshiva while his mother went to Polish public school. But after the war, things changed, and couples who otherwise wouldn’t have gotten together were desperate to start a new life. “Hitler was the matchmaker,” Daum quipped. 

When he was 5 years old, HIAS helped his family immigrate to the U.S. and resettled them in Schenectady, New York. Daum believes HIAS placed them there to encourage assimilation — at his public school, they even changed his name to “Martin.” But for Daum’s father, the scant Jewish population of Schenectady was no substitute for the bustle of Hasidic Jewish life in Łódź. Ultimately, the family sacrificed the economic help from HIAS and moved to Brooklyn, first to Bed-Stuy then later to Brownsville.

In Brooklyn, Daum attended a Hasidic yeshiva for the first time and experienced corporal punishment. “My Hasidic teachers were broken survivors who couldn't get a job in a sweater factory,” he said. “I had a teacher who took electric wire and braided it into a lanyard, and if you didn’t know where you were up to [in the text], they weren’t reluctant to use it.” Daum said that when he was a kid, the books yeshiva students used were the same as those for public students, featuring such generic characters as Jack and Jill and Dick and Jane. Now, special books are published featuring Hasidic characters.

In sixth grade, Daum was kicked out of his yeshiva. Brownsville was a tough neighborhood; growing up there made him more worldly than his classmates, who he said mostly came from more sheltered environments, such as Williamsburg. “I knew things I wasn’t supposed to – let’s leave it at that,” he said. It wouldn’t be the last time his wisdom was treated as a liability rather than an asset.

Daum enrolled in other yeshivas. After high school, he spent four years learning talmud full-time and was on track to becoming a rabbi, but he sensed it wasn’t right for him — “I didn’t feel this was my calling.” He needed to start thinking about getting a job. So he continued studying Jewish law during the day with the legendary Rabbi Moshe Feinstein on the Lower East Side. But at night, he went to Brooklyn College to study subjects he hoped would allow him to financially support a family. Many other young Orthodox Jews had the same idea.

“We used to call it the Yeshiva of Brooklyn College,” Daum recalled. “A lot of young men and women would go to yeshiva during the day, and in the evening we’d jump on the subway and take evening classes, so there were hundreds and hundreds of yeshiva boys at night at Brooklyn College.” Decades later, when Daum began making documentaries, he would point to this time in his life as when he really got to know non-Jews for the first time and learned that, contrary to what he had heard as a child, they didn’t all hate Jews.

But Daum never graduated from Brooklyn College; he discovered an option that would give him a shortcut to a master’s degree. Fairfield University, a Jesuit school in Connecticut, had a master’s in education program that admitted students who were training to be Catholic priests. Because the private university received public funds, it had to admit Daum and other yeshiva graduates, who had an equivalent religious education. 

Attending a Catholic university placed Daum and his Jewish classmates in what he called a “Talmudic dilemma” because each class began with a Christian prayer. “If we come into the class and sit down, and everybody rises up for the prayer, even if we don’t say the words, just by rising up, we’re participating. On the other hand, if we sit, and everyone else stands up to say the prayer, we’re antagonizing all our classmates and professors,” he explained.

The young men came up with an innovative solution. “We would come to class literally 10 seconds before the class started, we would go to our seats, but not sit down. When everybody got up to say the prayer, we were already standing.” That way, he maintained his religious values without offending his peers.

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In the pizzeria where we met for the interview, and as we walked by other Hasidic stores on the block, Daum schmoozed with store owners and fellow patrons. As he shared well-wishes and mazel tovs, I couldn’t help but feel like people were eyeing us suspiciously. “I think someone mistook you for my daughter or granddaughter,” Daum reassured me.

After lunch, Daum and I walked toward Washington Cemetery in Mapleton, Brooklyn, passing first through Gravesend Park. “This used to be bocce courts,” he told me as we passed a nondescript patch of grass near 19th Avenue. “All these old Italians would spend their retirement here playing bocce. They had a big metal chest where they had all the bocce equipment, but they did not have to lock it. They didn’t need to. You wouldn’t mess with these guys.” Now, most Gravesend Park patrons are Haredim.

The Jewish cemetery was established in 1850, when this land was not yet part of Brooklyn; before that, it was farmland. Daum said he enjoys walking there. “I like it because you can actually see the sky,” he explained, “and I don’t have to worry about being judged.” Every couple of minutes, he stops to read epitaphs in Hebrew or German. For the ones in Russian, he takes a photo on his phone and Google Lens immediately translates the picture into English.

Cemeteries play an important role in Daum’s documentaries. In his 2004 film, Hiding and Seeking, he visits Poland to learn more about his and his wife’s family history. Before he leaves the U.S., he goes to say goodbye to his father, who had suffered a series of strokes. In a deeply poignant scene, Moshe Yosef asks Menachem to visit his father’s grave to pray for his health. But when Daum actually went to Poland, he found the cemetery damaged, with no sign of the grave. He said tehillim (prayers) anyway, figuring he could not have been more than a few feet from the destroyed grave. Back in the U.S, he lied to his father and said he had found the grave; the truth would have been too painful.

The symbolic power of cemeteries comes up again in Daum’s 2016 film, The Ruins of Lifta – about his visit to the only Arab village abandoned in the 1948 Arab-Israeli war that has not been either completely destroyed or repopulated. In that film, Daum reflects on the Holocaust and suggests to a group of Palestinian activists that they restore their village’s cemetery to send a powerful message about their self-preservation. “The reason why cemeteries are destroyed is because you have the opportunity to erase history and pretend such people never existed,” he said. 

His upcoming film will focus on a group of “Memory Keepers” – mostly Christian Poles — working to restore and preserve Jewish cemeteries in Poland. His goal for this film is the same as for his other films after A Life Apart: to try to show Hasidim that non-Jews aren’t all bad. But it’s a surprisingly difficult message to get across in this ever more conservative community. Indeed, encouraging Haredim to look outward sometimes puts Daum at odds with community members. “They have this thing called ‘kids at risk,’” he said, alluding to a phrase community members use for young people they worry are straying from communal norms. “I’m a zayde at risk!” he proclaims.

It was a recurrent theme for Daum in our conversation that intolerance can be a two-way street. While researching Polish Jewish history, Daum came across a study by Anna Landau-Czajka about how radical right-wing nationalist Polish newspapers were writing about Jews before the Holocaust. Looking at the Talmud, the nationalists concluded, inaccurately, that Jews are not obligated to be honest to non-Jews. But the conclusion rang true to Daum’s experience of some Jewish behavior. “I remember reading this, and I nearly fell off my chair – ‘oh my God, they’re onto us!’” he said.

Daum worries that the actions of Haredi leaders, and the attitudes of a community that has become more insular since those tolerant days of Woodstock, can lead to a similar them-and-us mentality. “We come to this country and we game it to benefit our institutions and schools and we don’t think of the long-term consequences,” he said. “I hope we don’t wear out our welcome.”

In Hiding and Seeking, Daum’s two Hasidic-yeshiva-educated sons serve as stand-ins for a Haredi audience that is suspicious of non-Jews. Daum takes them to Poland to try to convince them that there are good and bad non-Jews, just like there are good and bad Jews. The journey introduces them to two Christian Poles who risked their lives to hide Daum’s father-in-law from the Nazis during the Holocaust, but while the sons appreciate that these people indeed acted courageously, they still don’t seem fully convinced. The film ends on the vague hope that one day this experience will truly sink in for them. 

In The Ruins of Lifta, Daum’s protagonist is a Palestinian activist, Yacoub, whom he tries to pair up with a Holocaust survivor so they can learn about each other’s lives. But even at the end of the film, Yacoub is still not interested in befriending Jews – just as Daum’s sons were not interested in appreciating Poles. But while these films may not seem to have succeeded in their goal of establishing cross-cultural harmony, Daum was optimistic. “In Hiding and Seeking, we called it planting seeds. I think the seeds took some root,” he said. When I asked what became of those seeds in 19 years, he shrugged uncertainly and quoted the Mishnah: “You’re not obligated to complete the task.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the nationality of a woman featured in The Ruins of Lifta. She is American, not Israeli.

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.