Inspired by historical events that occurred in contemporary post-Holocaust Williamsburg along with aspects of my own life in the Hasidic world, Where is Joel Baum explores the challenges of maintaining voluntary spiritual segregation in an open pluralistic society. This story also opens a Polish-Jewish dialogue that involves both communities’ shared pre-Holocaust history and the bizarre fate of their co-existence in present-day Brooklyn. Ethnic, cultural, and religious differences come to the for as the principal characters grapple with the rebetsin‘s phone call and the fraught history of fifty years of communal relations.
Using my own background as a Hasid, a Fulbright student in East Central Europe (particularly Poland), and also a documentary filmmaker, I approached the process of writing this script as a collaborative experience. All the actors worked extensively with me to create their roles. Luzer Twersky, himself an ex-Hasid, developed the role of Joel Baum with me. Danusia Roberts, herself once a cleaning lady, inspired aspects of her role. Tibor Feldman contributed his own Hungarian post-Holocaust history and knowledge of the Talmud. I am intrigued by cultural prescription by communal leaders in Hasidic communities as well as the compliance, circumvention, or defiance by Hasidic women. I worked with Lynn Cohen to develop that aspect of her character as a powerful leader in what may seem like a patriarchal world. All the actors were carefully chosen to inspire a dialogue that allowed for the interactions that emerged.
I’ve also used documentary resources to enhance the fictional characters and situations in the script. The script reflects my commitment to East European Hasidic history and how it is intricately interwoven with post-Holocaust American establishment of Hasidic dynasties and identities. My research included Yiddish-language interviews with various people who were involved in the actual murder. One interview on videotape is with the “real-life” Reb Hersh (nicknamed “Mendele Chicago”) in Kiryas Joel, in which he speaks about how he “cleaned up” crime-ridden Williamsburg in the fifties. One of his stories depicts himself on a particular Saturday night after melave malke (the meal after Sabbath), patrolling the streets outfitted in his shtraym and bekeshe (the traditional Hasidic garb worn by marries men) carrying two shotguns and escorted by a German Shepard. He showed me various documents and paraphernalia from his relationship with the NYPD, including the badge given to him by the Captain, the real-life Robertson, and a letter from the mayor welcoming him on board. In the feature project emerging from the short, I would like to explore the possibility of incorporating these moments from the past of these two men, Reb Hersh and Detective Robertson, in the fiction script.