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Reel Life: going back to Judaism

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Like many younger Jews, Mimi Rosenbush and Beverly Siegel have abandoned assimilation and taken up the traditions of their mothers and fathers. Out of their experience the two Chicagoans have produced an impassioned one-hour documentary called Return Trips that reflects their belief that devotion to Judaism can be a transcendent force for good.

"Judaism is energy in a vacuum," says Siegel. "It's magnetic. As a result of your Jewishness, people start to cling to you--you give them a spiritual rush."

The assimilation of Siegel's own family, sketched in the film, began with her maternal grandfather, Sam Medvedev, a hatmaker. In 1912 he emigrated from Russia to Chicago, where he became Sam Schwartz, operated a couple of hat shops, helped found the Home of the Association of Jewish Blind, and became a fixture in the Workmen's Circle, a socialist Jewish workers' organization.

Along the way, says Siegel, Schwartz turned nonobservant, though his leadership in the Workmen's Circle kept him focused on the moral tenets of Judaism. "My chief memory of him was hearing him speak at some Workmen's Circle meeting," she recalls. "I must have been five years old. He was talking in Yiddish, and I had no idea what he was saying. But he moved people."

Rosenbush's maternal grandmother, Miriam Levy, died while still in her 40s, the year Rosenbush was born. "I never knew her," she says. "I only know what my father told me about her. Her parents died when she was a young girl. She was raised by an aunt on the south side in totally assimilated circumstances. They put up a Christmas tree at the holidays. She had a coming-out party." Miriam and her family belonged to synagogues, but they were reform congregations.

Both Siegel and Rosenbush were reared in the 1950s in homes that deemphasized Jewishness. "For most of us growing up," says Siegel in the film, "Jewish identity was light and shallow, like the 50s."

Rosenbush went to religious school at Lakeview's Temple Sholom, which, she says, prided itself more on its liberal politics (like having Martin Luther King Jr. give an address) than on its attention to mitzvot, Jewish ritual. Siegel's family didn't belong to a temple; she went to a Workmen's Circle after-school program, but she remembers little of the Yiddish she learned there.

Siegel returned to her faith after her second child was born with a rare eye disease and doctors advised that one of his eyes be removed. Instead, Siegel and her husband, Gary, now an accounting professor at DePaul, turned to a Christian faith healer--who also happened to be a student of Jewish mysticism. "My son didn't get better, but Gary and I used to go once a week and spend time with this healer." As the Siegels studied more about mysticism, they decided to join an Orthodox synagogue. Their six children started attending a Jewish day school, and the family began to obey the strictures of the Sabbath--by not driving on Saturday, studying, putting their lights on timers.

Rosenbush's transformation took longer. In fifth grade she transferred from a public school to Anshe Emet Day School and found herself fascinated with Jewish rites. But after she married, she says, she suppressed her feelings in deference to her husband, Stuart, a cardiologist. "I'm more like a tortoise than Bev," she says.

In 1983 the Rosenbushes bought a house, and Mimi wanted her backyard to have a sukkah, a hut used during Sukkoth, the Jewish harvest festival. "Stuart felt a sukkah should be in the temple," Mimi says. She and some friends erected a sukkah anyway. At the party afterward, she says, "Stuart sulked."

Mimi has become ever more devout since then, attending a conservative synagogue on Saturday with her children, keeping kosher, and "celebrating all the holidays--not just Rosh Hashanah, but Simchas Torah and even more obscure holidays you've never heard of." Stuart has followed along, albeit reluctantly.

Siegel, a writer who had produced a documentary about her son, and Rosenbush, a film editor who had done a film on the children of holocaust survivors, met in an editing room in 1983 and became friends. They soon embarked on a film about the Jewish renaissance they and their friends were experiencing. It took seven years and $200,000, which came from grants as well as fees they earned distributing Jewish films.

Return Trips, narrated by actor Mike Nussbaum, contains historical footage and segments with such well-known figures as Rabbi Devorah Bartonoff, comedian Marc Weiner, and Rabbi Shlomo Freifeld, a New Yorker who schools Jews with little religious grounding.

Most compelling, however, are the real-life tales of Siegel and Rosenbush. Stuart Rosenbush confesses his misgivings. Art Strilky looks at his daughter Mimi and verbalizes a question that's plagued him: "Is my daughter going to be a religious fanatic?"

Rosenbush doesn't think so. But she feels a lack of devotion "leads to spiritual rootlessness," and at 39 she has every intention of continuing her quest.

"We were radical in college," says Siegel, who's 43, "and we felt we could correct the problems of the world by shouting our displeasure. But as the decades have gone on, many of us have turned inward. Now I'm starting with myself and those close to me to repair the world, or tikkun olam, as we say in Hebrew."

Return Trips can be seen at 8 PM Saturday, November 2, at Chicago Filmmakers, 1229 W. Belmont; at 7 PM Sunday, November 3, at the Film Center, Columbus at Jackson; at 7 and 9 PM Monday through Thursday, November 4 through 7, at the Skokie Theater, 7924 N. Lincoln; at 7 PM Wednesday, November 13, at Northwestern University's Harris Hall, 1881 Sheridan, Evanston; and at 7 PM Thursday, November 14, at the Lake Theater in Oak Park. After each showing there will be a discussion on Jewish identity. Tickets are $10; for more information call 588-2763.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Kathy Richland.

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