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Rosh Hashanah

Canadian documentary paints an unsentimental portrait of a Jewish holiday

By Chelsea Temple Jones

Rosh Hashanah: The Day of Judgment
Directed by Barry Lank
Lank/Beach Productions
VisionTV: Sept. 21, 10 p.m. EST

Remember documentary parodies on The Simpsons? They begin with the host turning away from his activity and greeting viewers with enthusiasm as artificial as plastic: “Hi, I’m Troy McClure. You may remember me from such educational films as . . . .”

Such films as Rosh Hashanah: The Day of Judgment, perhaps? Well, not quite. But it’s a close call when a Jazz FM radio host wraps up the weather forecast, removes his headphones, turns toward the camera and heartily says, “It’s the Jewish New Year. I’m Ralph Benmergui. I’m a family man. . . .”

The rest of the film unfolds as a model educational guide to Rosh Hashanah, the holiday marking the Day of Judgment, the beginning of the Jewish New Year.

Though Rosh Hashanah is the day when Jews around the world gather to pray, sing and hear the earthy herald of the shofar, the film isn’t a romantic lament. Instead, Rosh Hashanah is laced with colourful characters, hopping from downtown Winnipeg to the historic Junction Synagogue in Toronto,  from bakers and bridal shop owners to lawyers and academics. There’s even an appearance by Larry Thomas, affectionately known as “The Soup Nazi” from Seinfeld.

Viewers get a quick tour of Rideau Bakery in downtown Ottawa. Here, the owner stocks up on raisins and honey for people to put on savoury pastries that represent hope for a sweet year ahead. Nods of affirmation follow from the kosher inspector making his daily rounds.

These neighbourly characters offer depth and testimony. Some describe the longest Jewish service of the year as a new beginning, an annual spiritual renewal dating back to paganism. The holiday connects people with their own histories and with Jewish history through deep introspection, reflection and forethought. University student Leslie Emery best articulates it: “Nobody’s perfect, but we can always do better and we can try to live our lives in a way that heals the world.”

The film paints a picture of Rosh Hashanah that is both unsentimental and uncritical, making it a tame addition to a church library. Its approach is formulaic because, well, the formula works. Ultimately, though, this documentary is the stuff of channel surfing; if you want to learn more about Rosh Hashanah, just put down the remote and watch it.

Chelsea Temple Jones is a freelance writer in Toronto.

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