2016-06-30
A man of few words by the name of Jonathan, bespectacled, introspective, and born an American Jew, is about to embark on a journey. It turns out he's a bit of a recluse and a chronic collector: whatever can be retrieved to aid in the memory-keeping of his ancestors, will be retrieved, whether it be the predictable aging photograph or the less-likely fingernail. All the items are carefully pouched in a plastic bag and tacked onto a wall above his desk as if it were a sort of scientific research project. After his grandfather's death, however, Jonathan is not satisfied with the last remaining prize collectible, his grandfather's dentures. Instead, he is obsessed, if not haunted, by a photograph with an inscription regarding a woman named Augustine, possibly the last surviving link to his grandfather's otherwise mysterious survival of the Holocaust. She might even have been the one who saved his grandfather's life.

So begins the on-screen story of "Everything is Illuminated," Liev Shreiber's film adaptation of Jonathan Safran Foer's much acclaimed debut novel by the same name. While Foer's novel takes the reader on a hoopla of narrative threads full of word plays, lost-in-translation charm, and wondrous tales of a town called Trachtimbrod, Shreiber's adaptation shucks those tales for the more goal-driven drama of finding a woman in the thick of post-communist Ukraine and its historic amnesia.

No quest is complete without a guide, and in this case, a translator. Lucky for Jonathan (Elijah Wood), it appears that a Ukrainian family has figured out how to get rich off Jews looking for their roots by starting a company called Heritage Tours. Enter Alex Perchov (Eugene Hutz), a young man who helps his father run the business. Alex and his grandfather (Boris Leskin) are roped into being the ones to drive the American Jew. Alex doesn't drive, so that puts his aging grandfather behind the wheel, half-blind, half-aware, and riddled with all sorts of emotions regarding the very journey itself. All of this seems lost on Alex, who bling blings his way through Ukraine's nouveau-hip scene and slowly turns into a bit of a Dr. Pangloss to Jonathan's Candide. Alex breakdances from the neon-lit floors of Kiev's nightclubs to the randy hotel backrooms of a lost landscape, all along feeding his hell-bent desire to make it to America to pick up babes. Where he finds himself, instead, is face to face with the recesses of his grandfather's untold tales.

Jonathan is thus catapulted into a surprising journey, an unwitting pilgrimage. So unwitting, he is rendered relatively speechless throughout the trip. Beyond the impossible task of remaining vegetarian in off-road Ukrainian motels--or being the lust object of the tour guide's "seeing eye bitch," a dog named Sammy Davis Jr., Jr.--he is met with a deeper internal challenge. He must come to terms with himself in ways he did not intend nor imagine would fit into a little plastic bag like the rest of his retrievals.

With offbeat humor, borrowed dialogue from the novel, and a lively soundtrack, the soul-searching journey creates an unlikely and absurd bond between all four characters (including Sammy Davis Jr., Jr.), who are squished for most of the film in an appropriately selected time capsule, the communist king of the road--a powder-blue Trabant. They navigate the impossible roads of the memory superhighway in search of Augustine. Upon finding her, we travel back to an unreliable, fragile, and tentative place, surrounded by glorious sunflowers. This image, like any other tucked away in memories and story, may never have happened.

Like a rock on the gravestone
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  • When I first read Foer's novel--and this was re-iterated as I watched the film--I thought of the Jewish tradition that encourages visitors to a gravesite to place a rock on the gravestone before leaving the cemetery. The rock signifies, simply, that somebody has been there to visit. When another person comes to visit the gravesite, it is clear that there were others who remembered, perhaps even a person who might have taken a similar path and ended up at the same place. Predictably, the power of discovery in the film is not when we arrive on Augustine's front porch, but in the journey itself. Once they arrived, it was clear that no one had been there before, and each character had the opportunity to partake in what became a bit of a communal pilgrimage, each left the other with a rock, something to signify that each had been there.

    As a daughter of Hasidism, I have my own experiences with pilgrimages. We would accompany the leaders of our community to the towns where the founding fathers of various Hasidic dynasties were buried, and be sure to leave a stone, tell a story, light a candle, and whisper a prayer by their graves. Hasidim believe that visiting the makom k'doshim, the sacred sites, is a z'khus, a merit, especially on the anniversary of the death of the particular rabbi. There is a power to being in situ, at the same location on the appointed date; pilgrims meet as one unified voice to give credence to the memory of the man (and his wife, at times) whose life and work continues to guide them. It is an auspicious time to request even the most personal of needs: marriage, children, income, and health.

    At four in the morning on one such pilgrimage to Poland--the anniversary of the death of Reb Elimelekh of Lizhensk--I and my fellow travelers pulled into the lot designated for this annual event. Throngs of mostly men were rushing toward the little building that housed the headstone of the great Rabbi of Lizhensk. He was famed for blurring the lines between the Christian and Jewish peasants of the region. In the early 19th century, all sought his counsel. But this night was reserved for his Hasidim, his followers.

    When I walked, half awake, into the little house, the feast, the seudah, was already in progress, the men already in the midst of song and dance, the women peering excitedly through the little doorway which separated them from the men. Despite the groggy time of night, I couldn't help but notice that I was surrounded by an international array of Hasidic women--from England, Israel, New York, and Argentina. Just by arriving, taking the trip to Poland, I had become part of a steadfast tradition that would continue with my grandchildren, and then, even, theirs.

    Pilgrimage is not a particularly Jewish phenomenon, though "Everything is Illuminated" focuses directly on that strain of tradition. This is a communal practice deeply rooted in the faith that it is the journey itself, not so much the destination, that makes all the difference. Putting Jonathan on a plane and taking him to face what he imagines are his roots--and what he knows is his grandfather's hometown, Trachtimbrod--is the end, not the means to attain the much-sought-after quest for self-knowledge.

    My Alex, my Augustine, my stories
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  • The same is true for my personal pilgrimages to those graves of our family's ancestors. Each of these trips was similarly peppered with its own translators, key-keepers, and guides (some with dogs), weaving a tapestry. They turned out to be, ironically and haphazardly, the ones who rooted me and alerted me to the real purpose of my journeys.

    My Alex was the guide's son who kindly had a quickie with his ex-girlfriend turned border-guard so he could get us past the Ukrainian border into Hungary. My version of Alex's grandfather was Bela Basci, who picked grapes with me in his courtyard. When he showed me a picture of the man who brought him nice white shirts from America every time he returned on pilgrimage, the photograph happened to be of my very own father. My Augustine was Rosi Roth, whose house resembled, almost to the last speck of dust, the on-screen replica of Augustine's home. The men I'd meet in this intimate space of Jewish connection were usually survivors both of the Holocaust and some Russian-imposed political prison, and were quick to offer me the potent nectar of the Jewish gods, shlivovitz, a fruit brandy often homemade and always hidden in the cabinet of the last remaining synagogue. The women, on the other hand, were quick to offer honey cookies, stories, and hopes for my marital future.

    Most of these local arbiters have passed on, but each one left a rock on my own created landscape of disappeared memories and possible pasts. In so doing, I am left to pass down the tales as they told them to me, or more accurately, as I fail to remember them well.

    In the case of "Everything Is Illuminated," it is ultimately not Augustine who is the missing link to Jonathan's tale; rather, it is Alex who is the bearer of the so-called grail. He is today's Ukrainian. His role is to realize the inevitable marriage between the two cultures. Alex is left equipped to move beyond his grandfather's irascible anti-Semitism so that he can pass on his discoveries (along with his porn) to the next generation, starting with his own little brother.

    While it was disappointing not to have the opportunity to see an on-screen version of Foer's faux shtetl, Trachtimbrod, the film deserves kudos for bringing the music, color, and necessary humor of today's Ukraine to the fore. A special touch was the pairing of the veteran actor Boris Leskin with the theatrics of Eugene Hutz. Though I've crossed paths personally with Hutz at sweaty nightclubs, I can say (in all objectivity of course) that he is terrifically cast as Alex, dipping into his real-life experience as a Ukrainian Roma and the front-man for his "Ukrainian Punk Cabaret" group, Gogol Bordello.

    None of the characters leaves this tale unmoved any more than I left unaffected from the gravesites of many Hasidic sages. Like I was, each character is left with a little stone placed ever so absurdly and gently atop their heads.

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