Candid camera: Filmmaker brings Haredi sexual abuse into focus
Artist and filmmaker Menachem Roth recently exposed the sexual abuse he suffered at a yeshiva in his film 'Pursued.'
When he was about 8 years old, Menachem Roth, who was raised in a Hasidic family, went to live with his grandparents. On the first night after he arrived, when he recited the "Shema" prayer from a prayer book with his grandmother, she discovered he had no idea how to combine letters into words.
Roth was educated in a “heder” (religious school for young children), beginning from kindergarten age. Now 37, Roth wrote, directed and stars in a documentary film titled "Pursued," which premiered on Israeli television last week.
"I licked honey off the [Hebrew] alphabet letters in the heder [a symbolic ritual], like everyone else, but I didn't really learn to read," Roth recalls. "I didn't understand a single word. I got zeroes on all my tests. My father used to study with me - unsuccessfully. He would hit me in frustration," Roth says.
"My father really hated me," he continues, describing how one evening an ambulance had to be called to take him to a hospital. "I was in serious condition, and questions were asked," he says. "And then the most wonderful thing in my life happened: They sent me to my grandmother."
Roth's grandmother, a Hungarian Holocaust survivor, didn't know Hebrew perfectly herself. However, together, she and her grandson began to read old children's books that she brought home for him. Roth has a fond recollection of a translation of "Tom Sawyer."
"It was as though I had arrived in paradise," he recalls. "Instead of getting up in the mornings with shouts and beatings, I awoke to the smell of chocolate milk being made. I slept in my grandmother's bed until I was bar mitzvah age."
Footage of Roth's grandmother, whose eyes radiate human warmth, is one of the only bright spots in his film (a Channel 2 production for which he collaborated with producer Ron Ofer).
In "Pursued," Roth laconically describes in Yiddish how he was abused as a teenager in a yeshiva. He rents an apartment opposite that of his accused attacker's, and the film's climax shows Roth confronting the man. The beatings Roth suffered during his childhood are a secondary focus in the film, but he emphasizes the connection between the two forms of abuse during our conversation.
"My film is an indictment," he says. "I am drawing a line that extends from a neglected child, a small and rejected child, who was physically abused by his father to sexual abuse by an attacker who identified someone weak.
"I'm not claiming that there are more pedophiles in Haredi society," he continues. "I'm saying that the children are less protected, and that's why it happens more. And I know what I'm talking about, because it happened to me. Why? Because they didn't pay attention to me. I'm saying that children are hit and raped because they [adults] don't know how to protect them. A pedophile can walk around all his life and not get what he wants. But when he is in a yeshiva, it's much easier for him to operate, because there are neglected children there. It doesn't take much to notice them: a dirty shirt, a depressed mood, a child who is withdrawn and has behavioral problems."
Roth abandoned the world of religion and now teaches film at Jerusalem's Charles E. Smith High School of the Arts. This is his first documentary. He is the fourth child in a local Hasidic family with eight children, a well-to-do but dysfunctional family.
"My mother was a beauty. The prize she got was to be married off to a wealthy man from the Hasidic community," he says. "But my father was a loser who messed around with luxury cars and wasted all the money amassed by his contractor father, who hit him too."
In spite of their apparent wealth, he and his siblings, six of whom have also abandoned religion, did not always have food on their table.
"We had a Volvo in the parking lot, but no orderly meals," Roth says. "I remember a childhood that was full of pressure and terror. I never had the feeling that I deserved anything. At any second, things could be taken away from me. I didn't have a set place for my clothes. I didn't get attention from my parents. When you look at children in secular society, the child is at the center of everything; the adults are there to serve him. Where I grew up, the child is a nuisance, and as a nuisance he has no rights."
When he was 5 years old, Roth returned from the heder one day and discovered that the front door was locked. "I waited in the yard with the cats until it got dark," he recalls. "I was afraid of them, but we were in the same jungle. Suddenly a neighbor came and said, 'Your mother gave birth, you're staying with us.'"
At age 13, Roth transferred to a yeshiva -¬ not one of the "good" ones, he says, because he had problems learning. There were periods when Roth roamed the streets and hung out with "shababniks" (gangs of yeshiva dropouts). To prevent a further decline, Roth's family sent him to another, live-in yeshiva. According to Roth, the head of that institution was a known pedophile that was never brought to trial because none of his alleged victims dared come forward to the police.
"In that yeshiva there was a total distortion between good and evil, mainly when it came to the sexual issue," he says.
'Locked inside myself'
Roth's alleged attacker was the 21-year-old son of the head of the yeshiva: The sexual assaults, which he says were accompanied by physical violence, occurred a number of times during the year he spent at the boarding school. "I shrunk like an insect that pretended to be dead. I was dead meat. At the same time I felt a sense of guilt. His father, that monster, raped many people. But I don't know whether he himself was a victim. I reverse the situation in my film. He becomes an object for me, just as I was an object for him."
After a year at the boarding school, Roth says, "the situation became intolerable, and I started running away into the Jerusalem forest at night. I was locked inside myself; I didn't think of complaining."
In the following years, Roth ran away from wherever he was enrolled in school, and the authorities would call the police and transfer him to an even worse institution. He was in five educational frameworks for boys who had been ejected from yeshivas, one of them on a moshav near Jerusalem, "out of sight out of mind, where there was a kind of rabbi who decided he was a psychologist," he says. "I lasted there for two years, because at least there was food and a bed, and I didn't feel threatened among the sheep and donkeys."
But eventually, he ran away from there too.
In the end, in 12th grade, Roth arrived at a yeshiva high school in Petah Tikva, which was a vocational school with a less-than-sterling reputation. However, he matriculated and discovered that he had a talent as an electrician. He wanted to enlist in the army but was deemed unsuitable.
After a while Roth was accepted to the Bezalel School of Arts and Design, where he was considered an outstanding student and was awarded scholarships and prizes. He remained preoccupied with his unusual background and with the world from which he had come, creating video works about Talmud texts, among other things.
After concluding his studies at Bezalel, Roth pursued a master's degree in media at a German university. There he made a film about his grandmother and her experience at the Majdanek extermination camp, as well as a "multi-channel video installation," as he calls it, which he filmed in Poland, Bnei Brak and Jerusalem.
After finishing his degree, Roth embarked on a period of wandering around Europe, making a living as a technician for street shows, sleeping in abandoned houses and living hand-to-mouth. Three years ago he returned to Israel.
"I felt a need to find my means of expression, in my language, in my own mud and cement," he says.
Roth began to write feverishly and realized that he wanted to make a film about the abuse he suffered at the boarding school. One of the questions posed in "Pursued” is why he didn't act to bring his attacker to trial. Roth explains that prosecution of his alleged abuser is now impossible because of the statute of limitations, and says he is not interested in "benefiting from monetary compensation because of my assault." Besides, he adds, "my goal was not to exact revenge." This is also why Roth decided to blur the attacker's face in the documentary and never identifies him by name.
Regarding his decision to narrate the film using Yiddish, Roth explains, "I wanted to give the viewer a sense of voyeurism," of entering a foreign culture so that they could grasp "how distant this culture is." He also wanted viewers "to connect with the little Menachem that I used to be."
However, the main reason for choosing Yiddish was so that "Haredim would feel that I'm talking to them," he says. "Every one of them is the target audience for this film," adding that the film is meant mainly for those who "collaborate with social injustice [including neglecting and abusing children], or collaborate with silencing [such acts]."
"In general, Haredim say he was ‘playing with children,' as though that's not related to sexuality," Roth continues. "What pedophiles do with a child is not a game."
Roth's father, who is briefly mentioned in the film, died 15 years ago. It's hard for Roth to talk about his mother and he doesn't mention her in the film: She didn't protect him.
"There were different circumstances," he says. "But the big question I ask is: To what extent are people captives of the system? In spite of everything, even a female cat would have more power and courage to protect her kittens. And the comparison is hard for me."
Today Roth lives with a female partner in Jerusalem and, for the first time, he says, he feels ready to settle down in one place.
"Searching, as a way of life, sounds romantic, but it's exhausting," he says.
"I no longer want the company of unrealistic wanderers, and all their misery," he adds. However, one thing Roth has not been able to overcome, and perhaps doesn't want to change, is his reluctance to belonging to a community.
"I don't need a synagogue," he says.
Many Haredim have already seen the trailer for the film, as evidenced by talkbacks and references on Haredi websites. "There is a spectrum of opinions," Roth says. "But some people are saying: 'It's good that these stories are coming out."
"This will help us deal with the problem," he continues. "I believe there's great strength in acknowledging the illness in this society, ¬strength that can encourage the prevention of such acts."
After the debut screening of his film in May at the DocAviv International Documentary Film Festival in Tel Aviv, Roth appeared to feel exposed before the audience - everyone there was aware of the graphic details of the abuse he suffered.
Now, he says, he is not afraid of being exposed on television.
"I feel like the innkeeper in Nathan Alterman's play who says: Look at me and see how pretty I am. She needs to have people look at her so she'll feel pretty, and I need to have people watch at the film. I need to have a lot of people hear my story, so it will have validity."