About a Boy

A wrinkled clipping from the newspaper was Menachem Lang's first real clue to the mystery shrouding his Hasidic family. From early childhood in a Christian-Jewish community to a role in Amos Gitai's new movie `Kedma,' Lang's story is a drama of conflicting identities

It is already after midnight and Menachem Lang doesn't know where he'll sleep tonight. Since the afternoon, his two suitcases have been packed and ready to go in the apartment where he was staying for the past few months. Homeless, dependent on the kindness of others, he waits for a sign from his future hosts, whose identity he does not yet know. But Lang doesn't seem too concerned. "It's not so bad," he says with a smile that reveals beautiful white teeth. "If no one takes me in, I'll sleep outside. It's not like it will be the first time."

Lang, 21, recently stopped being religious and doesn't feel totally at home in Hebrew. Until about a year ago, he spoke mostly Yiddish. His Hebrew seems frozen in time, not up to date. Certain expressions aren't clear to him and there are nuances that he's not attuned to. This wouldn't be of much importance, were it not for Lang's wish to work in a profession in which language plays a vital part: acting. Nonetheless, in Amos Gitai's new film, "Kedma," which will be released in Israel next week, and in which Lang plays a key role, his unique background worked to his advantage.

The movie tells the story of a group of illegal immigrants (ma'apilim) that comes to Palestine in 1948 on a ship called the Kedma, straight into the bloody battle to forge the way to Jerusalem. Lang plays a young Holocaust survivor, a cantor who has given up being religious. He speaks a warm, lilting Yiddish. In one scene, he even sings a cantorial tune, until the Palmachniks mockingly interrupt him. The choice of Lang, for whom the film's historical and cultural milieu are almost completely foreign - apart from a few shreds of information that somehow managed to penetrate the walls of the Satmar ghetto in which he was raised - adds another intriguing dimension to his cinematic image.

Since the film may also be interpreted as an allegory about emigration and the experience of being a refugee in your country, it's not hard to find a parallel to Lang's own story - now that he is trying to acclimate himself in the secular world like a new immigrant fresh off the ship. His abandonment of religion and the transition he made from the yeshiva to an acting career are just part of his complex and fascinating family saga. The starring players in this drama - his parents and grandparents - have bounced back and forth between the dizzying extremes of Judaism and Christianity, giving their story almost mythological dimensions.

The family secret

Until a year ago, Lang belonged to the Nadvorne Hasidic sect in Bnei Brak. As a child, he was considered a prodigy thanks to his lovely singing voice, and his parents sent him to study voice at the cantorial school in Tel Aviv. In Hasidism, where great importance is attached to singing and dancing during prayer, Lang acquired a special status. On holidays, he was invited up on the podium next to the rebbe. When he sang, the other Hasidim would press in close to get a better look at him. The rebbe had a special fondness for him. But, in the end, Lang was not drawn to Hasidism and decided to make his way out. And so, one day, about a year ago, he took off his skullcap.

The first place he went with his head uncovered was home. His shocked parents threw him out of the house on the spot. "You are no longer our son," his father yelled, worried that Menachem would be a bad influence on his seven other children. At the Nadvorne yeshiva in Bnei Brak where he studied, he was told: "How dare you! Don't come here again." Only the rebbe spoke to him ruefully: "Like a citron whose stem has been cut off," he said, shaking his head at the sight of Lang's bare head.

But such dramatic changes don't take place overnight. The unraveling and detachment occurs over a period of time. For Lang, the process began when he was nine. The young boy was nosing about in his parents' dresser. Deep inside his mother's makeup drawer, he came across a family secret. With a pounding heart, he smoothed out the wrinkled newspaper clipping and began to read. He discovered that his rigidly religious father was actually a non-Jew who had converted, and that his mother who wore a hat over her wig was once totally secular. He also found a photograph of a man, with no beard or earlocks, looking right at the camera. Was it his father? Apparently so. Lang continued to read about his maternal grandfather, who lived in the desert and believed in "that man" - Jesus.

But the cracks may have started to appear even earlier; a vague feeling that he was standing on unsteady ground stole into his heart. Once, in the midst of a fight with another child in the school yard, the other boy sneeringly said to Menachem: "Your father's a goy." "Goy" (non-Jew) was the worst epithet Menachem knew. He started to cry. Even then, he somehow knew that his life would never be the same.

Later, at home, when he told his father about the incident, his father dismissed him with a wave of his hand. But the next day at school, the rebbe assembled all the children in the class and asked Menachem who had called him a goy. Lang pointed to the guilty party and the teacher took a rod and beat the student. "I still feel sorry for him," says Lang. "The rebbe beat him so hard he got a fever and had to go home early." The boy never called him a goy again, but none of the children spoke to him after that, either.

The social ostracism only reinforced Lang's sense of otherness. "I always felt that my father was different. After I found out everything about him, I understood why he didn't know how to read normally from the Torah like everyone else - why, at the synagogue, he read like a small boy what everyone else knew by heart."

It's obvious that Lang still hasn't gotten over the hurt. "My father had a strange accent," he says. "When he prayed out loud, everyone laughed." And there were other oddities, like the table manners learned in a previous life that his father could never give up. "On Shabbat, we would eat the kugel with a knife and fork, not like the Hasidim do, with their hands. When I went to a real Hasidic house, I saw how they ate freely and talked during the meal. We weren't allowed to do that."

Is it hard for a child to have a father who's different?

Lang: "Definitely. It was painful for me. I pitied him and I also came to see the hypocrisy of the Hasidim. On Purim, they invited my father to lead the opening prayer. He was very excited. He'd never been bold enough to sing before everyone. For him, it was an extraordinary honor. But when he started, everyone laughed. They just wanted to have something funny for Purim. It is not his fault that he came from another country and doesn't have the same accent they do? I can't understand why they had to laugh at him."

The story of Dr. Lang

Shimon Lang, father of eight and a physician by training, was born Pierre Long to a Christian family in France. His son, Menachem, does not know a lot about his past, only what his father told him. He knows that his paternal grandfather has some connection to an important French bank and that his father has a twin brother, who is a lawyer. Long was already a doctor when he arrived in Israel at age 23.

"He told us that he was searching for the path to Judaism," says his son. "At age 21, he disappeared and no one, not even his mother, knew where he was. The police looked for him. There were articles about it in the paper."

What happened to the young man that was his father? Why did he decided to cut himself off from his family so abruptly? And why was he drawn to Ir Ovot, a kibbutz with a Me'a Shearim-like atmosphere, in the middle of the Arava?

A yellowing photograph that Lang recently received from his maternal grandmother shows his parents before they became ultra-Orthodox. They look like any ordinary smiling couple. Their relaxed poses indicate that they are on vacation. A few palm trees are visible in the background. Lang's parents never went into details. The censored version of their story that they told the children basically boiled down to this: The father chose the "truth" and left behind all the nonsense of the goyim.

All of the children, except for Menachem, accepted this explanation. His elder brother, Laizer, a devout Hasid, was recently appointed to an important position as a rosh havura (literally, "group head"), responsible for guiding and encouraging a group of Hasidic youth in their faith.

"Overall, I'm happy that my father converted, because I'm proud of my Judaism," says Lang. But when he discovered his parents' true background, "I gave up on Hasidism. I loved the rebbe, but I looked at him and thought: You continue your dynasty from generation to generation and I'll go another way. What chance do I - the son of a goy - have to be a rebbe?" Realizing that he could not go as far as he once hoped, he says he felt that he "wanted to at least be free to do what I want."

Arava messianism

The incredible story of Ir Ovot begins in 1967 when a few Jewish American families settled in the Arava, several kilometers south of Ein Yahav. One of them was the Perlmutter clan: Simha Perlmutter, his two wives - Yehudit and Jean (the first of whom he married in a Jewish wedding, and the other a Christian woman whom he never actually married), his elderly parents and his three children from Yehudit. Perlmutter, a graduate of Boston University Law School, was a religious Jew from Miami who had the charisma of a guru. Suffused with messianic fervor, he was convinced that the messiah promised in the Old Testament was Jesus. He claimed that a heavenly voice had commanded him to go to the Land of Israel and settle in the Arava (which didn't deter him from telling certain people that David Ben-Gurion had invited him to come and settle there).

He and the other members of the group sold all their property, came to Israel and turned their American passports in to the U.S. Embassy, thus burning all their bridges. The Jewish Agency's settlement department agreed to sponsor the kibbutz. Perlmutter, who was the kibbutz secretary, was repeatedly at loggerheads with the authorities. The Arava regional council felt he was a serious nuisance. Over the years, Ir Ovot attracted newly religious Jews, as well as non-Jews, whom Simha Perlmutter himself converted; later, he officiated at their weddings. Perlmutter grew a thick beard and earlocks and appointed himself rabbi. Chief Rabbi Shlomo Goren approved the conversions he performed.

At a certain point, when the Agency washed its hands of him and refused to meet his requests for water and land allotments, Perlmutter - who had become ever more extreme in his religiosity - turned for help to the heads of the Haredi movement: the Satmar rebbe and the leader of the most extreme current in Orthodox Judaism, Toldot Aharon. For some reason, they came to his aid. The symbol of Zionism in the Arava was not subsisting on the donations of anti-Zionist contributors from the United States, and Perlmutter declared that he had become an anti-Zionist.

In the 1970s, Ir Ovot became an extension of Me'a Shearim, religiously speaking. Hasidim of Toldot Aharon settled there and opened a school and synagogue. Daily life still followed the kibbutz model, with a strictly ultra-Orthodox-approved dining hall and kibbutz meetings in the synagogue, but the members followed the lead of the sect in Jerusalem.

It's not clear how Pierre Long ended up at Ir Ovot. But it is possible to imagine how he could have been drawn in by Perlmutter's magnetic personality and messianic message. He fell in love with the place and with Lori, the daughter of Simha and Yehudit Perlmutter. "My mother was the one who made him stronger [religiously]," says Lang. They married; Pierre became Shimon and Lori became Leah. Long also became Lang, which had more of a Yiddish ring to it. They had two children: Eliezer ("Laizer") and Menachem Ze'ev ("Volvi").

In 1982, the romance between Ir Ovot and Me'a Shearim suddenly ended, and most of the kibbutz members, including Yehudit Perlmutter and her three children, all left at the same time. They left behind houses, partially tended farmland and debts. The affair hit the newspapers when Yehudit Perlmutter, who sought a get (Jewish divorce) from her husband, demanded custody of her seven-year-old boy, who was with the father. She argued before the rabbinic court in Be'er Sheva that Perlmutter was using the guise of a Haredi Jew to preach Christianity. As a result, he was declared a dangerous man by the Haredi sect. The court issued a serious warning to "all of Bnei Yisrael, that he should not step foot in this place." When the police came to take the boy, Perlmutter barricaded himself in the storeroom of his house and refused to hand him over. He subsequently appealed to the High Court. The child remained with him.

A visit to the kibbutz

After the big rift, a small group of eccentrics, and half of Perlmutter's family, were left on Ir Ovot. Perlmutter's two sons, Dari and Ari, from his two wives, continued to live there. The place gradually died. Simha Perlmutter passed away about a year and a half ago. His son, Ari, a paratrooper, was killed in a 1994 terror attack at the main bus station in Hadera. Dari is trying to set up a guest house at Ir Ovot.

Lang did not know his grandfather Perlmutter, but he is angry at him and doesn't understand why he had to adhere to Christianity. As with many other things, his point of view here is still ultra-Orthodox. His parents never told him a thing about his grandfather. All they said was that Yad Le'ahim, a Haredi organization that fights missionaries, had helped them get away from Ir Ovot and come to Jerusalem when he was two years old. Not long afterward, they moved to Bnei Brak. Lang's father went looking for a synagogue and happened to enter the Nadvorne shteibel [prayer house].

Over the years, Lang picked up bits of information that helped him piece together his family history. But he still doesn't know the whole story. His grandmother, who changed her name to Yehudit Ze'evi and now lives on Kibbutz Lavi (a religious kibbutz), could have been a very good source. But she has so far volunteered only few details, he says. Evidently, she doesn't wish to betray the trust of her daughter, Menachem's mother, with whom she has a close bond; once a week, she comes to visit her grandchildren in Bnei Brak. The grandchildren have never been to visit her on Lavi.

Lang made his first visit to his grandmother's house two months ago. She gave him some rare photographs of her daughter, his mother, before she became ultra-Orthodox. One shows a suntanned woman wearing a T-shirt and pants, beside a horse. Her hair is pulled back in a ponytail and she's holding the reins. Lang loves this photo and the sense of freedom it shows. He's not willing to have it published in the newspaper.

Speaking with a heavy American accent, Yehudit Ze'evi politely declines to be interviewed. The way chosen by Menachem's parents must be respected, she says. And what's done is done. She will say this, though: The Ir Ovot period was certainly interesting.

Was Ir Ovot a community of messianic Jews?

"There was only one messianic man in Ir Ovot," she emphasizes.

What about before Ir Ovot was established?

"We were ordinary religious people," she laughs. She says that now she belongs to the National Religious camp, which she feels is the sanest current in Judaism.

This whole story was long concealed from Menachem Lang. As a child, he couldn't understand the sharp transitions from Christianity to Judaism, the energy involved in erasing one's personality and adopting a new identity, but he sensed that his father's aloofness and his mother's lack of affection were somehow connected to these transitions.

"You can give me a kiss, Menachem," his grandmother Yehudit said when he came to visit two months ago. When she saw that he was hesitating, she affectionately pulled him to her. He was moved to tears.

"My mother never kissed me once," he says. "She couldn't, for fear of impure thoughts. My father was just plain coercive. We didn't get a drop of warmth in that house. The only message was that if we were good and studied well, we'd get some attention."

Yet his parents still seemed to have a certain special sensitivity toward Menachem. He was born almost two months prematurely. In the family, they gave him the nickname "Volvi." His mother told him about how perilous the birth was. As a child, he was short and skinny. In large families, the mother protects the weakest child by giving him special attention. The others are left to fend for themselves.

Lang had a different kind of bond with his father: "He invested in me," he recalls. Even though he was a doctor and had even examined the rebbe on several occasions, Shimon Lang was not highly thought of in the community. He didn't fit in. He was very disappointed by this, and so he sent his children to Satmar institutions so that they would be taught the purest Yiddish. At home, the parents spoke to the children in the Hebrew they learned in ulpan.

Menachem's singing talent was his ticket to acceptance in the Hasidic world. His father realized this and did what he could to encourage it. For seven years, Menachem took the bus to the cantorial school in Tel Aviv twice a week. His parents never accompanied him. On these journeys, he kept his eyes glued to the window and took in all the marvelous sights.

For a short period after his bar mitzvah, Lang tried with all his heart to devote himself to Hasidism. He wanted to be a righteous man, so he would not look at women, and spent long hours studying Torah. But he was unable to sustain it; it turned out he was made of different stuff.

What really prevented you from remaining a Hasid?

Lang: "I sometimes thought that maybe it was because something was wrong with my genes, the fact that my father was a goy. But the truth is that I wanted democracy, I wanted freedom."

Similar `defect'

Menachem Lang wasn't one of those Hasidim who averts his eyes from the world. "We sometimes used to go for a walk in Park Haleumi," he relates. "I'd see girls in miniskirts there and I couldn't stop looking. It wasn't because of the miniskirts - I was only 10, but their appearance told me that they were free to do what they wanted. I used to cry when I came back from those outings."

As a teenager, Lang began to relax his observance of the commandments a little bit. He trimmed his beard and dressed in a way that his yeshiva classmates considered more modern. It was his early marriage that impelled him to remove his skullcap once and for all. Here, too, Christianity played a part. When Lang was 20, the rebbe blessed him that he should marry, and a bride was found for him: a religious young woman with the same "defect" he had - a father who was a goy. They decided together to abandon religion.

The marriage had only lasted a month when everything went wrong, according to Lang. His wife's father, whom she had never met before, came to visit, and she was so overcome with emotion that she decided to leave him and convert to Christianity. They were divorced right away, but he stuck to his plan nonetheless.

He wandered the streets for three months after being banished from his family and community. "I didn't know what to do or where to start. I had no family, no money, no friends," he recalls. Luckily, it was summertime so he didn't have to brave cold weather. "I didn't have anything to eat so I ate grass. I searched the sidewalk for bits of food that people threw out. I looked up at the sky 24 hours a day. A person can go crazy that way." At night, he found shelter in the Vishnitz cemetery on the outskirts of Bnei Brak, not far from his house. To avoid the spirits of the dead, he slept in the synagogue at the site.

He got clothing from the WIZO women's organization: "They were old men's clothes. I looked strange with my heavy, Hasidic-looking shoes." But people took pity on him. At one bakery, they sometimes gave him a pita for free, which gave him the idea that if he worked in a bakery, he'd have something to eat. He used to open the bakery at 2 A.M. and bake until 5 A.M. As he worked, he ate enough burekas and pastries to last him the rest of the day. He started to get fat and he didn't feel well. The loneliness was killing him and he occasionally had suicidal thoughts.

Did you think of becoming religious again?

"Never. I had a goal in life. I wanted to be secular."

The gift of acting

Lang decided to make use of his artistic talents and to study acting in order to move closer to his goal. In the Haredi world, he was known as a cantor and an actor. Two years before, he had acted in Yehuda Barkan's film, "Gevura Shel Yeled" ("A Boy's Heroism"), that was intended for a religious audience. And he subsequently played various roles in other Haredi productions. He even got fan mail.

"For me, being an actor is to be the most secular person possible," he says. He enrolled at Yuval Carmi's acting studio ("I just liked the name") and paid for his studies by giving voice lessons. He rented an apartment. He met director Amos Gitai by chance. His roommate was the son of the seamstress who did the costumes for "Kedma." One day, the seamstress, Hana Shriki, went up to Gitai's assistant, Ilan Moskovitz. "You should see this guy. He's a good young man," she urged him.

It was less than a week before shooting began. Lang arrived with Nikol Varom, who plays his girlfriend in the film. Moscovitz was impressed and asked them to try on some period outfits. Gitai already had a certain image in mind, but when he suddenly saw Lang like that, he tailored the character to suit him.

For now, one could say that Lang has made a very smooth landing in the free world. His childlike innocence opens doors. His apparent neediness makes everyone want to adopt him and help him. Moni Moshonov, who also acted in "Kedma," meets him for coffee. Shmulik Atzmon, whom Lang met during a Yiddishpiel Theater production he took part in on Holocaust Martyrs and Heroes Day, is counseling him and trying to help him develop his career. When his money ran out and he was forced to give up his rented apartment, Lang stayed with the parents of actor Moshe Ferster for a month and a half. When he had to leave there, the Dror Foundation, which offers assistance to formerly religious people making their first foray into the secular world, arranged for him to stay with philosophy professor Joseph Agassi.

Given all of this hospitality, Lang might have been tempted to think that the secular are all loyal soldiers in the Salvation Army. But he has also encountered some who exploited his innocence, and he says this made him give up the illusion that all secular people are good. At acting school, he fell in love with one of the female students. But what could a (former) Hasid know about love? "She reminded me of the rebbe from Nadvorne," he says. "She had the same soul, the same way of moving her hands. I was ready to give her everything." He wasted all the money he'd earned buying her expensive clothes but, alas, his love was unrequited.

So now Menachem Lang is still looking for love - and for his next acting role. n