Missing the Heart of the Matter

Ron Maiberg's documentary about Adam Baruch is loving, respectful and not self-aggrandizing. But it doesn't meet the challenge of uncovering, or even really attempting to uncover, the mystery that was the man.

To tell a story or to draw a profile? This was the dilemma that director Ron Maiberg faced when he set out to produce a film about his friend Adam Baruch, who died in 2008. It's a dilemma he did not resolve satisfactorily in "Mot Ha'admor" ("The Death of our Master, Teacher and Rabbi" ), which is being screened through the end of the month at the Museum of Israeli Art, in Ramat Gan.

There can be no doubt about Maiberg's intention: to produce a movie imbued with a sense of love, esteem and longing, in order to immortalize Adam Baruch's image and perhaps solve its mystery. These, however, are the very things that may have prevented the film from becoming a satisfactory work; one whose viewers would emerge from the screening feeling they now knew Adam Baruch better than they had 75 minutes earlier.

Adam Baruch
Courtesy of Highlight Films

Of course, it is possible to tell a story and create a profile simultaneously, but that is the most difficult task of all and only a few documentary-makers can do so successfully. In this case, it would have meant doing justice to the image of Adam Baruch, a person who was a journalist and an art critic, who knew how to tell a story, and valued the genre of a journalistic profile and an artistic one.

I do not claim that each person has a "Rosebud" that cracks the mystery of his soul (even the original "Rosebud" was just a sophisticated deception in Orson Welles' "Citizen Kane" ). But if one could just have discerned an attempt to detect such a "Rosebud" in "Mot Ha'admor," even if the attempt had ultimately failed, the movie's final outcome would have been more satisfactory.

Instead, Maiberg collects materials, rambles between many interviewees, surveys Baruch's life and career and ends up with a documentary film that is a mosaic which lacks a real focus, and the focus is Baruch himself. More than anything else, one remembers the comment, heard more than once in the movie, that Baruch's handshake was soft, that he barely touched the fingers of the person whose hand he shook. Was this the Rosebud we were looking for?

Contrary to expectations, Maiberg, who never made any secret of his admiration for Baruch, does not place himself at the center of the movie, and is in fact hardly seen in it. Even though a thin layer of farewell affects the movie, Maiberg's mourning is pushed to the sidelines, and is swallowed up in a dry, factual manner of reporting that affects the way his friend's story and character are presented. That gives the film an element of decent modesty that avoids pomposity and stickiness.

Descendant of rabbis

All the relevant biographical material for Baruch's story is mentioned: the fact that he is a descendant of a respected ultra-Orthodox family, his role as editor of Musag and Monitin, his move from Yedioth Ahronoth to Maariv, his column Shishi and more. But from all that recitation, which moves at a quick - too quick - pace, one does not get an answer to the question of what made him such a central figure in Israeli culture, a kind of symbol or icon shaped by all the contradictions in his character and all the vicissitudes in his career.

Except for a few offhand remarks, none of which goes to the heart of the matter, it is impossible to ascertain his attitude toward religion or what role Jewish heritage played in his life. It is impossible to know what were his artistic, critical and journalistic visions. It is not enough to simply note that Adam Baruch brought "new journalism" to Israel.

In order to fulfill its goal, "Mot Ha'admor" should have been a foray into the depths of the consciousness of the person at the heart of the movie, and yet who remained outside it. Maiberg may have thought that a presentation of the differences and contradictions, as they were, was the code for getting to know his subject. But this choice, if indeed it was his choice, does not add up to a statement. Instead, it highlights the gaps that remain unfilled.

Maiberg tries to provide a tragic overtone to the story of Adam Baruch's life and death; to shape it as the story of a takeoff and a fading away, something that is always a dramatic format for telling a person's story. However, he does not succeed in implanting a real substance into any of these stages.

This limitation reaches its peak toward the movie's end, when he relates to the diabetes which Baruch suffered from, and which the hero refused to have treated. It is such a dramatic decision, so challenging and so troubling that the absence of an in-depth consideration of the matter leaves an even more troubling vacuum in the movie. Was it not appropriate to check how his friends, his brother and mother - both of whom are interviewed in the movie - coped with this decision? (The only reference to this in the movie is a claim that Baruch may have wanted to meet his creator ).

On the whole, one of the feelings one gets while watching Maiberg's movie is that it was created within confines that damage it. Particularly glaring are the absence of many artists and art critics, and also, and especially, of Baruch's two wives and his two adult children, Amalia Rosenblum and Ido Rosenblum. Instead the film is interspersed with interviews, some of which are uninformative and do not advance the story being told, or the film, or a portrayal of his image.

The film is not boring, because Adam Baruch was an interesting person. One cannot avoid being moved by the appearance of his mother, whose face bears a resemblance to his own face, as well as similarities to his children's faces; and there is a certain charm in the way the movie deals with the eternal cap, a captain's cap, that Baruch wore. Was it an attempt to hide baldness? Did it take the place of a skullcap? Did he want to identify himself with the sight of Jewish workers in Poland? One way or another, the film does not do justice to the man whose image with the cap, the jeans and especially the bearded face and sharp look left an indelible mark in these parts.

Perhaps for Maiberg, creating "Mot Ha'admor" (and it is no coincidence that the title focuses on the person's death ) was a sort of requiem for a lost friend. (He says in the movie that since Baruch's death, his own life has no longer been what it used to be .) But for anyone who knew Baruch just as a public personality, a polemicist, a critic, a symbol and an icon, "Mot Ha'admor" is just a tombstone, and as tombstones go, looking at and touching them leaves us distant.