“Steve, you’re not the only one that has questions.”
When film producer and newly minted director Steven Bram went looking for answers, he stumbled upon a faith that promised nothing less than “the spiritual secrets of the universe,” in addition to a global community that boasts members as diverse as Madonna and a rabbi who surfs so much that he’s known as “the surfing rabbi.” (Some nicknames are just obvious, even if they aren’t especially kicky.) Kabbalah may be most recognizable thanks to its tenuous Hollywood connection—beyond Madonna, Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher were married in a Kabbalah ceremony that was once rumored to be not legally binding—but Bram comes to the faith in a more traditional way, thanks to his Jewish roots and his interest in deepening the spiritual component of his worship.
Audiences interested in learning more about Kabbalah itself will find little illuminating information within the frames of Bram and Judah Lazarus’ documentary Kabbalah Me, which spends significant time addressing what people think it is, and little time delivering tangible facts. Interpretations of the faith run the gamut—talking heads tick off buzzwords like numerology, Madonna, and mysticism without pause—though the apparent spiritual nature of the faith remains constant. One rabbi declares it to be the dessert portion of Judaism, should the faith be likened to a meal. The subtext is obvious: This is the kind of thing you need to work up to, and Bram might not be ready for it.
Plenty of other practicing Kabbalists also aren’t ready for it, and the film doesn’t balk at presenting them, too. Alongside rabbis, Orthodox Jews, and students of the faith, Kabbalah Me finds time to introduce people who picked up the faith the same way someone might go to therapy or start attending spin classes, all of them beaming about how Kabbalah has enriched their lives. (Madonna is mentioned often, though she apparently declined to be interviewed.)
Bram’s desire to find something to fill the spaces of his life always appears genuine, but it’s unclear how far his search will really carry him. It doesn’t help that he all but stumbles on Kabbalah as a possible answer, thanks to a random conversation with a pal at a hockey game that occurs just as Bram has started his search. At least, that’s what the neat and tidy narrative of Kabbalah Me presents—a suspect assertion that diminishes the seeking nature of such a quest. The ease in which he gathers spiritual advisors (from strangers to members of his own extended family) is jarring, but the accommodating spirit of Bram’s new friends and family helps lessen the speed of his jump from wanting to learn more about the faith to suddenly having almost too many people to help guide him down his new path. If Bram is looking for community, he’s got that in spades. Turns out, he’ll need it.
Although Kabbalah Me is ostensibly about Bram’s personal journey, the film is most compelling when it traces his attempts to fold his newfound spirituality into his existing life. It’s readily apparent that Bram’s acceptance of Kabbalah will be easy enough: The vast number of experts who teach him, the Orthodox branch of his family who lovingly welcomes him, and the kind of access and cache a documentary provides all help clear the hurdles and make what could be a difficult undertaking scan as somewhat simple. But his primary obstacle will be convincing everyone else in his life that he hasn’t cracked up, and that he’s really into Kabbalah for life.
A birthday party—a hip, glitzy affair at what appears to be a sparkling Manhattan eatery—is marred by Bram’s friends giggling over his turn to Kabbalah as his primary religion, as his closest pals openly mock his choice to delve deeper into his faith, either approaching his attempts to share his new discoveries with glazed-over eyes and vague shrugs, or openly declaring that any offshoot of Judaism is “bullshit.” The party marks a turning point in both the film and in Bram’s journey, an uncomfortable but eye-opening event that only hardens Bram’s dedication. It should come as little surprise that, post-party, Bram sets out for Israel on a “spiritual vacation” meant to further cement his faith. It also slows down the forward momentum of the film, which previously clipped along admirably, in service to laying on thick emotion and plenty of moments that appear to portray a true spiritual wake-up for Bram.
Bram’s wife Miriam is more measured in her judgments, and the film makes it clear from its earliest moments that she isn’t looking to change her life in any significant way. A lifelong yoga practitioner, Miriam feels fulfilled in her own spirituality, and she’s understandably concerned when it comes to the possibility that the man she married could wake up Orthodox one day. Interviewed intermittently throughout Kabbalah Me, Miriam has concerns that may seem small on the surface—Steve begins keeping kosher, cutting out shellfish, including lobster, a delicacy he used to love and actually taught Miriam to enjoy—but her obvious fear that the man she married will suddenly transition into someone she doesn’t recognize is stirring. (Bram’s young daughters are put out by his disinterest in ordering bacon at breakfast.)
The film uses frequent intertitles to reintroduce various talking heads, a generous method that works to dilute the sense that Bram has more advisors than would be, well, generally advised. Occasionally, the film even attempts to use intertitles to explain the bigger notions of Kabbalah and some of its basic terminology, but their usefulness is undercut by their infrequency. Kabbalah Me is most satisfying as a personal artifact that traces Bram’s quest, bumps and all, and it stumbles when it attempts to lay on educational aspects. This is, after all, a journey of faith, not one of facts, and the film sparks when it focuses on the universality of Bram’s struggles, not his actual spirituality.