Director, Producer, Camera
Director, Producer, Camera
The film premiered in Manhattan as part of The Athena Festival to a standing room only crowd on March 1, 2020. I stood on the side of the huge lecture hall turned theatre so I could watch everyone watch. It was an extraordinary moment. A week later the world as we knew it closed down.
I am writing this Director’s Statement months into the Coronavirus pandemic. COVID-1 has limited human contact, forced people to die and mourn alone, and has exposed deep and deadly racial injustice.
Rachel would have much to say about all of this. I have no doubt that if she were alive and well she’d be out in the streets joining the massive protests. She was a life-long activist who discovered that a spiritual practice nourished activism in the face of injustice. She would have shown how despair is a luxury we cannot afford.
Many of the consequences of Rachel’s diagnosis prefigured the world-wide lockdown. She craved submersion in wild nature on a kayak in Alaska and was limited to walks in Riverside Park. She could no longer travel to the beloved places where she often taught – Israel, Alaska, Costa Rica… “Thank God for my mindfulness practice” Rachel would often say. It enabled her to find internally what she was denied externally.
How did I meet her? I am an American born, Jerusalem based, documentary filmmaker. Rachel traced her roots to the Mayflower and became the first woman convert to be ordained as a rabbi. We met through my father-in-law, Rabbi Wolfe Kelman, who was a mentor to Rachel and her husband Village Voice journalist Paul Cowan. Rachel and Paul were a charismatic couple who met through the Civil Rights Movement. Their activism continued through the Peace Corps and the Anti-War movement. They were instrumental in the Jewish revival on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Wolfe guided Rachel’s conversion to Judaism and supported her especially after Paul died at age 48 from leukemia.
Rachel travelled to Israel often as the Director of Jewish Life for The Nathan Cummings Foundation. She became involved with many Israeli activists who always found a hospitable welcome in her sprawling Riverside Drive apartment. We became close. We liked to drink and laugh. We talked about men and children and food. We agonized about the difficulty of loving Israel while being critical. I felt that Rachel really heard me. Later I found out that, of course, many people felt that way. It was one of Rachel’s gifts.
I started experimenting with personal documentary filming on a High 8 camera in the mid 1990’s. One of my first projects to be publicly screened was a collection of blessings to Rachel on her 54th birthday from her friends in Israel, including the feminist icon Alice Shalvi. Jeanie Ungerleider from the Dorot foundation saw the video and commissioned me to make a full-length documentary portrait of Alice that was broadcast as an ABC TV special and launched my career.
I always wanted to make a film about Rachel but I was in no hurry. I caught bits of her life here and there – playing with her grandchildren, walking in the rain. I filmed her as a rabbi on an American Jewish World Service mission to Cambodia and Thailand where she taught and practiced compassionate listening in difficult circumstances. I filmed her with Dhammananda – the first female Buddhist monk ordained in Thailand. When Dhammananda visited New York I filmed her teaching in Rachel’s apartment. They shared the experience of being grandmothers running meditation centers. I thought that would be a wonderful film but again I thought there was no hurry.
I interviewed Rachel for other films that I made. She talked openly about her complicated relationship to Israel in EYES WIDE OPEN (2006). She talked about her conversion for FRINGES: NEW ADVENTURES IN JEWISH LIVING (2012).
In 2017, when Rachel had retired from the Institute of Jewish Spirituality and was concentrating on Wise Aging groups I finally decided that it was time to make the film. When I approached her she was at first hesitant. She said, “The world so doesn’t need another memoir. Then I thought, well actually, everyone’s life has a point. My life has a lot that I have learned. Paula wants to make a movie. She thinks it is interesting. She is my friend. I’ll help her. So the motivation was doing you a favor and now I am just realizing, someone gives you a chance to reflect, talk, to do a kind of life review… You are really lucky that someone wants to do that.”
We had great plans…I was going to film her kayaking in Alaska, meditating in Costa Rica, and then on a trip to Israel/Palestine with Encounter.
And then she was diagnosed with aggressive brain cancer.
I heard the news in my home in Israel – just after I had broken a toe. I literally hopped onto a plane to get to her, but at first I kept my distance to give the family space to digest what was happening.
And as I waited in New York City to talk, and hopefully film Rachel, I lost my balance (because of the broken toe) tripped and broke the fifth metatarsal on my other foot. With time on my hands, and both feet propped on pillows I reviewed all of the footage I had collected of Rachel over the years. There was Paul and Rachel leading Mixed Blessings workshops for intermarried couples, being interviewed on television by Charlie Rose and Sally Jesse Raphael… And there was a seminal article, written by Paul after he was diagnosed with Leukemia – The Land of the Sick. He wanted people to understand the point of view of a patient. He also wanted to make a film and there were hours of Rachel filming him. It confirmed my commitment and hunch.
When I finally got to see Rachel, I asked her if she wanted to continue working on the film. She replied: “You making this movie makes me feel good. Makes me feel like I am not so confined in this moment in time. And it means I don’t have to write my memoir…”
It is difficult filming a friend who is critically ill…who is dying. Many times I put down the camera -to help her cross the street, make a phone call, or just giggle with her as she vaped medical marijuana.
As Rachel’s disease progressed, It became harder for me to focus on filmmaking. One of the most difficult decisions I made was to bring in a crew for the final days of filming. I didn’t fully realize how disruptive the extra people would be. I still cringe when I remember the added chaos in her apartment. But when I see that footage of Rachel meditating, her beautiful face perfectly lit and in focus, I feel like it was worth it.
Rachel died at home on August 31, 2018. At her funeral her sister Connie said, “I think that the siblings of a spiritual teacher aren’t likely to experience the qualities that make her a teacher or a leader – it’s a different relationship.” That’s how I felt. I loved her and we had fun. I was aware of her growing reputation as an inspirational spiritual teacher but I was not aware of the extent of her impact until I accompanied her during her last year. I saw how her practice enabled her to live with gratitude and fortitude until the end… and how her practice and presence elevated others.
Weeks after Rachel died, in September 2018, I was diagnosed with stage 1a lung cancer – a miraculously early diagnosis. I felt Rachel’s loving presence, and the lessons I learned from her guiding me throughout my illness.
I imagine this feeling is akin to what those who were lucky enough to sit and practice with her weekly at the JCC in Manhattan (which you can see in the film) have taken with them. And really, in many ways, that was my motivation to make this film.
I miss Rachel. I miss her wise council. I feel blessed that I can share her teachings and help her presence endure. Her spirit lives on…