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DIVAN (director/writer: Pearl Gluck; screenwriter: Zelda Greenstein; cinematographer: William Tyler Smith; editor: Susan Korda; music: Frank London; Runtime: 77; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Pearl Gluck; Zeitgeist Films; 2003-Ukraine/Israel/USA/Hungary-in English, Yiddish and Hungarian, with English subtitles)
“Fascinating personal view of Hasidism.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Pearl Gluck’s touching, though at times too cute, personal documentary is a highly emotional one that tells about her quest for a divan (couch) that has been in her family since at least 1879. It belonged to her great-great-grandfather, and became valued when in Hungary a great rebbe reputedly slept on it. At 27-years-old the unmarried Pearl, after graduating from college and receiving a Fulbright Scholarship, goes to Hungary and the Ukraine to study old Jewish relics and the oral history from those remaining Yiddish-speaking members of the community. While there she makes contact with her relatives, her ex-communist cousin in Budapest and in the farming community of Rohod, the holder of the couch, Meshulem Rottenberg, and she becomes deeply affected by their still terrible memories from the Holocaust and all the lives it took from the once flourishing Jewish community. Pearl using her self-deprecating humor tries to reestablish her strong Jewish roots, while obsessed with bringing back the couch. The film is also a way of dealing with her troubled relationship with her Hasidic father who has never forgiven her for slipping from the old-school hardcore path to become more secular. Added to Pearl’s dialogue is the continual commentary from what seems like a Greek chorus of the ex-ultra-Orthodoxy (friends in the same boat) who act as cheerleaders for Pearl, while sitting in Pearl’s Manhattan apartment on the couch she brought back from Hungary and offering moral support and humor for her mission (which they collectively see as finding her own identity and not necessarily bringing back the couch).

Pearl was born in Borough Park, Brooklyn, and if it weren’t for the miracle of her parents’ divorce she would not have escaped such a restricted life. Choosing as a teen to live with her mother, her father has not visited her Manhattan apartment in the 15 years of the separation–never forgiving her for choosing to live with her more secular mom and straying from the traditional route reserved for Hasidic women. Instead of an early marriage at 18 to a Torah scholar and then raising a large family, Pearl hopes that now by retrieving the valued heirloom she could offer some pleasure to her father as a bridge to bring them closer together. Though her father makes it clear that he prefers she return to her Hasidic roots and get married to an ultra-Orthodox Jew (one wearing a fur trimmed hat-a shtreiml).

The film took place during Pearl’s Hungarian visit and afterwards, when she returns not with the heirloom but another couch she picked up in an Hungarian flea market (the one her friends are pleased to sit on). It seems her uncle decided she wasn’t Hasidic enough, and gave the couch to another male relative. But the trip wasn’t an entire loss, as in the end her father visits for the first time her Manhattan apartment and looks at a videotape she made where they recently went to a Tish (a Hasidic ritual where the flock is uplifted to gather at the rebbe’s table and nosh with him) and on a pilgrimage to sacred temple sites where on both trips she filmed things she was not allowed to (I don’t know if that’s a good or a bad thing, but it certainly won’t be welcomed by the Hasidic sect and shows Pearl is no longer interested in returning to the flock).

Pearl’s fascinating personal view of Hasidism is in many ways like recent documentaries such as a A Life Apart and Trembling Before G-d, where finding your own way after being told all your life what to do is the new test of faith. The film also goes the travelogue route and takes you to sites in Hungary and Ukraine rarely filmed. Though not a great filmmaker’s film, its amateur qualities are endearing and Pearl proves to be a sweetie pie who has fallen into the pitfalls of fundamentalism (rejection from her family and her Jewish roots) and with the help of friends is finding a new meaning to life in a more secular lifestyle.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”