Ilana Trachtman's portrait of Lior Liebling, an adolescent born with Down syndrome who is renowned within his close-knit Jewish community as a "spiritual genius," is thoroughly heartfelt. But though Trachtman alludes to the impact that Lior's special needs and local fame has had on his family, she seems uninterested in exploring the larger history of beliefs and traditions concerning mentally challenged people and their closeness to God.
The film opens with home-movie footage of Lior as a small child, happily singing with his mother not nursery standards like "The Itsy Bitsy Spider," but the traditional Shabbos song "Shalom Aleichem." The son of Reconstructionist rabbis Devora Bartnoff and Mordechai Liebling, Lior lost his mother to cancer when he was 6, but by then she had already begun to spread the word about her youthful "spiritual teacher." The bulk of the film is devoted to the months preceding the 12-year-old Lior's bar mitzvah. Lior is clearly high-functioning, and can be funny he cheerfully announces after his bar mitzvah that he'll be grown up and allowed to drink beer when he's not parroting self esteem-building doggerel like, "I don't have Down syndrome… I have up syndrome." But he's also immature, capable of a child's sharp (if unsubtle) insights and of pitching a fit like a 4-year-old when thwarted. Lior's classmates at the Politz Hebrew Academy tell Trachtman that Lior "davens [prays] off-key, but it's good," and note the difference between his absorption and their own dutiful detachment. Mordechai, who has been coaching Lior for two years, still worries that he may not be capable of getting through the traditional Torah reading and discussion. Lior's siblings 19-year-old Reena, who stepped in as surrogate mother after Devora's death, 16-year-old Yoni and 11-year-old Anna gamely answer Trachtman's questions about living with the "little rabbi."
Trachtman's film effectively suggests that integrating the disabled into their communities benefits everyone. But there's something disingenuous about delaying introduction of the possibility that Lior simply loves the attention praying has always brought or that others project onto him their own need for spiritual simplicity, and declining to examine the history of cultural perceptions of belief and devotion. Lior's faith-based reputation makes his story a story, and it's only half told. leave a comment --Maitland McDonagh