Review by Larry Mark – Jewishfilm.com
It took me three trips to the Manhattan’s Cinema Village theater before I got in to see PRAYING WITH LIOR, a new documentary film which opened to glowing reviews and sold-out screenings in a city where being jaded is an art. It was worth the wait.
Four years ago, Ilana Trachtman, a Manhattan based filmmaker felt out of touch with traditional liturgy and had lost her kavanah. She decided to attend Elat Chayim, a Jewish renewal retreat, for Rosh Hashanah. As Ms. Trachtman paged through the service, counting the remaining pages in the siddur, and pondered the upcoming vegetarian lunch, she was struck by the voice of the person praying behind her. It was filled with joy, spirit, and intention; it was infectiously enthusiastic and that of a pre-teen boy named Lior – a boy with Down’s syndrome. How could he, the disabled one, be praying better than she. Slightly envious, she ended up nearly stalking him for the rest of the high holiday, learning more about his background, and finally approaching his family to suggest that they let her film the preparation for his Bar Mitzvah celebration.
She was in the right place at the right time, a time when his family was open to the possibility of allowing a filmmaker to have access to his and their lives. The result is the captivating PRAYING WITH LIOR. While the Oscar winning BEST BOY and BEST MAN by Ira Wohl, and Judd Ehrlich’s MAYOR OF THE WEST SIDE have captured Jewish families, bar mitzvot, and their learning disabled members in the past, Trachtman’s film leaves you even more inspired, impassioned, and filled with shared joy.
Lior Liebling is one of four children born to Rabbi Mordechai Liebling and Rabbi Devorah Bartnoff. From an early age, Lior prayed fervently with his family’s Congregation Mishkan Shalom, and was somewhat of a three year old savant when it came to recalling the words to Hebrew prayers and songs. Through clips from home movies, we meet Rabbi Bartnoff, who succumbed to cancer in 1997, when Lior was six. Before her death, she wrote in The Jewish Exponent about her hope to be present at his Bar Mitzvah, and her tight knit community’s anticipation of his being called to the Torah.
As the film progresses, and his May 15, 2004, Bar Mitzvah approaches, we meet those who think he is an inspired â€œlittle rebbe,â€ who will try to read meanings into every word, and others who rationally remind us that he is perhaps just a sweet, loving, kind boy with Down’s Syndrome who, though high functioning, has mental limitations. Even his stepmother has to remind herself, at times, that he is slower and faces disabilities.
Lior’s older brother, Yoni Liebling, says, “If there is a God, Lior is definitely closer to God than anyone else I know.â€ In one of my favorite parts of the film, we find Lior mainstreamed at a Jewish day school, the Politz Hebrew Academy in Northeast Philadelphia, an hour drive from the Liebling’s Mt. Airy home. His classmates tell the camera that Hashem gives each person their own challenge. While Down’s Syndrome (or â€œUp Syndromeâ€ as Lior refers to his malady) is perhaps Lior’s challenge, several classmates tell us that Hashem’s test of them is to see how they will treat and accept Lior. One of the most moving events (not in the film, but expected to appear on the DVD) was the pre-Bar Mitzvah party that his Politz classmates held for him.
We watch Lior with his speech therapist, his sisters and brother, in periods of selflessness and selfishness – since this is reality – and his father’s attempts to help him prepare his D’var Torah. He visits Nordstroms for a new pair of shoes where his father asks him, with limited success, to explain the meaning of the upcoming event to the shoe salesperson. When the big day comes and Lior reads from the Torah, I doubt there is a congregant or viewer who does not believe that the spirit of Lior’s late mother is not present for the ceremony and service.
Overall, set to a score by Andy Statman, PRAYING WITH LIOR is not only a must see film about a boy and his Bar Mitzvah, but an intimate glimpse at a Jewish family, with all its successes, celebrations, worries, burdens and responsibilities, and a portrait of a Jewish community and how it confronts disabilities. I found that watching the film, you truly end up PRAYING WITH LIOR, his family, and his congregation.