David Gaynes’ documentary, “Next Year in Jerusalem,” answers the old question of whether the glass is half empty or half full. At the Jewish Home for the Elderly in Fairfield, Conn., where the film was shot, both are the same.
Gaynes brought his camera to the nursing home, where the average age is 91, as some residents were preparing to tour Israel. The unavoidable first impression of their lives is depressing: the glass is less than half full.
The facility itself seems modern and clean. The staff seems helpful and caring. But still it is a waiting room for the funeral home, and there’s no way to pretty that up.
One of several residents we meet is Selma Rosenblatt, 93. She is bent over so far by osteoporosis that she can’t lift her head high enough to see in front of her. Recently, she says, a fellow resident died during a meal in the dining room, calling it “a wonderful way to go.”
Juna Wein, 89, says “it’s kind of dull for me here.”
Regine Arouette, 87, is Flemish and was a hidden child during the war. Her son and his family are in Belgium. “Sometimes I feel so lonely,” she says.
But, unexpectedly, despite the wheelchairs and walkers, Parkinson arms and other assorted ailments, the residents’ buoyant spirits begin to shine through.
Selma seems to head the residents’ council. She tells one of the film crew, “If you get hungry on the trip, eat part of my jacket, because I spilled everything on it from soup to (unintelligible).”
Bill Wein notes, “When I was 25 and I walked down the street, mothers would pull their daughters in the house. Now I’m 97 and they don’t have to worry anymore. The party is over.”
The trip itself continues the dichotomy. They make all the usual stops — the Dead Sea, Yad Vashem, Mt. Scopus (where they recite the shehechiyanu) — familiar to every tourist. Young folk dancers perform “It’s a Small World” in Hebrew, and get group members up to dance. Despite their physical restrictions they even manage to get up Masada.
But then you watch Selma’s lengthy struggle to get up the steps of the bus despite assistance, and your thoughts are likely to dwell less on inspiration and more on pathos.
At some point, too, you are likely to dwell less on half empty and half full than on half finished. You only get glimpses of the residents at the center and there are so many questions unasked.
Who are these people? Who were they before they arrived at the home? It seems like an upscale facility. Do they have family? Where are they? Regine came to the U.S. when she was over 70. Why?
It’s not clear if the residents went on this journey because they wanted to see the Holy Land or just to relieve their boredom.
Helen Downs, 91, is the only Christian in the group. How can anyone film her and not ask how she got to a Jewish home? How comfortable does she feel?
Another problem is that Gaynes started filming too late. He has no footage of how the nursing home staff decided to take this trip. Israel is a strenuous journey for able-bodied tourists. As Audrey Stein, a nursing home executive says, “If one bad thing happens what does that do to the greatness of” the trip?
What was the thought process? End credits mention people and organizations who helped finance the trip. How was that arranged? Who picked the people who came? Was it anyone who wanted to go, or were there limits?
Next Year in Jerusalem opens in New York May 16. It is moving and at times life affirming. But if I have to give it a grade, it is incomplete.