Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer (1698-1760), known as the Ba’al Shem Tov, is one of the most beloved and celebrated figures in Jewish history, but also one of the most elusive. Today, Jews all over the world, and even many non-Jews, revere him as the founder of the Hasidic movement, and as a model of piety and mystical spirituality. But many also find it difficult to say why he is so important to them, and to characterize his unique contribution to Jewish spirituality. Thus, A Fire in the Forest, a new documentary on the life and legacy of the Ba’al Shem Tov, sets itself the task of answering these basic questions, exploring how the Ba’al Shem Tov’s teachings can be applied to our lives today.
To do this, the filmmakers traveled with Rabbi Marc Soloway, our guide on this journey, around the world, talking to leading rabbis, scholars and teachers of Hasidism, traveling to the graves of the Ba’al Shem Tov’s spiritual heirs, and to his own prayer-house and grave in the town of Mezhibozh in the Ukraine. Through stories and historical information, interviews with today’s most important teachers and on-location footage, A Fire in the Forest shows us how the legacy of the Ba’al Shem Tov is still very much alive in our day and relevant to our daily lives.
In 18th-century Ukraine, Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer (1698-1760), known as the Ba’al Shem Tov, set the Jewish world on fire with his teachings of love and joy, acknowledging the inherent divinity in all life and people, from the highest to the lowest. Such teachings were at the heart of the Hasidic movement in Judaism, which swept across the Ukraine in the years to come, so that by the mid-20th-century, nearly all Jews of the region were Hasidic. Among them were many powerful and charismatic leaders, tzaddikim (righteous teachers), such as the Maggid of Mezritch, Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev, Nahman of Bratzlav, Nosson of Nemirov, Mordecai of Chernobyl, and Avraham Yehoshua Heschel of Apt, the successors of the Ba’al Shem Tov who continued to spread his message of love and hope.
In Treasure Under the Bridge, Rabbi Marc Soloway invites us on his personal journey to modern day Ukraine to visit the graves of these Hasidic Masters as he tries to establish a connection with the famous names that have so long occupied a place in his imagination. Along the way, he introduces us to the colorful characters he meets---including his Ukrainian driver, Yuri, his old friend Rabbi Alexander Dukhovny, now Chief Progressive Rabbi of Kiev and Ukraine, as well as Hasidic pop star, Lipa Shmeltzer---and we get to see for ourselves the burial places of these Hasidic masters in Uman, Bratzlav, Anipol, Berditchev, Gnatovka, and Mezhibozh, as Soloway tells us stories and anecdotes of each master. Also included are interviews with Rabbi Arthur Green, Dr. Susannah Heschel, Grand Rabbi Yitzhak Aharon Korff, and Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, the founder of the Jewish Renewal movement.