Bernie's Long Lost Weekend
Three years of filming her Hasidic uncle's recovery from sex, drug and alcohol addiction taught Paula Eiselt about the challenges and rewards of practicing the 12 steps within the framework of orthodox Judaism.
If you happen to live adjacent to a Hasidic enclave—there are just a handful worldwide, with major ones located in Brooklyn, suburban New York, Jerusalem and London—you might find it difficult to believe that your world is anything like that of your black-clad neighbors. The sad truth, however, is that addiction affects the lives of people regardless of ethnicity, religion, or attitude toward modernity. Of course, this includes Hasidic Jews, whose lives are completely structured around a brand of mystical Judaism developed in the 16th century.
With her verité documentary Following Boruch, filmmaker Paula Eiselt highlights the day-to-day struggle of her uncle Bernie, a recovering sex, drug, and alcohol addict and a practicing Hasid. Eiselt, a 28-year-old graduate of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and the current Director of Programming at The Edit Center, spent three years with camera in hand trailing her uncle as he navigated his newfound sobriety. She shot him in situations that will be familiar to viewers, such as during individual therapy sessions and outings with his 12-step friends, as well as in the midst of his insular Hasidic world, interacting with his neighbors, attending weddings, and energetically davening (praying). She culled almost two hundred hours of footage, and has now begun to raise funds to hire a full-time editor to bring the massive material to a final cut. Eiselt hopes to show that the imminently relatable story of strife, perseverance and redemption lies underneath what appears to be Bernie’s very particular experience, and believes her uncle’s quietly heroic journey to health will help to humanize both Hasids and addicts, two often-misunderstood groups.
When did you first realize that Boruch was struggling with addiction?
When I was about eight, I began to notice my uncle Bernie's conflicting behavior: while he appeared extremely devout and expressed a deep love for the Torah, he would sleep in on the Sabbath and miss morning prayers. He was also constantly moving around—from Queens to Florida to Arizona—and I wondered where his "real" house was. That was the first time I heard the word “rehab.”
My parents explained Bernie suffered from something called bipolar disorder, but I didn't hear the word addiction until I was about 17. He didn’t tell me about his sex addiction until right before we started production. Bernie said that if we were going to go forward with the movie, I should know everything. He didn't want to go into too much detail for obvious reasons, but he gave me the gist. It was heartbreaking.
When you first approached him with the idea of doing a movie, what was his reaction?
He was very hesitant at first. He didn't know if he wanted to expose himself like that. He discussed it very thoroughly with his therapist for about 3 months. I was then invited to make my case. We all agreed that the pros—giving Bernie the voice he lacked and humanizing his illness—outweighed the cons—letting the secret out. Bernie constantly reminds me that if I weren’t his niece, he would never have agreed to do the project.
How long has Bernie been in recovery for? At what point during his recovery did you begin to film him?
Bernie's addictions started to manifest in his early teen years. At eleven, he got a hold of pornography and it consumed him. Unable to shake the addiction and plagued by guilt, he actually attempted suicide around that time. Bernie saw his first therapist at 18, but was not diagnosed with both bipolar disorder and addiction until his late 20s. Several therapists told him his behavior was the result of character defects, which he would learn to correct.
For over 25 years, Bernie was in and out of various rehabs and halfway houses in several states. Nothing seemed to work. His dual diagnosis of mental illness and addiction coupled with his Hasidic lifestyle made it very difficult for him to find treatment. Sometimes it was the facility that couldn't accommodate him, and in other instances, Bernie used his religion practice to cloak him from effective treatment.
It wasn't until he hit rock bottom at 43 that he agreed to try Ohel Family Services—an Orthodox Jewish social services organization that includes an adult mental health residence and outpatient center. Ohel is located in the Hasidic neighborhood of Boro Park, Brooklyn. The location allowed Bernie to finally receive treatment in a facility that he felt operated within the parameters of his core religious belief.
Bernie started out living in the 24-hour supervised residence and then graduated to living more independently in an Ohel subsidized apartment with two roommates. The film begins during Bernie's fourth year at Ohel as he reaches a turning point in his recovery. Feeling confident in his progress and craving an additional focus, Bernie becomes determined to fulfill his dream of maintaining steady employment and getting married. He wants to integrate into both the workforce and his religious community. Roll camera.
Can you elaborate on how he used his religious practice to cloak him from effective treatment?
When he was in a rehab or treatment center, he would often isolate himself based on the fact that he was the only Hasidic Jew present. His isolation was a combination of actual circumstance—his Kosher food and Sabbath observance did actually distance him from the group—and his attitude—he felt he was unique and didn't belong there. Specifically, when he was in a treatment center in Arizona, he insisted on leaving for the Jewish holidays and was subsequently kicked out. Jewish law did not require him to leave—a person's health, both physical and mental, always comes before religious observance. Ultimately, he left of his own volition, using his religion as an excuse to disconnect.
How does he now weave together his Hasidic beliefs and the 12 Steps? Does he feel any friction between the two?
Bernie was actually introduced to the 12 Steps by Hasidic psychologist Benzion Twerski. The spiritual ideology behind the twelve steps—repairing yourself from within and seeking a higher power—can be tailored to Jewish principles. Bernie's higher power is Hashem and the 12-step practice of taking a personal inventory actually has a corollary in the Jewish practice called "Cheshbon Hanefesh." The only ritual that Bernie refrains from is reciting The Lord's Prayer, which is sometimes read aloud at meetings.
What are some unique challenges for recovering addicts in the Hasidic or Orthodox community?
Mental illness and addiction are more heavily stigmatized in the Orthodox community than they are in the secular community. Individuals who are suffering, and parents of children who are suffering, are slow to seek help. Once a person is branded as mentally ill, or simply sees a therapist and takes psychotropic medications, his or her marriage prospects significantly decrease, which is especially painful as marriage and childrearing are the touchstones of Orthodoxy. Furthermore, just having one person in a family with mental illness can have a negative effect on marriage prospects for siblings, cousins, and so on, so the person suffering often tries to hide it in order to protect his or her family members.
However, over the past 10 to 15 years, the Orthodox community has made a lot of progress in recognizing these problems and is working hard to de-stigmatize mental illness and addiction. Mental health organizations and leaders in the community are encouraging people to seek treatment and implementing programming geared towards improving the lives of people suffering. The community's perspective of these diseases is slowly shifting from disdain to empathy.
Are you hoping that your film will help to change the perceptions of mental illness and addictions held by the Hasidic community?
Absolutely. I hope that the intimate portrayal of Bernie's journey will provide a humanistic view of recovery. Bernie's process unfolds in front of the viewer; we experience everything through his eyes, allowing a deep connection to form. Viewers will have the opportunity to see the person behind the illness, his life beyond his diagnosis, and witness first-hand how Bernie is just a regular guy with aspirations like anyone else.
I want this film to be a real conversation starter. In addition to the actual movie, I will be launching an outreach campaign. We will reach out to community and educational centers for screenings and provide study guides to accompany the film. I would love to translate the film into Yiddish to attract more viewers from the Hasidic world. Hours of therapy sessions between Bernie and his therapist will be made available for educational purposes. Bernie has agreed, of course. Bernie's job search is a large part of his journey, so I am developing an idea around creating a career fair specifically targeting individuals in recovery.
Another emerging element, and this is very specific to the religious community, is the portrayal of Bernie as a deeply devout person, despite his mental illness and addiction. Many observant people presume that if someone engages in that type of behavior, he or she cannot be truly religious. Bernie shatters that notion.
What about the secular world’s ideas of the Hasidic community?
Following Boruch is intended for a wide audience. The film is set in a very particular community, but the themes of mental illness, addiction, and the stigma that surrounds these conditions clearly reach far beyond religion and culture. Every community and, likely, every human being on this planet is exposed, whether directly or indirectly, to a form of mental illness and addiction. Similarly, Bernie’s resilience, rehabilitation and desire to create a new life at 47 is a classic story of self-discovery. I do hope that Bernie's humanity will offer diverse audiences a fresh perspective of Orthodox Judaism and help demystify this insular community.
Kelsey Osgood is the author of How to Disappear Completely: On Modern Anorexia.