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Religion as a Network Reality Show?

December 9, 2010 By:
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Shmuly Yanklowitz on call in "The Calling," a new PBS special

Whose "Calling"?

The main characters in a compelling two-part, four-hour PBS documentary airing Dec. 20 and Dec, 21 on WHYY-TV12 have made the ultimate long-distance connection, answering to a higher authority than A&T could every supply.

Please hold: "The Calling " is a celestial cell phone with rabbinical roaming charges as the "Independent Lens" series follows those who are called to serve God, starting as students of the book seguing to stars of the bimah.

Religion as reality show? The tribe has spoken.

And the Jews are well-represented on "The Calling" by Shmuly Yanklowitz and Yerachmiel Shapiro, Modern Orthodox men with minions, who both took their tefillin and Talmud lessons at the same yeshiva in New York.

Yanklowitz and Shapiro may have the sound of a Jewish law firm, but it is Jewish law they follow in different ways on their own terms. The two are not alone; they share their stories with five others of Catholic, Protestant and Muslim faiths whose roads to religion and clerical conundrums are as diverse as the faiths they represent.

The magnificent seven? More a motley mix of men -- and women -- struggling with the spiritual and secular, enrobed in a noble calling while addressing mundane miffs and myths.

Not all is so clear-cut as Rabbi Shapiro discovers giving counsel on the breaking of the glass, servicing his first wedding celebration. Praised by a guest for his pristine performance, she quickly shatters his fleeting self-esteem by castigating him for his homily on the glass-breaking's meaning.

Rabbi, you've been called out.

"The Calling" sees these religionists as mix of retrograde rotary and in-your-face iPhone, opining on old beliefs through modern-day filters.

Not all is a matter of orthodoxy, best exemplified, perhaps, by Yanklowitz, yanked out of his daily spiritual space as a student to celebrate a comfy-cozy homecoming with family.

But ... is that a Christmas tree I see?

Ho, ho -- huh? The Santa Clause? Room at the in for all after all: The rabbi's mother is Christian while Dad is Jewish, and both support their son's own spunky spiritual sojourn on the road to Jerusalem -- even as their ornament-festooned lit-up living room looks like a perfect toasty Christmas Eve respite and retreat for St. Nick.

On the fringe of Orthodoxy? Rebbe with a cause? Shmuly feels as free to participate in Free Tibet rallies as urging on Uri Le'Tzedek, a social activist group he has founded to mix it up within the Modern Orthodox circles in which he mingles.

Meanwhile, Shapiro, shown rebuffed onscreen during a staged job interview by a mock congregation committee mocking his honest answers as more wishy-washy than wise, ultimately dons his tallit for a Red Bank, N..J., congregation. (Post-filming, he serves a Baltimore shul; erstwhile student Shmuly is now senior Jewish educator at UCLA.)

"The Calling" calls on many talents to convey its human/heavenly perspectives, and Yoni Brooks brooked 18 months of meetings, shootings and even serendipitous self-revelations to serve as director of the "Jewish Stories" segments of the film.

An acclaimed documentarian whose past focus has been on African ("Bronx Princess) and Muslim ("A Son's Sacrifice") segments of the American experience, he has a haimishe homecoming with this PBS project. It was all a calling for the Jewish filmmaker, "close in age to the two rabbis" -- Brook is 28 -- "and the kinds of things that happen in life to them happen to me."

Life's tutorials that turn the two men from teachers to students comes across in "The Calling," familiar turf for the man who filmed them. Says Brook: "Like a lot of American Jews, I have always been interested in my own sense of identity, grappling with what it means to be Jewish."

Wrestling with God is a spiritual blood sport, but grappling with rabbis' perceived invincibility is a smash to the forehead. Here, the rabbinic tag-team of Yanklowitz and Shapiro wonder themselves if they'll be saved by the bell. "People wrongly assume that rabbis have it all figured out, but these rabbis don't have all the answers."

Which, in a way, is the genesis for true understanding, maybe the purpose in bumping a rabbi off his bimah. "We are showing them as people, seeing them behind their robes."

Fete of clay are fine for making dreidels, but in understanding a rabbi's roots? "When I was growing up" in Washington, D.C., rabbis seemed aloof, "distant to me -- and I knew that wasn't what Judaism was supposed to be about," contends Brook.

Certainly, based on his past experience, the filmmaker "had some trepidation in taking on this film," but he discovered that Yanklowitz and Shapiro were clergy-friendly.

Have a crisis? Call the firm of Yanklowitz and Shapiro: "These guys," says Brook,"represent the future of religious leadership." 

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