A Disarmingly Charming Portrait: A Review of ‘Rabbi Wolff’
Does the character make the portrait? Watching the recently released documentary film Rabbi Wolff, which tells the story of the rabbi William Wolff (1927 – *), you’d be tempted to say ‘yes, for sure’. Wolff is a tiny old man with a huge smile constantly painted across his face. He has relentless energy, by anyone’s standards – let alone at his age – and shows enthusiasm for everything life has to offer. His motto is: ‘it must be fun or else one has to find a way around it’. Combining British manners with flawless German and calm wisdom with Jewish wit, he is disarmingly charming. Through him, the film provides not only an inspiring image of what it can be like to grow old well, but also insight into a people-centered, straightforward and liberal form of Judaism. Moreover, it thematises subtly some of the challenges to Jewish life in Europe after the Second World War and the Holocaust. For anyone interested in this, it is an absolute must-see film.
Wolff’s life story is most extraordinary. Having left Berlin as a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany in 1933 at the age of 6, he moved with his family first to Amsterdam and then, just before the outbreak of the war in the summer of 1939, to the UK. There, he went on to become a leading British political journalist, writing for the Daily Mirror from the press gallery of parliament. Then, at the age of 50, he decided to train as a rabbi. Aged 70, he was asked to become the regional rabbi in the former East German area of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, home to the towns of Schwerin and Rostock. The newly formed Jewish community in this area, which was largely the result of the immigration of Jews from the former Soviet Union to Germany after 1989, needed a religious leader. Since the early 2000s, therefore, Wolff has been commuting between Great Britain and northern Germany.
The film begins by portraying Wolff’s life between these two worlds: one sees him in his English red brick house called Little Paddock, which he considers his real home, among his piles of British newspapers and books, excitedly attending Royal Ascot and spending Christmas with a close friend, an Anglican pastor. At the same time, one sees him among the Jewish communities of Rostock and Schwerin in their picture perfect, newly renovated synagogues, heading a table filled with Russian food and glasses of vodka and attending a whole range of official events. He is incredibly busy but he nevertheless still finds time for massages, daily yoga and fasting cures as well as an annual visit to Amsterdam, his ‘third home’, and occasional trips to Israel where his relatives live.
This highly amusing balancing act not only captures the amazing ability of this cheerful little man, but also touches on the paradox of Jewish life in Germany after 1989. The revival has been marked by considerable interest on behalf of non-Jewish Germans, but also the painful absence of qualified people to take care of the budding communities. Jewish life was virtually non-existent in the GDR and Russian Jews, who were prevented from practicing their religion for decades, have no qualified rabbis among them. This is the reason Rabbi Wolff was called upon. As one member of the community said, ‘we asked for a rabbi and got an English gentleman.’ But perhaps this is precisely what Germany needed: a clever, dynamic, open-minded and fundamentally optimistic individual who could handle the sensitive task of mediation and reconciliation at hand.
The film’s greatest achievement is the wonderful way in which Wolff’s portrait is put together. The story is told smoothly, like a winding road that uncovers more at every turn. It reveals a great deal about Wolff as a person. In doing so, however, it also shows how much biography can offer historians. Indeed, despite the very personal perspective, the film gives insight into some of the complex wider implications of the twentieth century’s drastic political developments. It is not only funny but also sophisticated and moving. Watching this frail old man navigate a range of situations and cultures, speak German, English, Russian, Dutch and Hebrew, swim in the Dead Sea with a young German woman, argue from a liberal standpoint with his Jewish Orthodox relatives in Jerusalem and bewilder his Russian colleagues with his lightheartedness is a source of constant amusement. However, beneath the comedy and beyond the uniqueness of Wolff as a man, one cannot ignore the deep biographical rift that is the backdrop to this unusual trajectory.
Ultimately, this is also the story of a Holocaust survivor and though this is not foregrounded, it is also something one cannot ignore. As he innocently explains, for instance, ‘I live on the Thames but I was born on the Spree [the river in Berlin]’, tears started running down my face. His life is not simply amazing because of who he is, but also because of the tragic fact that it was threatened with destruction when it had hardly begun. The character makes the portrait, but the narrative, much to the director’s credit, highlights the significance and the meaning.