“The Lion of Judah” is a 2011 animated bible movie, which follows a motley crew of farm animals attempting to avoid the sacrificial alter in the week before Jesus Christ is crucified. Luckily for the Jewish community, Matt Mindell has set about reclaiming the title in his 2012 documentary about the contemporary attitude towards concentration camps.
Originally the symbol of the Israelite tribe of Judah in the Book of Genesis, here the lion of Judah is Holocaust survivor Leo Zisman, who vows to revisit his painful history to educate young people during a trip across Poland. Though he gets top billing, the documentary is not rightfully his—instead, the film belongs to young trip participants like Eric Gorenstein, Adriana Celis, Noah Lederman and Agnes Furtak.
Screening at the Quad Cinema in New York City, “The Lion of Judah” feels very much like the amateur effort that it is. As a first time director also writing and producing the movie, Mindell dives enthusiastically into his material, but lacks the filmmaking finesse to properly address it. Instead, he ends up with a travelogue style, overpowering rock riffs, superficial interviews and a smattering of mismatched footage.
In fact, the only thing the 60-minute documentary can add to the already extensive library of Holocaust media is some long overdue humor. In introducing a surfer, Mindell warns him against riding Nazi waves. When the group travels to Poland, a dotted line makes its way across a silly graphic.
This levity embodies the Jewish spirit, even as anti-Semitism is caught on tape, concentration camps are turned into tourist traps, the number of dead are rounded to the nearest thousand, and bright apartment buildings house oblivious Poles less than a mile from Majdanek.
As Zisman says, “They reduced us to animals.” But the Jewish neshama, or sprit, remains undaunted. In the hidden synagogue in Terezin—an illegal spot of sacred ground cultivated within a concentration camp—a rabbi comments, “We are the people of life, not of death.”
Mindell’s primary argument is a simple one: Jews have a responsibility to their heritage. His film, despite its flaws, is a call to action for all those of Jewish heritage to take ownership of their history and participate for all those who cannot. Simply by surviving, today’s Jews—from the cultural to the Orthodox—are required to represent all that was lost. And survivors, as Zisman has, must tell their painful stories, so that the Holocaust can join Joseph and his rainbow cloak as one of the many threads in Judaism’s oral tapestry.