Pearl Gluck was born into the insular world of Hasidic Brooklyn. As recounted in her film Divan, she escaped—thanks to the “miracle” of her parents’ divorce—although perhaps only in the sense that a satellite breaks free of the Earth’s gravitational pull.
Gluck’s insider-out view of Hasidism has a generic relationship to the documentaries A Life Apart (in which she appeared) and Trembling Before G-d. But this charming first-person account of the filmmaker’s trip to Hungary to retrieve a family heirloom—a couch upon which, one late 19th-century Sabbath, a legendary rebbe passed the night—is delightfully indirect. “You’re gonna do for that couch what nobody since Freud has done,” a friend teases Gluck. The filmmaker makes no secret that her obsessive quest is meant to gain the approval of her religious father. After all, to retell the story of a Hasidic rebbe is itself a meritorious deed. But Divan is more fundamentally a form of self-knowledge. The movie’s postmodern punchline enables its shrewd young maker to create her own tradition.
At once precocious autobiography, vivid travelogue through back-of-beyond Eastern Europe (land of Jewish ruins and graveyards), and sly wonder-tale, Divan constantly comments on itself. The filmmaker’s voice is augmented by a chorus of similarly reinvented breakaways perched on the sacred couch. There’s a noisy confessor on every street corner, but Gluck waxes personal without ever seeming narcissistic. Warmhearted but unsentimental, touching but not mawkish, clever but never cute, Divan is almost miraculously modest.