Film Review: Next Year Jerusalem

Life can begin at 90—something which this appealing doc demonstrates with admirable humanity.

Each year, Jerusalem swarms with tourist groups, avid to soak up the history and spirituality of this fabled city, but the subjects of David Gaynes' warm and winning documentary are special. They are the residents of the Jewish Home for the Elderly in Fairfield, CT, none of them under 85 and more than a few pushing a century in age, whose sheer will and unquenchable curiosity have led them to this probable final adventure.

Despite their years and varying decrepitude, they're a particularly lively bunch, vibrantly experiencing once-in-a-lifetime moments at the Dead Sea, Masada and the Western Wall. Their number includes Helen, 91, who, although a Roman Catholic, experiences Jerusalem every bit as intensely as her Semitic co-habitants.

Gaynes, whose short film More Than Skin Deep also focused on residents of this retirement home, films these seniors with an admirable dignity and sensitivity, even as they precariously maneuver foreign terrain in wheelchairs. Next Year Jerusalem is filled with rich moments of wry, found humor, as when a guest speaker at the home explains the deep spiritual meaning of the shofar, before demonstrating that cacophonous horn, which only elicits covered-up ears and a cry of "That's awful!" One only wishes Gaynes had given us more of his subjects’ backstories, and a few less views of Jerusalem as seen from the windows of the speeding tour bus, which occasionally turns his film into a bland travelogue, accompanied by a somewhat heavy-handed "poignant' music score. The black healthcare worker who accompanies them is someone I also would have liked to hear more from, apart from her happy statement about being able to help people in her life.

What Haynes does fully capture is the still-surging life force of the residents who, although sometimes confessing to be bored in their very enclosed but cushy nest (indeed, the home does seem to be a model of such a place), never complain, sometimes explain and just make the best of it. My favorite of all is 93-year-old Selma, who, despite being more hunched than Quasimodo, likens herself to the crooked man in nursery rhymes and jokes about how much she spills over herself, retaining a good humor which, as much as anything, is a quite wondrous survival skill of her race from time immemorial.

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