At a table surrounded by swaying bearded Chasids singing a wordless melody sits a rabbi dressed in white, his long white beard and white head covering completing the ensemble. He appears asleep, but is actually meditating, reaching the furthest mystical heights. His followers attempt to arouse him by singing louder and with more emphasis, but you can’t see his piercing blue eyes until a Jew named Dovid enters the room.

At that moment, the 18th century rabbi and teacher known today as the Baal Shem Tov awakens, passionately greeting the new visitor. Although their guest is destitute, the holy rabbi explains to his students, he serves as an inspiration. Dovid, he relates, has been saving a small coin every day for an entire year to amass enough money to buy the most expensive and beautiful citron that he can find for the holiday of Sukkot.

Even more amazing, viewers of the film “The Esrog” can attest, is that the entire cast of characters are made out of clay. Produced by Natan Halevy and Tawd Tzvi Dorenfeld, two Los Angeles-based filmmakers who learned about the Baal Shem Tov through Chabad-Lubavitch teachings, the video’s life-size characters are actually miniature figures painted and baked and hand-manipulated on a small, but detailed set.

The second installment of a series of animated films about the Baal Shem Tov, “The Esrog” took days and weeks of stop-motion filming to produce. For Dorenfeld, who provides the immediate direction, and Halevy, the film’s primary producer, the series is a way to teach young people about one of Judaism’s most amazing figures.

“Stop motion is a unique form of animation and art different to all the others,” such as Pixar and 3D-animation, explains Halevy. “I think kids are really enchanted with it. They also love the fact that everything they see on the screen is a real physical object; it makes it so much more real.”

Halevy grew up in Southern California in a traditional Sephardic family, but became acquainted with Chabad at the age of 19. He studied art and was planning to attend the Pratt Art Institute in New York, but after spending time with his brother in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Crown Heights – home of Lubavitch World Headquarters – his plans changed. He says that he spent time learning and witnessing an intense level of joy he had never seen before.

“There were two [Hebrew months of] Adar that [leap] year,” he offers as an explanation.

With the holiday of Purim falling smack dab in the middle of the month, Adar is characterized by a concerted effort to increase spiritually-based happiness.

“I was very drawn to the dancing that was happening [at the central synagogue] every night,” says Halevy. “I eventually decided to start studying in yeshiva and didn’t end up attending Pratt.”

After he got married, Halevy worked at a Chabad House in Great Neck, Long Island, concentrating on teenagers and college-aged students.

A jolly merchant offers Dovid from “The Esrog” an expensive citron. (Photo courtesy Holy World Productions)
A jolly merchant offers Dovid from “The Esrog” an expensive citron. (Photo courtesy Holy World Productions)

“I was always looking for interesting Jewish movies to show the kids, but couldn’t find much,” he relates. “So at that time, I started thinking of making high quality entertaining Jewish movies.”

A few years later, Halevy moved back to L.A. and worked in his family’s business. He became involved with a local Chabad House by teaching classes and reading from the Torah during Shabbat services.

Dorenfeld joined one of his classes, and the two began talking. A director, Dorenfeld already had two full-length films under his belt.

“I told him about my dream to make Jewish movies and he was also interested,” says Halevy.

But Dorenfeld had never before heard about the Baal Shem Tov and his Chasidic movement that revolutionized Jewish life.

“I was really blown away,” says Dorenfeld. “I’m coming from this [Jewish] history and I had never heard of the Baal Shem Tov. He started the Chasidic movement and [I realized that] it’s important to get the word out about who he was.”

Countless books about the Baal Shem Tov line libraries’ shelves, but Dorenfeld notes that they’re mostly written for a decidedly-religious audience. For people who grew up like him, his films are “the untold story of Judaism.”

From a film production perspective, says Dorenfeld, he stumbled upon a pot of gold. Popular stories about the Baal Shem Tov are rich with messages and morals; he figured he’d tell them with the medium of stop-motion animation with which he was familiar.

The process – a frame-by-frame animation where the director works not only with clay, but with wires that make up each figure’s body – can be expensive, but requires a much smaller crew than live action film. After securing an adequate budget, say the directors, Halevy and Dorenfeld have been able to produce DVDs of authentic inspiring stories.

Dovid makes his choice. (Photo courtesy Holy World Productions)
Dovid makes his choice. (Photo courtesy Holy World Productions)

Time and Effort

A year and a half into the project, Dorenfeld still works on it every day, except for Shabbat. He once worked with a small crew, but now he works alone on the set.

It took the pair about four months to finish their first film, “Yaakov and Eliyahu,” which tells the story of a Baal Shem Tov follower who wants to meet the biblical prophet Elijah. Their second DVD, “The Esrog,” – which includes “Yaakov and Eliyahu” and other bonus features – can be found in Judaica stores in New York and Los Angeles, as well as on their Holy World Productions website.

Some of the biggest names in entertainment have worked on the project. Actress Roseanne Barr provided the voice of the grandmother in the first DVD, while Peter Himmelman composed the soundtrack. The popular Israeli singer Dudu Fisher has recorded music for the fourth installment, “The Shepherd’s Song.”

“We put a lot of time and effort in making sure the movies have a lot of meaning and educational value, while being entertaining at the same time,” says Halevy.

This past summer, a diverse audience of about 60 people screened the films at the Silent Movie Theater on L.A.’s Fairfax Boulevard.

Halevy and Dorenfeld, meanwhile, recently completed their third installment, “Beans Fit for a Queen,” about a poor old couple who can only afford beans for their Sabbath meals, but imagine them to be great delicacies. It will be woven together with four other stories and released as a full-length feature film, the first animated Jewish film featuring the Baal Shem Tov. The directors hope for a theatrical release in the summer of 2011.

“The stories we have chosen have very universal messages of being a better person,” says Halevy. “That’s something that speaks to anybody, regardless of their background.”

For Dorenfeld, who studied film and animation at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts and minored in children’s entertainment, and has produced music videos for Sony and Warner Brothers and commercials for Disney, the project is a way to bring spirituality to the masses.

He says he wants “to make the world a better place.”