One of the most ancient tales from the Torah has been illuminated in the newest style of CGI animation to form a three-dimensional world where characters and cities exist in an animated platform on the computer. It’s the combination of old text with modern animation that’s turning heads.

“Young Abraham: From the Ancient Stories of the Israelites” is a high quality cutting edge animated film that relates the story of Abraham and his quest to prove that G‑d is not made of stone and can be discovered through the conscious mind. In less than an hour, the film spans the first 75 years of the Jewish patriarch’s life, revealing a little-known biographical tidbit that is not found within the Torah itself, but rather comes from compilations of Midrashic lore.

Yisroel Bernath and Zvi Hershcovich, two Chabad-Lubavitch rabbis living in Montreal who also happen to be screenwriters, close friends and study partners, began extensive research to set up the plot of the movie based on a timeline, characters and tales of Abraham’s life from ancient rabbinic sources.

“We felt we needed some creative liberty,” Bernath, director of Chabad of NDG and Loyola Campus, explains about the process of writing the script. “But it’s a hundred percent true to the spirit of the text.”

Abraham lived in a world where the prevailing belief system was predicated on various forms of idol worship. He was the first to recognize the monotheistic nature of G‑d, and broke many sculptures and mindsets along the way.

Taking place in the ancient region of Mesopotamia, the film begins with King Nimrod commanding his general, Terach, to give up his newborn son Abraham, because stargazers foretold that the boy would one day rebel against the king.

The film follows Abraham’s childhood years spent hiding in a cave and traces the path he followed to become a great leader.

Among the more touching scenes is when Abraham experiences his epiphany that will ultimately change the course of the world: When he leaves the cave and meets Utz – a fictional character based on a name found in the Torah – Abraham questions how a stone image could possess supernatural powers if he could break it.

When Abraham meditates on nature and realizes that the sun and moon must have something greater than them – a Creator of all life – he puts a piece of cloth on his head.

“This is the idea of a yarmulke – a reminder that there is something greater than us,” Bernath says, “the idea of love and appreciation of a higher power.”

He moves to Canaan to study with Noah. While there, he experiences a revelation: Since G‑d had become so angered with the world that he tried to destroy it through the Flood, his job was to fix the world’s imperfections and make it a better place. That meant leaving Canaan and returning to his birthplace, facing Nimrod, and abolishing idolatry.

The tales of King Nimrod, like the rest of “Young Abraham,” were taken from Midrashic literature and classical rabbinic commentaries.
The tales of King Nimrod, like the rest of “Young Abraham,” were taken from Midrashic literature and classical rabbinic commentaries.

Hollywood Meets Tradition

Bernath says a tremendous amount of detail went into creating the finished story and the Mesopotamian city of Ur. Based on the minimal archaeology available from that period along with what’s described in the Midrashic literature, the team painted a picture of what they believed the city looked like.

The project took four years and a huge – and diverse – team of innovators: From devout Chasidic executive producers and screenwriters to at least 25 animators, artists, a secular Jewish director and a non-Jewish producer.

J. Jacob Potashnik helped polish the script and Haim Sherrf, a Lubavitch artist from Montreal, drew the initial characters that were later used by the animation team.

“It was an amazing experience sitting in the studio and watching these guys bring the characters to work,” Bernath says. “All of a sudden it all looks real.”

Bernath was involved along the way in character development and scene production to ensure the story and experience remained consistent with classical sources.

Convincing the non-Jewish director, Todd Shaffer, to stay true to the Jewish commentaries was not always an easy task, but the team settled on a compromise: They peppered the script with such older English words as “wrath,” “upon” and “avenge” to appeal to non-Jewish audiences.

The three financial backers of the film – Eliyahu Cohen, Saadya El Haddad and Moshe Dayan – insisted the story be told right. They dreamed of a professional movie with a true message and now call their project the “Bible Kids Club.”

What emerges is a film that tells a universal Bible story with an innately Jewish perspective. Yet, overtly the language, animation and imagery appear Hollywood. That’s because the team hired Ron Mezey, a successful Jewish Hollywood producer who opened an animation company in Montreal called “Big Bang Digital Studios.”

“He liked it and bought the whole concept,” Bernath says about Mezey. “He thought it’s great – Abraham is the father of the three religions of the world. The film goes according to Jewish commentary but we’re opening it up so other religions can enjoy it.”

To properly produce the film, the project required $1.8 million dollar budget, with a significant amount coming from a Canadian grant. Although the direct-to-video release will be distributed to the mass market, Bernath says, “the Jewish community is going to treasure this film.”

Already the DVD is selling fast in Jewish stores since its pre-market release to coincide with the holiday of Purim.

Prior to this project, Bernath had been involved in small-budget films, voiceovers and screenwriting for Jewish educational films. Hershcovich, who ran Chabad-Lubavitch of Stavropol in Russia, is now a full-time screenwriter working on some Hollywood scripts.

“People thought it was a Hollywood production with a Bible story,” Bernath says. “They couldn’t believe a project of this caliber was produced with religious Jews behind it.”

Bernath had to convince fans that this was kosher entertainment and stemmed from the same texts they were studying in yeshiva.

“The idea was to spend so much time and money so the film would be good enough for our kids,” Bernath explains. “Finally for the first time in history we have a story from Jewish tradition that’s close to a Disney production.”