Living as we do today in a time and place where freedom of religion is a constitutionally guaranteed right, it is easy to forget that there were those whose existence was tinged with fear not that long ago. Their Yiddishkeit was practiced in the shadows as they prayed fervently for the opportunity to pass their heritage and traditions on to the next generation while keeping their secrets hidden from the prying eyes of those who hoped to stamp out any signs of Judaism.
Paying homage to those who kept the light of Torah burning even in those trying times, Gad Elbaz returns in Ochi, a stirring remake of the famous 19th century Russian romance song Óči čjórnyje. Filmed in Kiev, Ochi depicts the story of a Jewish family living in the Soviet Union in the 1970s, showing the difficulties faced by those who lived behind the Iron Curtain but adamantly refused to abandon their religion.
An emotional aspect of the filming was a discovery by one of the actors who played a KGB officer in the film.
“During filming, we discovered that he is Jewish, something he himself didn’t know until then,” filmmaker Daniel Finkelman told COLlive.
“He put on Tefillin for the first time then, and following the filming, we – myself, Gad and producer Chaim Cohen – purchased a pair for him to keep.”
“Now, nearly 2 years later, he has recently undergone a Bris Milah and has enrolled in a Yeshiva in Israel,” Finkelman says.
Directing and producing Ochi was a very personal experience for Sparks Next’s Finkelman.
“My grandfather was a warm Zionist Jew in Soviet times and my father was a refusenik,” explained Finkelman. “My mother is from Kiev and she studied Hebrew underground. For me, telling this story in the city where my mother grew up very much closes the circle of my own life.”
With music by Elbaz and executive producer Cecelia Margules, poignant English lyrics by Margules and an appearance by rapper Avi Benjamin, Ochi is a touching ode to a time gone by, when no sacrifice was too great when it came to preserving Yiddishkeit.
Elbaz’s soulful vocals convey the deep emotional connection that kept Russian Jews tied to their religious roots despite daunting odds, a haunting reminder that we are indeed privileged to be able to worship freely, without fear of repercussion, a dream come true for so many who came before us.