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February 5, 2010

A Jew wandering the world

Ben Feferman documented his recent Asia trek on film.

He has always been interested in eastern spiritually, particularly Buddhism. Last year, Ben Feferman saw a statistic in the Los Angeles Times that one-third of Buddhist converts in India were Jewish. Already having a tremendous interest in visiting India, he became even more fascinated about what the other side of the world held spiritually. He flew from Toronto to India with the intention of staying for one month. The result of his trip can be viewed in a new documentary, The Wandering Jew.

“I wanted to go to India to both experience eastern spirituality for myself and, as well, to try and understand a little bit [about] why a whole generation of Jews are so attracted [to] the east,” he said.

Because he was traveling on his own spiritual journey, Feferman wasn’t sure how the documentary part of the trip would play out. He had made short films before about his activities in Canadian Jewish organizations, including his campus activism but, before leaving for India, he didn’t have a particular storyline in mind. He knew that he would visit various ashrams, learn from various gurus, and that the film would follow his experiences and the stories of other people he would meet along the way.

“I was going to do one month India, one month Thailand and the project would have been over,” he said. “But as soon as I got there, I realized there was just so much to learn and so much to experience that the one month turned into six.”

That extended stay allowed Feferman to encounter several Jews and, from those, he chose seven on whom to focus – “the wandering seven.” Of those, Feferman said three have “returned” to Judaism and one has made aliyah but though the latter remains spiritual, he hasn’t necessarily connected to Israel from a Jewish perspective.

It’s another subject that Feferman feels directly represents Judaism’s failure to transform and reach youth. Feferman is an observant Jew who wears a kippah and tzizit and, when he spoke to this young man about Judaism, the man admitted he wished someone had explained Judaism to him when he was younger. He felt that his synagogue growing up had not imparted any long-lasting life lessons or connections.

In Feferman’s opinion, “For every Jew you find in an ashram here in India, it is the fault of a Jewish educator back home for not reaching that individual.”

Summing up his feelings about high rates of assimilation, Feferman concluded that those who are searching for deeper meaning in life are flying across the world in order to find it, instead of first looking within themselves and their own heritage.

“Even the Dalai Lama says that people should first look within their own religions in order to find spirituality, before exploring what others have to offer,” Feferman pointed out. He believes that there are many aspects of Judaism that go unexplored because of an acute lack of understanding of what Judaism encompasses.

Since the release of the film, Feferman has continued his filmmaking. Earlier this month, upon hearing the news of the earthquake in Haiti, he and his brother, Cory, got on a plane and flew to the devastated country.

“It’s one thing to see and hear about it on the news, but another to truly understand the pain and suffering by experiencing something for yourself,” he said. “It’s like expecting youth to understand the magnitude of the Holocaust without walking through Auschwitz to understand what happened there.”

Upon arrival in Haiti, Feferman and his brother met a man who had arrived from the United States to find his family. The brothers accompanied the man on his search. It wasn’t easy. Gasoline was in severe shortage and the roads were almost impossible to navigate. Eventually, they found the man’s family alive, huddled outside their home. The structure had been deemed unsafe to enter, so Feferman and the family slept outside.

“It was hard to sleep through the night,” he admitted. “Not only due to the conditions of sleeping outside, but the aftershocks from the earthquake. I also was awoken another time by a round of gunfire.”

However, what Feferman was most touched by in Haiti, while he walked around, was the camaraderie of the people; the communal hymns of hope rising from the rubble where groups knotted together for support. Feferman took out his camera to capture the scenes.

The Feferman brothers, who are not trained relief workers, returned to Canada so as not to be in the way of international rescue efforts. The footage from Feferman’s experience in Haiti will be made into a short film with an immediate release date.

The Wandering Jew will be premièring at Jewish film festivals in the spring. More information on Feferman’s film and copies for purchase can be found at

Eva Cohen is a freelance writer living in Ottawa.