October 19, 2006
51 Birch Street: House of Blocks . . . House of Cards?
In his personal documentary, "51 Birch Street," filmmaker Doug Block sets out to explore his relationship with his father. His mother has died, and Block wants to document the dismantling of the family home before it is sold. A "baby-boomer" who came of age in the "let it all hang out" '60s, Block is taken aback when he learns that his parents' 54-year marriage was not at all what it seemed. Wrestling with disturbing revelations, Block's film questions how well any of us truly know the people we love, how well we might really want to know them, and perhaps most importantly, what right we have to know.
On the surface, the Block family is a typical, post-war, middle-class suburban Jewish family. Mike Block and Mina Vogel married shortly after World War II, had three children over the course of four years and moved from Brooklyn to a brand-new house in the suburbs to raise their family. They were among the founding families of a Reform congregation that became the center of their social lives. Their children -- two girls and a boy -- went to (or more accurately "suffered through," as son Doug describes it) Hebrew school through confirmation. Mike worked long hours as a mechanical engineer while Mina stayed home to raise the children, working outside of the home only as the children grew up. Mike and Mina were "inseparable."
Mina's death was shocking not only in its swiftness, but for the maelstrom of unexpected revelations that followed. Three months after his wife's death, Mike Block traveled to Florida, returning only to announce that he was moving there to live with Kitty, his secretary from 40 years earlier. They wed shortly thereafter. As if this wasn't enough for the Block siblings to absorb, Mike and Kitty decided to sell the family home on Birch Street. It fell upon Doug and his sisters to help their father sort through the accumulated detritus of 50 years of family life.
Block, a documentary filmmaker by vocation ("Home Page" and "The Heck With Hollywood!") and an inveterate home-movie-maker by avocation, always felt close to his mother; her death left him bereft. In contrast, he felt both very different than and distant from his father. He hoped to use his camera, as was his wont, to help him get to know his subject -- in this case his father -- better.
As we travel with Block through his arduous path of discovery, watching long-buried secrets of his parents' unhappiness slowly come to light, we see his family struggle with their newfound knowledge. And we struggle alongside them, wrestling not only with our own fears about trust and intimacy, but with questions of privacy and disclosure.
These questions come to a head when Block uncovers volumes of personal diaries his mother had written over a three- year period. Pained as his father obviously is by seeing them, he nevertheless tells his son to "save them." Block is both drawn to and fearful of reading them, and decides to consult an "expert" on the ethical issues involved.
He turns to Rabbi Jonathan Blake, a young rabbi with a warm smile and quick wit, who Block felt was "wise" beyond his years. Asking Blake if it's "right" to read his mother's diaries (the mention of which causes an amusing moment of eyebrow-raising by Blake on camera), Blake first answers in true Rabbinic fashion, with another question: "What does your heart tell you to do?" Yet after wrestling a bit with the dilemma, Blake tells Block that learning more about one's parents can be valuable, if the knowledge is used for "a holy purpose."
Thus encouraged, Block decided to forge ahead -- at times ambivalent, at times stunned.
"From the outside, to us, we thought they were actually wonderfully compatible. They had similar interests, they traveled, they bickered a bit but never argued," Block said in an interview.
But as his mother's diaries revealed, she was deeply unhappy in her marriage. Block searched for ways to reconcile his image of his parents' "model marriage" with the emerging picture of discord, anger and infidelity.
Although the film contains no explicit explanation of how Block, a "cultural" but non-observant Jew, interpreted the rabbi's words, Block said he believed the rabbi "meant if I'm using it to honor and celebrate my mother's life ... it's a holy thing." Yet, during the process of making the film, it wasn't always clear to Block that his work hewed to this "holy" purpose.
"There were many times I thought it was a holy mess! I thought, all I'm going to do is burn in hell," he said. "My mother will come off looking horribly, and I'll look even worse for doing this." He said he spent "many sleepless nights feeling the weight of picking out the right phrases and words of all the volumes of writings, to honor her complexity, her intelligence, to show her as a rounded human being."
"On one level," Block said, his film "is a story of assimilation, of city Jews moving to the suburbs and trying to fit in," the pressures of which were one source of his mother's unhappiness. Block says it's also "very Jewish" that his family "covers up a lot of stuff through sarcasm and humor." And he believes that his film was a profound act of teshuvah, a concept he discussed with Los Angeles Rabbi Judith Halevy while filming. Creating a portrait of his parents' lives, including their fallibility, was for Block an "act of coming to forgiveness, and somehow getting cleansed in the process."
Yet "51 Birch Street" is also a universal tale. Ultimately the story is -- like the complex lives it reveals to us -- a mass of contradictions. On the one hand, it is a truly sad story: of thwarted potential, of betrayal and of the defeat of good intentions. But it is also a story of redemption, of two men who manage to transcend the pain of their lives to forge new relationships: Mike Block with Kitty, and Doug Block with his father.