A new documentary uses home-video footage to help its director come to terms with his abuse, including at the hands of a prominent cantor.
As a child, Sasha Joseph Neulinger was gifted but deeply troubled. He was a successful actor, but nursed many suicidal thoughts and often swerved into erratic behavior. And he was captured on film at every stage by his father Henry, a compulsive videographer and producer of PBS documentaries.
It wasn’t until Sasha was a teenager that he finally had the courage to explain what had happened to him: For years, he and his sister Bekah were molested by two of their uncles and their older cousin.
Neulinger chronicles his own journey out of abuse in his new documentary, Rewind, now available for VOD rental and airing on Detroit Public TV Tuesday, May 12, at 11 p.m. as part of the Independent Lens series of documentary films. It is a harrowing film, but a powerful one, as we watch this young man heal himself and his family through the power of his own art and investigation.
Growing up in a Jewish home in Philadelphia, Sasha was frequently visited by his father’s brothers. The oldest brother, Howard Nevison, was a prominent cantor for many years at Temple Emanu-el in New York City, the largest Reform congregation in the country. When Sasha’s parents weren’t around, he says in the film, Howard would take him upstairs and molest him, threatening to kill him if he ever told anyone. (Of the three men who violated Sasha, he says Howard was the worst.) But when Sasha finally did tell his parents, his father revealed that he, too, had been molested by both his brothers as a child.
The abuse haunted the family, and its reveal destroyed Sasha’s parents’ marriage: his mother Jacqui was furious her husband had allowed known abusers to have access to their children, and divorced him soon after. Their life before everything came to light was documented through the copious home-video footage captured by Sasha’s father, which Sasha himself revisits for his documentary. Scenes of the extended family clowning around at gatherings are contrasted with the knowledge of what was happening in private: the brothers put on little sketch shows for each other to hide the demons they unleash when the cameras are off. The use of home video footage to comment on child sex abuse in a Jewish family recalls the 2003 documentary Capturing the Friedmans, except that in this case, the perpetrators’ guilt is never called into question.
Sasha’s story takes its greatest toll when the family tries to bring Howard Nevison to justice. After Nevison is initially accused of abuse in 2002, the case makes national headlines as the “cantor sex abuse” story. Temple Emanu-el quickly rallies around him, with several congregants starting a legal defense fund for him. Nevison’s lawyers successfully drag on the case for years, finally reaching a plea deal in 2006 just before it’s scheduled to go to trial: taking 12 years’ probation on misdemeanor charges in order to avoid prison time. The sentencing hearing arrives just around the High Holidays, and Nevison retires from Emanu-el that year, maintaining his innocence to the Jewish press. Today he lives as a free man in New York.
Besides a story of one man’s self-actualization, Rewind is also about the necessity of finding one’s own spiritual catharsis. The biggest representative of institutional Judaism in Sasha’s life was also a monster; yet once Sasha finds the courage to go public, he is still able to enjoy his own Bar Mitzvah celebration. (We see video footage of him dancing at his party, having found a way to move forward.) This is not the first time a story of abuse has intersected with that of Jewish religious leaders, but it is nevertheless nauseating to ponder the dark reality of what humans in any position of power are capable of.
And the film is also very clear about its belief that the true meaning of Judaism lies not in what religious hierarchy instructs or condones, but in what it means to the individual. Sasha has a close bond with his great-grandfather Joseph, who led the family out of Europe. When it comes time for him to testify against his uncle, Sasha takes the advice of his child psychiatrist and wears Joseph’s kippah on the witness stand, using that piece of his great-grandfather for protection and bravery. His stunning, clear testimony helps shift the tide of public opinion and keep the case alive. But more importantly, it frees Sasha.
Later, after his ordeal is over, Sasha takes his great-grandfather’s last name, Neulinger, as a way of starting his new life. It’s a ray of hope at the end of a grueling ordeal: a sign that even after a childhood of unrelenting misery, going forward and finding meaning in life can still be possible.