Review: Praying with Lior

By Jessica Elgot, November 16, 2009
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Dirs. Ilana Trachtman | USA | 2008 | 87 mins | English

Lior Liebling is 13 years old. He likes wrestling with his brother, annoying his little sister, and is finding it hard to concentrate on writing his Dvar Torah. But Lior is no ordinary barmitzvah.

Lior has Downs Syndrome. That he can undertake a barmitzvah at all is astounding. But perhaps even more compelling is that what Lior loves most in the world is davening, leading some in his congregation to believe he is ‘close to God’, a spiritual genius.

Ilana Trachtman’s tender look at a modern religious family whose faith is strengthened by the faith of their son and brother should be compulsory viewing.

From how he inspires his congregation to how his schoolmates at his Orthodox yeshiva accept him with the unquestioning faith that “Hashem doesn’t make mistakes”, Lior is fascinating to watch.

Trachtman doesn’t shy away from the tough questions. Those around him voice openly whether Lior only really davens because of the love and happiness it brings from his family and community. He knows that when he davens people praise him.

The coming-of-age at his barmitzvah is particularly poignant for Lior. Trachtman explores whether Lior, who talks excitedly about going to college, drinking beer and having his first girlfriend, will face life as an adult full of bitter disappointment.

But although the film addresses wider issues about disability and spirituality, it is first and foremost a moving family portrait. Lior’s mother Rabbi Devora Bartnoff Liebing died of cancer when Lior was 6 years old. Younger sister Anna complains how Lior steals any attention from her, and older brother Yoni and sister Reena contemplate whether they could bear to leave Lior and go to college.

The intimacy of the film gives its most emotional scenes, father Mordechai tenderly give Lior his first shave on the eve of his barmitzvah and dedicated stepmother Lynne singing along with Lior the same prayers he once sang with his mother.

This is a stunning and inspirational documentary, where every member of the audience can join Lior in his barmitzvah celebration at the film’s climax.

Praying with Lior was supported at the UK Jewish Film Festival by the Judith Trust

    Last updated: 2:58pm, February 18 2011