The Boulder Jewish Film Festival of 2017 has come and gone, but their impact still remains with us. Of the many films that I saw, one was my personal favorite: “Dirty Wolves.” Let me first explain my choice with a story of how a true chasid -pious person- is like a Cossack horse. When the Cossacks rounded up their horses, here’s how they chose them: They drove them all to the edge of a river and forced them across. Some made it across and some didn’t. Some of the ones who made it just kept on going. Others turned their heads around and swam back into the river- to rescue the ones who were having trouble. Only the horses who went back for the weaker ones were selected by the Cossacks; they were the ones who were compared to the truly pious.
How does this story relate to “Dirty Wolves?” Amidst excruciating scenes of horrific Nazi cruelty surrounded by a breathtakingly beautiful natural setting, emerges a true tale of heroism and sacrifice. The underlying theme, in my opinion, is not only that of human courage, but of a passion for justice and a caring that goes beyond concern for one’s own welfare. My friends and I debated the significance of the film’s name. The obvious reference was to a tungsten mine that the Nazis called Wolfram and wanted for weapons production. Some thought that the title also referred to the Nazis themselves, and others to a term the Nazis may have called the Jews. I personally wondered about the image of wolves from a Torah perspective.
The Torah compares the tribe of Benjamin to wolves. Obviously, then there must be a positive aspect to wolves, especially considering that many prominent rabbis had and still have the Hebrew name, Ze’ev, meaning wolf. What is an admirable quality of wolves and its identification with Benjamin? One feature is connected with a propensity as a ‘stealth’ fighter who can snatch prey from behind enemy lines, both day and night. There are obviously unholy robbers, but there are also ‘holy robbers.’ The women help the miners to steal the tungsten so that the Nazis would be deprived of their weapon materials.
There is a famous story of the Baal Shem Tov who summoned a minyan of thieves to successfully ‘break the locks of heaven’ when the regular group of Hassidim had failed to accomplish anything with their prayers on behalf of a desperately ill young boy. The thieves had flipped their skill into a lifesaving cause! This I think is a resonating image of the wolves in the film, “Dirty Wolves.” The Nazi commander is undone by wolves, who thereby protect the women who risk their own lives and ultimately save the lives of Jews. In fact, some Kabbalists point out that the numerical equivalent of ZEV meaning wolf, is 10, corresponding to our endowment of ten soul powers, which can be used harmfully or beneficially.
Here is another aspect of Benjamin that can relate to the film: In Jacob’s final blessing to his sons, Benjamin is called ‘Yedid’- a friend of G-d. But the sages point out that the Hebrew word ‘Yedid’ is also related to a word that means ‘wanderer’- nodeid. What is the connection between the two meanings? As one rabbi put it, a true friend is willing and able to ‘wander’ out of his or her comfort zone, to assist another. And like the ‘Cossack horse,’ a true friend will literally go out of the way to the extent of risking one’s own security and even be willing to sacrifice one’s own life, to save others. These definitions clearly fit the lives of the Tousa sisters in “Dirty Wolves.”
I found it interesting too that this film was viewed between Purim and Pesach, two festivals that represent not only salvation from oppressors but also the power and prominence of Jewish women. On Purim it is Queen Esther who saves the day by risking her life and soul to consort with the evil king on behalf of her people. And on Pesach, the sages teach that it was primarily due to the courage and faith of the Jewish women- or some say even the Egyptian midwives who defied Pharaoh and made sure the Jewish babies lived- that the liberation from Egypt occurred. In fact, the midwives were called ‘G-d fearing’ in the Torah! The interpretation that they were Egyptians is particularly remarkable since the sisters who were the heroines of the film were not Jewish, but Spanish.
Another biblical story that I associated with Dirty Wolves, is from the book of Judges about the extraordinary happenings in the life of the Judge and Prophetess, Deborah. Besides the unique feature of Deborah leading the Jews in battle, there’s another interesting parallel. The other ‘leading lady’ in the Deborah story was Yael, a descendent of Jethro, Moshe’s father-in-law. According to some, Yael seduced the Canaanite general Sisera, and killed him in his sleep, thereby bringing about an ending to the war.
Furthermore, the above episode in Tanach mentions the cryptic phrase, ‘From the heavens they fought’…i.e. the stars went to battle on behalf of the Israelites. This supernatural assistance from the non-human landscape is like the help in “Dirty Wolves” that the friends of the allies got from the Yew trees- themselves bearers of mysterious features- and from the wolves at the conclusion. Ironically, the Nazi leader is drawn to the caves by a fixation with the idea that even rocks have souls, but he enters them with greed and a desire for power, rather than humility in the presence of a mystery, and so is consumed by his own obsession.
Of course, the film inserts these supernatural details that are not part of the historical narrative of the actual bravery of these Tousa sisters. But who are we to say that they were not aided ‘from Above.’ And who of us can say that in our lives, our accomplishments are due solely to our own efforts? Kathryn Bernheimer, who is the amazing organizer and presenter of the BJFF, calls “Dirty Wolves” an example of ‘magic realism.’ Could we all not say that our intense and heroic endeavors on behalf of others, might be called, ‘realistic magic’? As the Talmud so aptly puts it: ‘One who comes to assist others is in turn assisted from Above.’ If our cause is to save lives and promote justice, and if we are open to a higher reality than our own existence or understanding, – a reality some call G-d-then that higher reality may very well come to our aid through means that are beyond our rational comprehension!
When we can leave our own comfort zones for the benefit of someone else who we may not even know personally, we indeed may be counted among the righteous Tousa sisters, who like the ‘Cossack horses’ left their own safety zone to rescue those that were drowning. May we live to see the day promised by the prophet Isaiah, when ‘The wolf will lie with the lamb.’ This phrase, say the sages, can be taken literally or figuratively, referring to a time when there will be peace between nations, or among communities and within individuals. (The latter interpretation may actually be considered more miraculous than the former). Either way, the paragraph concludes in verse 11:9, ‘they will neither injure nor destroy on my sacred mountain, for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of G-d, as water covers the sea bed.’ May this vision be soon manifest in our lives!