There are many films that deal with the Holocaust and many that deal with Jews living in Israel, but Dear Mr. Waldman wisely concentrates on the place where the two provocative topics merge. Moishe and Rivka Valdman, an attractive middle-aged couple, attempt to raise their family in 1960's Israel. Both are survivors of the camps, both terribly scarred and profoundly traumatized by the horrors they have witnessed. Moishe is especially unhinged, having had a separate life and family prior to the Shoah, his son lost with six million others.
The title of the film relates to Moishe's hopeless search for his son, and letters he writes to an American politician who shares his last name. Moishe fantasizes that the successful American is somehow his son (miraculously alive). In a grainy photograph of the American, Moishe recognizes something he calls “the illness,” an imaginary malady that he believes they both share. He cannot be convinced otherwise. His eagerness for the lie he tells himself obliterates any ability to be rational. For a while, the movie has the audience dreaming right along with him.
Moishe's ludicrous search for his dead son is conducted whole heartedly, and his desperate yearning for the boy creates a vast divide between himself and reality. As a natural progression, the delusions seperate him from his only true support system, his adoring family. Even if it were not for the one particular madness, Moishe is not a decent father or husband by any means. He drinks, he smokes, he cheats, he detaches himself spontaneously. Moishe's rare displays of love and compassion for his wife and two sons, though seemingly sincere, cannot make up for the coldness he brings. Despite this distance and indifference, the Valdmans retain an unimaginable sensitivity and patience for Moishe's ugly dysfunctions. Presumably, they understand the root of the problem and excuse him.
The film is told partially from the perspective of Moishe's youngest son, Hilik, played by Ido Port (think Fred Savage circa the first season of The Wonder Years).
While Hilik displays some entertaining “coming of age” quirks (when his father complains of “the illness,” Hilik sucks it from his arm and spits it out like poison, Hilik often quotes from the movie Spartacus, and he has a Winnie Cooper type girlfriend), writer/director Hanan Peled's great successes are the deeply felt characters of Moishe and Rivka.
Rami Heuberger and Jenya Dodina execute the misery and conflict within every survivor, and do so on a very human, understated level. The interesting twist on the standard is that Holocaust survivors are typically portrayed in film and on television as ancient, weary, and broken. Peled's film allows us to realize damaged men and women at a vital stage in life, trying to raise a young family while at the same time being plagued by memories of evil beyond words. The strange, sometimes beautiful, sometimes awful romance between Moishe and Rivka is not based on something typical like mutual interests or something as vague as love. They are bound by nightmares, by shattered faith, by blinding fear and paranoia, by a guilty sense of being pulled randomly from the flames.
Rivka is aware of her husband's infidelity; she tolerates his wild whims and bouts of depression, and she directs her burdened sons to do the same (the child of a survivor is equally a unique animal).
When the issues in the film wind to a tidy resolution with Moishe comprehending to let go of a tragic past and embrace the miracle of the present, such an ending may ring a bit false and safe, but it brings an uneasy smile nonetheless. The kind of smile we reserve for shiva houses where the deceased was old, weary, and had suffered for far too long.