“My plan is to win an Academy Award by the time I’m 45,” says Daniel Finkelman, the 38-year-old director and producer of a recently shot feature film and countless short films and Jewish music videos, including Gad Elbaz’s Paris-located “Hava Nagila” and Lipa Schmeltzer’s futuristic “Hang Up the Phone.”
Go ahead. Roll your eyes. You’ve heard this before – from people far more famous and with more industry connections than Finkelman. And it’s true: Finkelman tends to make grand pronouncements like that. But spend enough time with the filmmaker and instead of dismissing him as delusional, he’ll make you not only believe it’s possible, he’ll have you rooting for him to succeed. It comes from confidence and ample talent – yes – but also from Finkelman’s striking appetite and sense of purpose.
In the specialized corner of filmmaking that creates Jewish music videos, Finkelman – who also directs and produces Jewish music concerts – has earned a reputation as a visionary. He has been creating YouTube videos full time for the past five years and has already worked with over a dozen major Jewish music including (in addition to Schmeltzer and Elbaz) Mordechai Ben David, Dudu Fisher, and Avraham Fried.
Before taking on filmmaking, Finkelman was a secular studies principal and teacher in a Chabad school. He looks at all of his work from an educator’s point of view. Now, he says, “instead of inspiring a class of 12 or 15 students, I have the ability to inspire millions of people with help from Gad Elbaz, Lipa Schmeltzer, Avraham Fried, and many others. That responsibility gives me tremendous satisfaction.”
Finkelman, who lives in Brooklyn, says he pursues his shlichut like all Chabad individuals do. But Finkelman’s shlichut is fulfilled not by by traveling via rickshaw in New Delhi, camel in Beirut, or elephant in Johannesburg. Instead he does so through his videos, which, though they display a broad range, have a core set of messages in common: of faith, simcha, and Jewish pride.
During the filming of one of these videos, the phosphorescent glow of the stage lights were dim as buzzing chatter came from dozens of costumed men, women, and children. The Soho Lounge in Brooklyn was as ethereal as it has ever been. The lounge’s brick walls and swooning musical vibes were emitting a Roaring Twenties aura. Soon, a hush blanketed the crowd. Bartenders stopped tending, DJs stopped mixing, and customers stopped mingling.
All eyes focused on the far end of the quaint room, which was brilliantly illuminated by violet, turquoise, and scarlet spotlights. A man appeared dressed casually in jeans and a t-shirt and introduced himself: “I’m Daniel Finkelman, and welcome to Lipa Schmeltzer’s music video shoot. I hope you’re all having a great time. Sit back and enjoy.” The crowd applauded then stopped as Finkelman raised his hand. Finkelman took his place behind the camera with the rest of his crew and shouted, “Action.”
Schmeltzer moved onto center stage and commanded everyone’s attention with his red sparkly vest and fashionable glasses. He belted out his newest tune, while members of the Holocaust Survivor Band accompanied him on their string instruments. Schmeltzer has become one of the top two or three performers in Jewish music, those who can manufacture a sure bet every time they step on a stage or cut a new album, and it’s no oversimplification to say that a significant chunk of his renown and reach is thanks to Finkelman. Schmelzter – and, for that matter, Gad Elbaz and others – are the talent; Finkelman is their impresario.
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Before I met Daniel Finkelman, we had arranged for an interview at Chocolatte, a 24-hour kosher coffee shop in Crown Heights. As I wait for him, the favorite hymns of the Lubavitcher Rebbe play softly in the background and the heavenly aroma of cinnamon lattes and chocolate croissants fill the air. Soon, Finkelman saunters in, uber-confident, wearing a denim suit jacket, gray slacks, and spiffy gray lace-ups. The only thought crossing my mind is, “Never in my life have I seen a Lubavitcher with this much style.” Finkelman introduces himself – as if I didn’t know it was him – and invites me to take a seat. He is so excited to begin the interview, and acts as if a reporter has never interviewed him before. He is courteous, calm, and collected. And he’s very eager for whatever happens next.
Finkelman was born in Israel and moved to New York when he was 11. Unlike the case with most children, watching a film at home was no simple task for the young Daniel Finkelman. Every couple of minutes, he’d make his younger brother pause the video so that he could absorb the film quality and directorial techniques of each scene – whether he was watching in French, Russian, Hebrew, or English.
“I had bought VHS tapes through Columbia House’s mail order club,” he says. “We also went to the movie theater, but those I couldn’t pause. Right away, I was attracted to directors such as Spielberg, Scorsese, Louis Malle, and others. My parents were hard-working immigrants who didn’t have much time for films, but at least they didn’t kill my passion toward them. I watched a lot. I sometimes went into a marathon of watching four films one after the other – very geeky, but yeah, that was me.”
Finkelman’s family was not associated with Chabad at the time but they spent a Shabbat at 770 Eastern Parkway soon after their arrival. Finkelman cites the Rebbe as his muse and says the Rebbe granted him a modern day miracle.
“As a child I was extremely allergic to the sun – the pain in my eyes when in contact with the sun was excruciating,” Finkelman relates. “None of the doctors could cure me. After my Shabbat at 770 I waited on line the following Sunday to shake hands with the Rebbe in the boiling sun. When I finally met the Rebbe, I asked him for a blessing, and then in the only Yiddish I knew I told the Rebbe, ‘Zei gezint,’ to which he answered ‘Amen’ followed by ‘You should have hatzlacha with everything in your life,’ and a few weeks later my eyesight was completely restored and my allergy was gone; it was a miracle.”
Finkelman says he was also drawn to the Chabad philosophy of letchatchila ariber: “While some people live life by accomplishing their goals step-by-step, Chabad shoots straight to the top,” he says. “That, in particular, appeals to me. Straight to the top is my motto. Straight to the top in my marriage and straight to the top with career choices. I didn’t want to wake up when I’m 75 and go, ‘Oh, I could’ve done that.’ Now is the time to jump in the waters and be a Nachshon ben Aminadav and just do it. That is why my goal is an Academy Award. I don’t think that it’s a far off dream.”
Finkelman first thought seriously about using his filmmaking for religious ends five years ago. Sholom Rubashkin’s imprisonment had been sitting on his mind and the more he heard about the allegations against Rubashkin, the more he wanted to get involved. He called Mordechai Ben David and set in motion the “Unity for Justice” music video. “The thing that tugs at my heartstrings most,” says Finkelman, “is that Jews from so many communities, from Syrians to Sephardim to Chabad to Modern Orthodox, found a common denominator, and his name is Rubashkin. It’s as if he sits in prison so that the Jewish people can unite.”
Wanting to infuse his projects with a sense of mission has led Finkelman to work alongside Meyer Seewald, founder of the victim advocate group Jewish Community Watch, which helps protect children from sexual abuse and helps victims heal from their traumas. Finkelman calls Seewald “a living saint.” Together they filmed the video “Speak Up” in which seven survivors of sexual abuse shared their stories.
“I respect Daniel and love him like a brother,” says Seewald. “He is an advocate for victims, and in every interview that he has had with them, they feel supported and loved. He speaks to them gently, and supports them even after the video is through. Daniel is never satisfied with just that, he always wants to do more, and has amazing ideas to spread awareness on the subject. With his help we will continue bringing awareness to the community, and help more victims become survivors.”
Working with sexual abuse victims does not come without its share of detractors within the community, but Finkelman generally shrugs off those concerns. For example, the video for the Schmeltzer song “Believe in a Miracle” includes women, which elicited the virtual wrath of many a commenter; they fumed that parading women in an Orthodox music video is both inappropriate and un-Jewish. This made Finkelman livid. “If we’re going to make a revolution,” he tell me, “even a small one, it needs to be heard. I think it’s a disaster that women are not in videos or pictures of Jewish sources. Maybe Lipa’s videos will promote change.”
Finkelman’s sense of mission extends to videos combating anti-Semitism. One of his most popular is “Hava Nagila,” featuring Israeli artist Gad Elbaz. “Hava Nagila” was shot in Paris after the January 2015 massacres at Charlie Hebdo and a Jewish supermarket but before the November attacks which took the lives of 130 in the city.
Finkelman has worked with Elbaz for many years and has created popular music videos for Elbaz’s songs, like “Esh Shel Mashiach” (over 800,000 YouTube views), “Open Up” (a million YouTube views), and “Hashem Melech 2.0” (nearly 1.3 million YouTube views). A recurring element in these videos is impeccable choreography and, often, jazzed-up dance routines, which Finkelman feels can help attract younger Jewish viewers.
“Who’s our target audience? Not only the unaffiliated, it’s also the affiliated,” he says. “They’re not interested in Jewish music, to see some gray-bearded guy jump and say ‘oyoyoyoyoyoy.’ It doesn’t inspire. It doesn’t inspire me. But if you give them something like Gad Elbaz, some good dancing, and it’s like ‘Oh wow; this is good.’ This is almost just as good. It’s good beats, good choreography, and some window of communication with the youth. When I say youth I mean all of us. I’m also youth. I’m also not inspired by the gray-bearded people (except maybe Avraham Fried). I can’t stand going to these concerts where the artist has zero charisma. We’ve changed that.”
Finkelman is especially proud of his Holocaust-related film work. He started exploring Holocaust cinematography when he began working with producer and composer Cecelia Margules, the daughter of Holocaust survivors who’s been promoting Holocaust education for decades. He says, “Ever since she came into my life, I’ve been bringing it to YouTube, and to the masses. These videos unite Jews on a global scale and it allows me to combine my love for Judaism with my love for filmmaking.”
Ever mindful of looking forward toward future Jewish generations, Finkelman says he plans to create online platforms catering to Jewish youth. “We want people to answer the commonly asked question ‘What makes you Jewish?’ Thousands of Jewish individuals worldwide will take minute-long video clips of what makes them feel connected to Judaism. For some, being Jewish is through feeling connected. For others, it’s eating lox. For still others, it’s watching Woody Allen movies. Everyone has their own concept.”
Once he’s gathered enough videos, he plans to showcase them online, hoping they can represent a kind of cumulative snapshot of what Judaism means to Jews worldwide. He’s dubbed the project “We R 1.”