Jewish Filmmaker Shows the Pain of Losing a Mother and Power of Becoming One
One of the saddest truths of life is that we will lose our mothers.
Long Island native Judith Helfand also had to grapple with the harsh fact that she could not give birth to a child of her own, partly due to something her mother did.
Helfand’s documentary, “Love & Stuff,” has the emotional punch that few films have, but there are also lots of laughs. Premiering September 5 on PBS, as part of the “POV” series, Helfand — who lives on the Upper West Side — deals with two major challenges. The first is the loss of her mother, Florence. The other is the idea of adopting a baby.
Florence had a miscarriage and then when she was pregnant with Judith, doctors advised her to take DES (diethylstilbestrol), thinking it would help prevent another miscarriage. Not only was it not effective, but it harmed children, who were sometimes born with a range of medical problems — or died in the womb. Judith developed clear cell adenocarcinoma, and had to have an emergency radical hysterectomy at the age of 25.
Helfand said the maker of the drug, Eli Lilly, knew of its harm, and she won a settlement and used the funds to get her parents a safer car and herself a better camera. One of the toughest moments to watch is when she tells her mother that she doesn’t blame her, but undoubtedly, her mother still felt guilty.
Rather than wallow in her trauma, Helfand used the camera as a tool to record. She taught film at New York University and the Columbia School of Journalism, winning a Peabody Award in 2016 for “A Healthy Baby Girl.” She also won a Sundance Film Festival Award for Cinematography for “Blue Vinyl,” an environmental documentary that warns about the dangers of plastic.
“I often use filmmaking to help me get through the scariest moments of my life, where the camera is a rudder to remind me of who I am and who is really at fault,” Helfand said in an interview. “The camera becomes the witness. … It represents access and [it] can fight to hold people accountable.”
In the film, we hear Helfand’s mother say it’s her dream for Helfand to get married and have children. This moment hit home for me, because when my mother died in 2015, a family friend told me at the shiva that it was my mother’s dream to see me marry and give her grandchildren.
In a moment that will make you cry, Helfand asks her mother, “Just tell me something, how do you live without your mother?”
Her mother responds by saying, “You do. You learn to.”
Florence lost her own mother after she gave birth to a son, and didn’t get to sit shiva properly.
Helfand said she is dedicating this film to anyone who lost a loved one during the time of Covid, and did not get to mourn properly or have the regular shiva. “Ritual do-overs should be possible,” she said. “I am grateful I was there with my mother to see her take her last breath.”
At around the age of 50, Helfand adopts a wonderfully adorable baby who is a Jewish child of color. I would not be surprised if she grows up to be an award-winning filmmaker like her mother. Helfand gave her the middle name Pesach because the baby came around the time of Passover, and added the name Sabrina because that is the name the birth mother liked.
We see Helfand celebrate Purim with her daughter and sing “Dayeinu” at the Passover seder. She remembers the skinless chicken her mother made, and at the shiva for her mother, numerous people bring babka.
The film is strong not only because of its sincerity, but also because of its theme of fighting against whatever obstacles arise. Moreover, it’s a good thing the story is not presented in chronological order. Who among us wouldn’t wish a loved one could suddenly appear to answer a question or give us a hug?
During the film, Helfand seeks to create the same warm environment that she experienced for her daughter. She also chronically struggles with weight, and has to decide if she should get surgery that would be irreversible, but she is told it will make her healthier and better able to keep up with her young daughter. If you have children, this film will make you cherish them all the more.
The film is called “Love & Stuff” because Helfand argues that love is not enough. You must take action to preserve family history and heritage, and work to make sure communication and connections are strong.
I have no doubt that if you watch this film, it will hit you in your kishkes.
The author is a writer based in New York.