Praying with Lior is Ilana Tratchman’s groundbreaking film that addresses ongoing misstatements and misunderstandings about the disabled. Following the tradition of My Flesh and Blood and Best Boy, Tratchman’s documentary centers around a family that caters to the needs of a young boy with down syndrome. The boy, Lior, is the son of rabbis Mordechai Liebling and Devora Bartnoff. He is the center of attention at the Mishkan Shalom spiritual community and at home.
Due to Lior’s apparent spiritual devotion, he earned the nickname the little rebbe. As depicted by Lior as a young boy, Lior prefers to pray (daven) than anything else including singing children’s songs. From his mother’s lap, he is educated on the traditions that would become the foundations for his contributions to the world.
As the film begins, we learn of the passing of Lior’s mother Devora Bartnoff when he was only 6 years old. The documentary narrates how Devora’s death impacts her children, Anna, Yoni, and Reena, as well as her life partner Mordechai. However, there is a link between Devora’s absence and Lior’s dedication to tradition and ritual. Apparently, Lior has inherited much of Devora’s spirit. Tratchman realizes the intensity of this bond and brings it to light in a variety of means throughout the documentary.
A voice-over track includes Devora’s article, Praying with Lior that informs the documentary’s quest to explore the spirituality of Lior. The documentary also intersperses home film footage of Devora Bartnoff, weaving her presence into the text, creating a character that is very much alive and present.
The documentary’s structure is somewhat scattershot, using Verite footage and interviews to cover some episodes in the Leibling family’s life. Some discussions of the documentary centers around its lack of any major controversies or onscreen conflicts. Although the audience does not witness any trying or particularly bad day in the life of the film’s characters, there is something affirming and invigorating in the embrace of the mundane struggles of the family.
The main development covered by Tratchman is the preparation of Lior for his role as Bar Mitzvah. People around Lior are concerned about him and are thrilled to offer him guidance during this stage of his life and to help him understand its significance. The majority of characters are unveiled refreshingly during discussions about the role of Lior in their lives.
Father Mordechai Liebling expresses his fear that his son does not yet comprehend what it means to have down syndrome. He fears that the Bar Mitzvah Lior’s highest point in life will be followed by the disappointing discovery that he is different. Meanwhile, Anna, Lior’s younger sister expresses her embarrassment of Lior’s condition sometimes, and frustration at the attention he receives from everyone. Short interviews with his classmates show their patience with him, their understanding of Lior’s condition, and admiration for his davening devotion. Although they are simply reciting their parents’ reminders of how to treat Lior properly, it is apparent that the reminders have become impactful and influenced them to treat Lior with respect.