How My Trip to Israel Inspired an Animated Film about Grief and Pigeons

October 28, 2015Dmitry Milkin

I used to always joke that I was “Jew-ish” – mostly just the nose and neuroses. Out of fear of being lumped into a category, with all its associated stereotypes and expectations, having a sense of humor about my background was my defense mechanism.

Perhaps it’s because, growing up, my personal connection to my ethnicity wasn’t considered a positive attribute. I’m a Russian Jewish immigrant who came to the United States in 1992 as a refugee. At age 6, I didn't understand what was going on in my country, including why mostly only Jews were permitted to leave – because no one really wanted us there.

Eventually, my family settled in a Jewish suburb of Boston, which should’ve been great – but I was the only poor kid, and my classmates didn't let me forget it, so unfortunately, it became just another place where I didn’t belong. 

And so my connection to the Jewish culture consisted of just two things: my Dedushka (grandfather), who was a Leningrad Blockade-surviving/storyteller, and my love of movies.

Movies were my escape from a bad day at school, my compass for a great life when the one around me seemed unsettling, and the pinnacle of my American dream. My heroes were all Jews; Mel Brooks, Steven Spielberg, and Woody Allen became my mentors. (OK, I had a Coppola and Fellini phase, too, but Italians and Jews are pretty similar – the guilt, the grandmothers who overfeed us…)

In movies, I found a place I belonged.

Fast-forward to my mid-twenties, when my best friend, who is a born Israeli, asked me to travel to Israel with her through a free trip with URJ Kesher. I was lukewarm on the idea, but I thought, "A free international trip with my best friend. Why not?"

I had very little expectations other than to have a good time; I just hoped there wouldn’t be too much "Jewy stuff." Little did I know that the trip would alter my entire life, propel me on my path, and provide me the positive connection to the Jewish identity I’d been missing.

Before the trip, my Dedushka asked me to spend some time pondering what Jewish continuance meant to me. At the time, I didn't get it – but it finally began to sink in when my tour group visited Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust Museum. There, while listening to an Auschwitz survivor, I finally made the connection. He sounded a lot like my Dedushka, and his message was the same: continuance.

I walked the zig-zagging, concrete-walled path through Yad Vashem’s exhibits, only to walk out onto the large open museum balcony. What I saw there was the entirety of a thriving, living Jerusalem, stretching out for miles and miles. It was a place where the most common, most important, and least interesting thing about me was that I was a Jew.

Religious, secular, outspoken, apathetic, young, old... These were the diverse Jewish lives being led by a people that thrives today despite each and every one of the odds stacked against them. In France, Spain, Germany, and Russia – and so many other places across the globe – our people have survived together, grieved together, and rebuilt together, always with one unified goal: continuance.

I looked out from that balcony and saw a place I belonged to, no matter where I am or who I am – simply because of what I am. 

The next day, my life started to make a little but more sense to me. Back home, I enrolled in graduate school and set out to make a film that encapsulates everything I learned on my magical experience in Israel. 

I came up with a 3D animated short called Curpigeon, a story about community support in a time of great loss. The film is about a community of park pigeons and their old-men pals, who help one of their own through his grief. The goal is to teach children how to process grief and tragedy in a healthy way – by looking to their community rather than retreating into isolation and resentment.

Why such a heavy topic for an animated children's film? Since I returned from Israel, mass tragedy has been on the news every couple months. It's impossible to shield children from it anymore. It's difficult enough to make sense of it as an adult, let alone a kid.

My mission was to portray an example of grief in an intimate and natural way, where a character goes through all five stages of grief and in the end lets his community of friends in to help him cope. The film features 12 loveable, dopey, and unique characters who I hope will make viewers laugh as hard as they make them cry.

I believe my film to be a continuance of the Jewish tradition of storytelling. After all, storytelling is how we cope and survive: We laugh so we can cry, and vice versa. My Dedushka survived so he could teach me, so I could pass it on, and so forth. And now, I can't wait to share my own story with the world.

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