Eight residents of a Connecticut nursing home take a trip to Israel. No, this isn’t the opening line from “Old Jews Telling Jokes”; it’s David Gaynes’ documentary “Next Year Jerusalem,” a predictably banal celebration of scrappy alter kockers (from Fairfield County’s Jewish Home for the Elderly) who pay a visit to the Holy Land. Sure, some of these dames and geezers are fun, and it’s heartening to see them pushing themselves for what’s likely their last expedition, yet Gaynes forgets that even schmaltz needs salt and pepper. Jewish fests and synagogue movie nights will attract the blue-rinse crowd.
Whose idea was it to bring this group, average age 91, to Israel? Probably Andrew Banoff, president of the Jewish Home for the Elderly (and listed as executive producer), or maybe it came from the residents themselves. There’s wry Sandy Levin, gentlemanly Leslie Novis, rakish Bill Wein, enthusiastic Helen Downs and, sure to be everyone’s favorite, warmly tenacious Selma Rosenblatt. Several need wheelchairs, others get by with walkers, and most find the daily tedium of life in a nursing home to be, well, tedious.
Notwithstanding logistical and medical problems, the trip goes off without a hitch. Downs, apparently the sole Christian apart from the caregivers, gets her feet wet in the Jordan. A game Harry Shell gets waylaid by parasitic Hasidim who want to make him more Jewish at the Western Wall. Regine Arouette connects with a fellow “hidden child” Holocaust survivor at Yad Vashem. And that’s basically it: They go with cautious yet excited optimism, they tour with zeal, they return exhausted but with a sense of fulfillment.
“Next Year Jerusalem” is chockablock with missed opportunities: Apart from nurse Donnette Banton, a radiant presence, none of the caregivers get screentime, though their stories and interactions with their charges could have added some much-needed substance. What Israel means for the elderly travelers is left unaddressed; Arouette’s undoubtedly fascinating story is passed over; and apart from some very generic lines about the approaching inevitability of death, no one has even a remotely philosophical thing to offer about life and its finite hold on our consciousness. The whole documentary is kind of like a child visiting a grandmother in a nursing home: Genial pleasantries are exchanged, a few hoary jokes are told, and then it’s time to go back to a room that never disguises its resemblance to a hospital ward.
Gaynes throws in a lot of unnecessary filler, especially shots of clouds, in order to get past the 60-minute mark. Otherwise, tech credits are standard, with innocuous music accompanying the journey.