'Dr. Bronner's Magic Soapbox': An Unscrubbed Portrait

By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 3, 2007

Quick: What do the scholar Hillel, the philosopher Baruch de Spinoza and the Olympic swimmer Mark Spitz have in common, other than their Jewish roots? They're all quoted on the label of Dr. Bronner's peppermint-infused Castile soap, familiar to anyone who's frequented Whole Foods or their corner food co-op.

For years, the aromatic suds have been the all-purpose cleanser of choice for hippies, health enthusiasts and the practically minded (it can go from the shower to the sink to the laundry basin in a trice, with a stop to scrub the dog along the way). And its prolix label, crammed with such theological musings as "Absolute cleanliness is Godliness!" and "Listen Children Eternal Father Eternally One!," has come to resemble modern marketing by way of outsider art.

But who is the Dr. Bronner of his self-proclaimed "magic" soap? This is the never-quite-resolved question that propels "Dr. Bronner's Magic Soapbox," Sara Lamm's absorbing portrait, not just of an alternately inspired and deranged eccentric, but of an American family. (The film will be shown tonight at the Washington Jewish Film Festival.) With Bronner's son, Ralph, serving as her guide, Lamm brings viewers along on a journey that touches nearly every classic trope of modern America, from escape and reinvention to madness and, finally, redemption. It's "Capturing the Friedmans" by way of the Whole Earth Catalog.

Emanuel H. Bronner, it turns out, was born in 1908 in Germany, to a family of soapmakers. He moved to America during the rise of Nazism (both his parents were killed in the Holocaust) and continued the family business, making his soaps by hand and developing his personal theology, the "moral ABC," in which everyone on the planet was united under one God, a theory he worked out on his labels and in speeches. After a particularly erratic talk in Chicago he was committed to a mental hospital; he escaped in 1947, taking up residence in California, where his handmade operation developed into a full-fledged factory.

Along the way, Bronner had three children, who were often cruelly neglected and abandoned to accommodate his "All-One-God-Faith" evangelism. "Dr. Bronner's Magic Soapbox" paints a disturbing but also deeply humanist image of its subject, from the testimonies of his two sons and other relatives and from Bronner home movies, which show the wiry, shock-haired patriarch ranting at the side of a turquoise swimming pool.

Bronner died in 1997, and since then the gentle, sweet-natured Ralph has taken it upon himself to keep the Bronner faith, delivering his father's philosophy in an off-off-Broadway show and through random acts of kindness. "Dr. Bronner's Magic Soapbox" follows Ralph as he befriends every stranger he meets, from the recalcitrant woman behind a newsstand to a young man whose girlfriend is dying in the hotel room next door. Like every apostle, Ralph can get on your nerves with his breathless proselytizing, but just when you think you can't take one more hug he does something so spontaneously loving and generous that the screen fairly radiates.

And Lamm makes sure that it's not totally all-Ralph, all-the-time: "Dr. Bronner's Magic Soapbox" includes some cleverly framed testimonials from devoted users, as well as some weird outtakes from the 1971 counterculture documentary "Rainbow Bridge" (Bronner had a cameo in the film). While Ralph hits the hustings spreading his dad's gospel, the Bronner grandchildren have continued the family's enlightened business practices, which include capping their salaries at five times what their lowest-paid employee makes. Sometimes you can be crazy and right.

Dr. Bronner's Magic Soapbox will be shown at 6:30 p.m. at the Washington, D.C. Jewish Community Center, 1529 16th St. NW. Admission is $10 ($9 for seniors, students and DCJCC members). The Washington Jewish Film Festival runs through Dec. 9. Call 202-777-3210 or visit

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