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The Promise of Israel's New Orthodox Cinema

Israeli film used to be almost exclusively—and aggressively—secular. With the rise of the ultra-Orthodox director Rama Burshtein and others, that’s changing.

From The Wedding Plan, directed by Rama Burshtein.

From The Wedding Plan, directed by Rama Burshtein.

Observation
Aug. 21 2017
About the author

Benjamin Kerstein is a Tel Aviv-based writer and editor.


In 1999, the acclaimed Israeli filmmaker Amos Gitai released Kadosh. Internationally screened and widely praised, it was one of the first Israeli films set entirely within the country’s ultra-Orthodox (ḥaredi) community. The story of a loving married couple forced to separate by the religious authorities, Kadosh was a corrosive, furious, and ultimately damning portrait of an authoritarian and repressive subculture. Its characters, while sometimes portrayed with sympathy, served as little more than weapons to drive home Gitai’s passionate opposition to ultra-Orthodox values and, by implication, their threat to the rest of Israeli society. “In Israel,” he said in an interview at the time, “Judaism has become a Church.” The reference was not complimentary.

For more than a decade, Kadosh stood as the most prominent and essentially the only widely seen portrayal of the ḥaredi world in Israeli cinema. In recent years, however, this situation has decisively changed. An early harbinger was Ushpizin (2004), set in a ḥasidic community in Jerusalem and appealing mainly to a religious but non-ḥaredi audience. (Ḥaredim generally refrain from attending movie theaters.) But the high point so far has been three major movies, each set in a different sub-section of Israel’s Orthodox or ultra-Orthodox communities, each devoted to letting members of its often insular enclaves tell their own stories, and each achieving notable success with audiences of all kinds in Israel and abroad.

 

Of the three films, perhaps the most widely seen has been Fill the Void (2012), an internationally acclaimed family drama that won a prize at the Venice Film Festival and seven Ophir prizes, Israel’s equivalent of the Oscars. It also marked the directorial debut of Rama Burshtein, a graduate of Israel’s Sam Spiegel Film and Television School and herself an ultra-Orthodox Jew.

Fill the Void is an intimate, sometimes painfully intimate, study of a ḥasidic family in crisis. When its elder, married daughter dies suddenly, leaving behind an infant child, the family matriarch, desperate to keep the baby in the family, seeks to engineer the marriage of her younger daughter Shira to Yoḥai, the bereaved father.

On its face, this could suggest a film not unlike Kadosh—the tale of a young woman forced into an unwanted match by brutal emotional blackmail. But quite the opposite is the case. Burshtein sets about demolishing clichés and prejudices regarding ultra-Orthodox families. Shira’s fondly protective father, for example, is openly opposed to the match, while the family’s rabbi, sensing Shira’s ambivalence, at first refuses to countenance it. The mother, too, conspicuously refrains from coercion to achieve her aim.

As for Shira, her dilemma is driven at once by her muddled feelings about her brother-in-law Yoḥai (and his about her) and by her unforced desire to maintain a family structure shattered by unexpected tragedy. At one point, she calls it “a mission I have to fulfill.” If she sacrifices herself, it will be out of compassion for all concerned. Burshtein’s tense and ambiguous ending leaves open the question of whether the fulfillment of her mission has in fact been such a sacrifice.

Transcending all stereotypes and preconceptions, Shira may be the most fully realized ḥaredi character in Israeli film. This is largely due to the luminous performance of Hadas Yaron, whose beautifully expressive face allows Burshstein’s almost entirely still camera to convey her purity and empathy along with the forces that are tearing her apart inside. Indeed, Yaron’s performance recalls nothing so much as the actress Setsuko Hara’s legendary performances for the master Japanese filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu—particularly in Ozu’s elegiac Late Spring (1949), in which Hara plays a young woman facing the same ambivalence about a possible marriage.

 

Comparisons with Ozu, as exaggerated as they may seem at first, are by no means inappropriate. Like Burshtein, Ozu concentrates both on intimate family emotions and the issue of tradition versus personal desire, especially with regard to marriage: a theme that surfaces again and again in such films as Late Autumn and An Autumn Afternoon.

Burshtein’s direction recalls Ozu as well. As noted above, her camera—like his—rarely moves, allowing the film’s achingly sensitive scenes to play out according to their own organic rhythm. Instead of bravura heights of emotion, Burshstein chooses quiet and outward calm, allowing small gestures to take on enormous significance; her closeups, painting an emotional landscape of the human face, are all the more effective for being used so rarely.

Of course, Burshstein adds flourishes of her own. In conversations, rather than employing the conventional editing technique of cutting from character to character, she instead manipulates the camera’s focus to hold one character in focus and then, within the same shot, bringing the opposite character into focus. Making for a graceful rather than jarring transition, the technique underscores the grave and often reticent atmosphere of her characters’ environment.

When Burshtein does vary her cinematic grammar, moreover, she does so in a strikingly original manner. In one of the few scenes in which Yoḥai and Shira find themselves alone, Burshtein cuts back and forth between them as they converse, but then cuts to a two-shot that reveals them to be physically much closer together than we had supposed—just as Shira warns Yoḥai, “You’re too close.” In a society in which physical proximity between men and women is tightly controlled, the effect is all the more startling and discomfiting.

This scene, which manages in a single powerful moment to bring together Fill the Void’s cinematic, dramatic, and sociological aspects, may be the best in the film, most of whose viewers are unlikely to share either the deeply pious values or the minutely structured lives of its characters. But through their essential humanity and Burshstein’s command of her aesthetic materials, the unfamiliar becomes familiar and we cannot help entering empathetically into their skins. As Burshtein put it in an interview with the Hebrew-language website nrg:

This is the first time a ḥaredi woman, with my appearance, has made a film for the secular public. It’s clear I had a major effect. . . . People come out and say to me, “I don’t see the ḥaredi world in a new way, I see myself in a new way.”

As one whose great-grandparents’ marriage was arranged in a fashion similar to Yoḥai and Shira’s, I had precisely this experience watching Fill the Void.

 

Born in the United States, Rama Burshtein came to Israel at an early age with her Israeli father and American mother. Both parents were secular, and Burshtein herself did not embrace a traditional life until her twenties, when a trip to Germany awakened her Jewish identity. “At the age of twenty-six,” she told nrg, “I met myself again. I said to myself, ‘You’re not a citizen of the world. You’re a Jew.’”

Her Judaism, she says, is rooted in the legacy of the ḥasidic sage Rabbi Naḥman of Bratslav (1772-1810), whose theology she describes as “a hospital—and all of us are wounded.” This sense of a healing place defines not only herself but also her movies. “I don’t want to make people religious,” she says. “I simply speak from the heart . . . of someone who is searching for love and yet doesn’t believe it’s possible. . . . My goal is a cinema that gives to you. In my movies I try to give hope.”

Hope is the central theme of Burshstein’s second film, The Wedding Plan (2016), whose Hebrew title literally translates as Through the Wall. A romantic comedy of sorts, the film features the actress Noa Koler as Michal, a recent convert to ultra-Orthodoxy who is unlucky in love. In a devastating early scene, Michal breaks off her engagement when her fiancé announces he does not love her; but she also chooses to keep the wedding date, positive that God will bring her a husband in time.

“The Torah says that romantic relationships are the secret of the world,” Burshtein says of the film’s theme. “This entire mechanism that God created, these two unconnected creatures, who in spite of this live together, it’s truly a miracle.” That mystery at the heart of human relationships looms large in The Wedding Plan. Michal goes on endless dates, travels to Ukraine to worship at the grave of Rabbi Naḥman, holds an impromptu pre-nuptial songfest at the mikveh with her girlfriends and female relatives, and remains certain throughout that if she remains certain, God will provide a husband.

Like Fill the Void, The Wedding Plan ends on a strangely ambiguous note, with Michal’s future happiness still uncertain. Unfortunately, ambiguity in this case points to the movie’s flaws. It is as if Burshstein has written herself into a corner, unable simply to supply a husband for Michal without straining the viewer’s credence, and equally unable to deny her one without undermining her message of hope. As a result, the film’s concluding opacity feels less like an aesthetically justified ending than a desperate effort to escape the script’s insoluble contradictions.

The movie is wanting in other ways as well. Gone is the austere authority of Burshstein’s camera, replaced by a hand-held, cinema vérité style, complete with fades to black between scenes, which seems more appropriate to a TV series than a feature film. The polished-jewel quality of Fill the Void’s images are nowhere to be found. In addition, while Noa Koler delivers a strong performance as Michal, she lacks the capacity for expressive silence that made Hadas Yaron so captivating as Shira. The result feels like a step backward, lacking the sweep and depth of Burshstein’s debut and far less revealing in its comedy than Fill the Void was in its drama.

Still, on one level The Wedding Plan does succeed brilliantly. What young single woman, Jewish or non-Jewish, cannot see herself, to one degree or another, in Michal? What man or woman can help empathizing with her deep, resounding, exasperated (and exasperating) need to find not just a mate but true love? In this respect, the film succeeds in ways that Fill the Void, dominated as it is by the theme of an arranged marriage, something alien to modern Jews and non-Jews alike, cannot. In The Wedding Plan, the desperate search for love and connection, although rendered here through an ultra-Orthodox lens, is portrayed with not only charm and wit but also a keen sense of its universal appeal.

 

Quite a different note is struck in The Women’s Balcony (2016), titled Yisma atani in Hebrew (“Let My Groom Rejoice”), after a Sephardi liturgical poem most commonly sung on the holiday of Simḥat Torah. While the film’s light mixture of comedy and drama has appeal to all audiences, its content is serious Jewish inside baseball.

The film portrays a small Jerusalem neighborhood of working-class Orthodox Jews, mainly of Mizraḥi origin, whose religious practice is what in Israel is called masorti—“traditional” (not to be confused with the mainly America-based Conservative movement, which outside the U.S. and Canada goes by the name Masorti Judaism). They are decidedly traditionalist and devout but at the same time more relaxed and moderate than the ḥasidic milieu depicted in Burshtein’s films. For example, the men in The Women’s Balcony dress in Western clothes, and the married women do not cover their hair.

The movie’s convivial communal air is soon radically disrupted, however, when the balcony that serves as the women’s section in the synagogue collapses in the middle of a bar-mitzvah ceremony. Desperate to regroup, the men find themselves turning to David, a young ḥaredi rabbi who volunteers his help in rebuilding the synagogue but then slowly and insidiously begins to impose a more extreme version of Judaism on the community.

In one salient example, Rabbi David refuses to restore the spacious women’s balcony, instead relegating the women to a tiny anteroom and urging them to adopt more modest dress and more stringent religious habits. What follows is essentially an Israeli version of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata. The women abandon their husbands, who have proved reluctant to challenge Rabbi David’s authority, and set up a miniature protest movement demanding the restoration of their balcony and their way of life. In the end, their husbands join them, Rabbi David is revealed to be not only a fanatic but a demagogue and something of a scoundrel, and the balcony is reconstructed. And as at the end of Lysistrata, the happy ending is celebrated in a communal dance.

In terms of plot, The Women’s Balcony is an essentially simple comedy. Just beneath the surface, however, as only Jewish and especially Israeli viewers may understand, lies a serious and pressing issue: the increasing polarization of Israeli religious society.

Like the community portrayed in the movie, the religiosity of traditionalist Israeli Jews, especially the Mizraḥi variety, is more a matter of ingrained custom and conviction than of doctrine and ideology. It is rigorous in the observance of key areas of Jewish law but easy-going when it comes to others, exhibiting—as the journalist Matti Friedman has memorably phrased it—“a deep religious identity combined with a deep religious flexibility.” But the rapid growth of the ḥaredi sector, with its much higher birthrate and its capture of the country’s chief rabbinate, has meant that the public face of Judaism has become much more stringent, as portrayed in the movie in the character of Rabbi David.

Perhaps because it is a comedy, The Women’s Balcony proves to be a remarkably effective—if somewhat overdone and overacted—brief against official ultra-Orthodoxy and in favor of “traditional” Judaism. Nowhere in it is there a glimpse of the complex human dynamics at work within Burshtein’s ultra-Orthodox world itself. Instead, the ḥaredization introduced by Rabbi David is severe, humorless, unrelenting, and ultimately oppressive, shattering the tolerant, kind, joyful, and close-knit community it has ostensibly come to save. Only by ejecting Rabbi David and restoring moderation can the neighborhood restore its essential character—symbolized at the end by the wedding of a pious neighborhood girl with a young deserter from Rabbi David’s authoritarian grip.

This message, hidden in plain sight beneath the comedic façade, seems to be the work of one of the film’s creators. While its director, Emil Ben-Shimon, is secular, the script was written by Shlomit Neḥama, who grew up in a religious Jerusalem community much like the one portrayed in the film. In an interview with nrg, she spoke frankly of her own ambivalence toward the demands and the rewards of the religious life:

I remember [the men] were always directing shushing noises at the women’s section, which was crowded and with the meitzah [the barrier between the men’s and the women’s sections] very sealed off. From an early age . . . I had the sense that we received the least consideration. That was a wounding experience.

Still, an Orthodox upbringing had its virtues as well:

There is something beautiful about the idea of seating the women above, where they can see everything. . . . Even in throwing candy [at a bar mitzvah, as in the movie’s opening scene], there is something wonderful, like candy from heaven.

At its best moments, this balance is at the heart of The Women’s Balcony, a balance that, in Israel, is being sorely tested as traditionalists, Mizraḥi and Ashkenazi alike, find themselves increasingly pulled between doctrinaire secularism on the one hand and extreme ultra-Orthodoxy on the other, two opposing and irreconcilable forces.

 

Israeli cinema—like Israeli art in general—has always been an almost purely secular realm. Yet the emergence and success of filmmakers like Rama Burshtein and Shlomit Neḥama reflects, in many ways, the much more naturally diverse landscape of the modern Jewish state and its society. It is common to point out that Israel is among the most multicultural countries on earth—and it is certainly that—but the country now appears to have become mature enough to allow more of those multi-cultures to express themselves in universal art forms.

Israel’s founding fathers hoped that the creation of a Jewish state would simultaneously lead to a new flowering of Jewish culture, one that would be at once competitive with other great world cultures and unique to the Jewish people’s experience of sovereignty in its homeland. But they likely did not expect the most devout members of that people, whose numbers in any case were insignificantly small at the time of the founding, to begin producing works of art other than those directed narrowly to the religious needs of their own communities.

In this, the new Orthodox cinema, capable of reaching audiences far beyond the Orthodox, represents a decidedly positive phenomenon. In so swiftly becoming part of the mosaic of Israeli art, it is something of a breath of fresh air for Israel’s movie industry, many of whose recent products have been bogged down in maudlin lamentations over the Israel-Palestinian conflict and similar issues of putative concern to a world audience. In refreshing contrast, Orthodox movies are explicitly bringing to the fore some of the most universal issues of all, such as faith, marriage, and the conflict between the sacred and the profane.

The question, of course, is whether this trend is the beginning of a movement. We can expect Rama Burshstein to continue directing movies, but thus far no other Orthodox figure has emerged with as strong a voice as hers or an equivalent mastery of the medium. It is also an open question whether she, or a team like Shlomit Neḥama and Emil Ben-Shimon, will continue to focus on the Orthodox world or branch out into more conventionally “secular” areas.

It is too soon to tell, but it should be remembered that movements in the arts often take the world by surprise. In the aftermath of World War II, no one would have expected filmmakers like Yasujiro Ozu and Akira Kurosawa suddenly to put Japanese cinema on the map with films like Tokyo Story and Seven Samurai. Nor would anyone in the early 1950s have guessed that a gang of contrarian French film critics would suddenly start directing their own pictures and, in doing so, revitalize world cinema—until François Truffaut and Jean Luc Godard did just that with The 400 Blows and Breathless. The new Orthodox cinema may be only just beginning.

More about: Arts & Culture, Israel & Zionism, Movies, Religion & Holidays, Ultra-Orthodox