Rama Burshtein and Meir Soloveichik Talk "Fill the Void" https://mosaicmagazine.com/observation/arts-culture/2021/09/rama-burshstein-and-meir-soloveichik-talk-fill-the-void/

The Israeli director and the American rabbi team up to discuss her groundbreaking film about marriage and Jewish life.

September 23, 2021 | Meir Soloveichik, Rama Burshtein, Jonathan Silver
About the author: Meir Soloveichik is the rabbi of Congregation Shearith Israel and the director of the Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought at Yeshiva University. His new website, containing all of his media appearances, podcasts, and writing, can be found at meirsoloveichik.com. Rama Burshtein is an Israeli filmmaker and the director of Fill the Void and The Wedding Plan. Jonathan Silver is the editor of Mosaic.

Earlier this month Mosaic hosted a special High Holy Day screening of the award-winning 2012 Israeli film Fill the Void. After, we convened a discussion with the film’s director, the Israeli filmmaker Rama Burshtein, and the American rabbi Meir Soloveichik, and Mosaic’s editor Jonathan Silver. The discussion can be watched below, or read in a lightly edited transcript.

 

Jonathan Silver:

I saw Fill the Void with my wife back in New York in June 2013 at the much-missed Lincoln Center Cinema near Columbus Circle, just a few blocks south of Rabbi Soloveichik’s Congregation Shearith Israel. Never before, and I must say, not since, have I been so moved by a film of such Jewish depth and mastery of execution. Fill the Void is a marvel. I’m happy to be joined by my friend and fellow admirer, Rabbi Meir Soloveichik, and the film’s director, Rama Burshtein.

The narrative of the film accompanies the eighteen-year-old Shira and her mother, Rivka, who, when the film opens, are evaluating a potential groom that a matchmaker has proposed for Shira. Shira tells her elder sister, Esther, the good news. That same evening, on Purim, tragedy strikes and Esther dies in childbirth. She leaves her husband, Yoḥai, a widower and never gets to meet their surviving son, Mordechai. Rivka and Shira help Yoḥai care for the baby until some time later when Rivka hears that Yoḥai has received a marriage proposal from Belgium. So distraught is Rivka at the idea of losing her eldest grandchild so soon after losing her eldest daughter that she comes up with the idea that young Shira could marry her former brother-in-law. Yoḥai, at first, rejects the idea and so does Shira. In time, Yoḥai comes around to it and then Shira does. Yet, they don’t agree to marry. Then one does agree, and the other doesn’t. Finally, by the end of the film, Shira and Yoḥai become husband and wife. Shira becomes if not a biological then a covenantal mother to her deceased sister’s son.

Rama, this is an extraordinary plot and an extraordinary film. I wonder if we could just begin by getting to know you, both your story and how you came up with this story.

Rama Burshtein:

When I became religious, it was maybe three months after graduating from film school. I was not into doing films. I got married a year later. I was into building my home and raising my kids. That was perfect for fifteen years. I had nothing to say. I had a point in the middle when I did, and I wrote a novel called 28 Gates. That was the only artistic thing I was dealing with at the time. I felt overwhelmed with Judaism. I felt that every thought that comes to my head is small compared to the depth of what I was introduced to. I did not do anything with cinema for fifteen years.

Then one of my kids was in the hospital for a long time. The girls in the hospital were asking me about a certain film, which I will not say the name of, that a religious person made. They didn’t understand how a religious person could make a film like this. They asked me to watch it. When I watched it, I was really crying the whole time, and not because it was moving—it was not moving at all. It was because I felt the lack of my presence as a Jew in the conversation. People are talking about us and showing us, but there’s not enough of us showing us, and it hurt me, which was weird that it did, but it did.

I was quiet for fifteen years, but I just knew that it was the end of that silence. It was time to do something. I’m very personal, so I know what I’m going to do will be personal. You have to understand, I didn’t even know if it was right to go out and make a film at that point. I had to go to the rabbi, gladly, to ask. Maybe it was crazy to do that. The rabbi said something beautiful. He said, “Begin,” which is a very great word to start something. You don’t owe this world anything. You just have to begin. I didn’t even have an idea.

Three weeks later, I was in a wedding sitting with my friend. This beautiful girl, eighteen-years-old, came to the table. My friend was kind of congratulating her in a very weird way. When she left, my friend said to me, “See her? She’s going to marry her late sister’s husband.” This girl started to have a tale at that point. I was just running after her. It was crazy for me. I didn’t know if it was obligation, if it was love. How do you make this transition in a family, especially in a ḥasidic family where the social group is the family too? Everything is in the family. How do you make this transition?

I didn’t even think it was a film at that time. When I’m curious, I’m curious. I started connecting with women who were married like this. Some of them were already grandmothers when I started the research. It was amazing. At the end, I didn’t even know if it was dramatic enough because I couldn’t really easily understand it. This is how it started, Fill the Void.

I felt that it’s a good thing because for me, the location of Fill the Void is the heart of Shira. This is what it is. She has no words to explain what she’s feeling. Even if she’s in love, she doesn’t know how to say, “I’m in love,” because she didn’t read Jane Austen and she didn’t see any films. She has to understand it in her own way. Pride goes in, and all kinds of things mix and confuse her.

At that point, I wrote Fill the Void, but the chance for me to do Fill the Void was zero. I was forty-two years old, which is pretty old for making a first film, especially after not being around for fifteen years. The chance was zero. From that point on, it was just miracle after miracle after miracle until this whole thing came to be.

Jonathan Silver:

The film, of course, starts on the Jewish holiday of Purim. The deceased sister’s name is Esther. Yoḥai names their son Mordechai. I wonder if you could just explain why that setting is so significant.

Rama Burshtein:

Because I found Esther to be the biggest secret of Judaism. Probably one of the biggest, but for me, she’s the biggest. She’s a woman. It’s impossible to understand what was happening there with Esther, and Mordechai and Haman, and Ahasuerus. It’s crazy. If you would say today that we’ll kidnap a girl, a Jewish girl, from Afghanistan or somewhere else, and put her in this house, the richest house of the world—the way Esther dealt with it . . . This is such a secret.

For me, I always liked to touch Purim, to play with this thing because it excites me. She excites me even though the Esther in my film is not the Esther of Purim. She’s not. She’s the opposite because she’s not as honest as I would think Esther was. She’s like Michal, daughter of Saul. She’s not King David. I’m more into King David than Saul. Once I start, this is how things progress. You start at a certain point, but you can finish it in a very, very faraway place. That’s the significance of the dreidel, of the turning around, of the change.

Jonathan Silver:

Rabbi Soloveichik, you have seen the film many times, and I know that, like me, you are an admirer of the film. What are some of the first things that emerged for you?

Meir Soloveichik:

I was immensely moved when I first saw Fill the Void. I’ve since written about it. I believe I described it as the best film made in the modern Israeli era of film. I use it all the time in Tikvah courses when I teach about Jewish marriage. Not, of course, because I expect the students to go through every stage in what Yoḥai and Shira go through in the film. Obviously, the film begins with the premise that a tragedy has occurred, a tragedy that no one wants to happen. Not because, of course, these students will be living a ḥaredi lifestyle in totality, but because the themes are simultaneously particularistic and universal. They raise, like any great work of art, larger, universally human, questions. They also inspire us to ponder very specific questions. What does marriage mean? What is marriage from the Jewish perspective?

I actually have the students watch this film and then read the sheva brakhot [the seven blessings traditionally said during a Jewish marriage ceremony], which are said under the ḥuppah. The sheva brakhot, the seven blessings of marriage, are really what form husband and wife. People think that the giving of the ring under the ḥuppah makes husband and wife married, but actually that does not make them husband and wife. They’re only truly, fully husband and wife when the seven blessings are said under the ḥuppah, which means that in a certain way these blessings tell us what marriage means.

When you watch the film, one of the most haunting and striking moments is when the family gets up from the shiva. I believe the father says, “We have to go to the bris.” You have this incredible shift. If you think about the rituals of Judaism and how they relate to time, the shiva ends as the bris is beginning. They’re forced halakhically to go from marking death to celebrating life.

As they rise, the haunting version of “Im Eshkaḥekh Yerushalayim,” “If I forget thee O Jerusalem,” begins to play. I’d love to hear from Rama how she found that version, and why she chose it, and so forth. It’s haunting. After I saw the film, I then went online to try to find just that version of “Im Eshkaḥekh” to listen to it. Then the song appears at the end where Yoḥai and Shira finally decide, after the rabbi gives his blessing, to get married. If I can say, that scene is very powerful. Then you hear “Im Eshkaḥekh” again.

The fact is, the haunting music links, as it were, the obligation to perform the bris, which is essentially the covenantal link to previous generations, and the marriage of Shira and Yoḥai. I ask the students, “Why do you think that the music plays at these two points in the movie?” Then what I do next is to go through the sheva brakhot. I show them that when we sing at the end of a wedding Im Eshkachech, which is about placing Jerusalem above our chiefest joy, im lo a’aleh et Yerushalyim al rosh simḥati [Psalm 137], that’s not just a song. What that means is that at times, as difficult as it may seem, Judaism demands certain things that are above our own and beyond our own individual notions of self-fulfillment.

Marriage is first and foremost about covenantal continuity and covenantal obligation in Judaism. Yet, as I argue to the students, that doesn’t mean that marriage is not about love. On the contrary, what marriage in Judaism is about is a love that is founded on a shared covenantal vision. If you go through the sheva brakhot, the blessings begin, first, just by blessing the crowd, shehakol bara likhvodo, [for Whose glory everything was created]. Then they start describing the creation of man, the creation of Eve, yotzer ha-adam, [He Who Fashions man]. Then at a certain point you expect now that they’re going to describe the bride and groom who are standing together and to describe their love for one another, but all of a sudden, Jerusalem comes into it, the destroyed Jerusalem, before we mention the love of husband and wife, sos tasis v’tageil ha-akara b’kibbutz baneha l’tokha b’simḥah, “The barren woman [i.e., Jerusalem] will surely be glad at the ingathering of her children with joy.” We are saying that, hopefully, this marriage, because it forms a covenantal link, will somehow lead ultimately in the future to the restoration of Jerusalem and to the redemption.

Only then do we get back to love, only then do we even mention love. We say it to bride and groom, we say sameaḥ t’samaḥ re’im ha’ahuvim, which mean, “Rejoice, rejoice, beloved covenantal partners, now that you are married.” In other words, the love is there, but it’s a love that’s founded on a covenantal commitment that looks both all the way back to the past, to the Garden of Eden and all the way to the future to the redemption of Jerusalem. Only within this context does love truly emerge.

As I saw it at least, in a beautiful way, that’s what this film is exploring. It’s exploring how one balances one’s obligations in general, and here in a very specific way, to family continuity, which is a theme in the film and is a theme that’s raised in the somewhat parallel, halakhic, biblical concept of yibbum. This is Levirate marriage. This is with women, not with men. It’s a quasi-yibbum, as it were. That’s what’s raised in these subjects.

Jonathan Silver:

Rabbi Soloveichik, just explain what yibbum is for our viewers.

Rama Burshtein:

Even though it’s very different because there’s a child there. Yibbum is only when you don’t have any children.

Meir Soloveichik:

Right. It’s very different in several ways, but the questions that the parallels raise are very much related. In a certain way, the question of children is at the heart of both. Yibbum in Tanakh is when a brother dies leaving no children. Then, certainly in biblical society and then later in certain Jewish societies, the brother was asked to marry his dead brother’s widow, if there were no children, exactly as Rama said.

There too, what’s being raised is, what is marriage for, first and foremost? Marriage is first and foremost for, in Judaism, familial and covenantal continuity. Interestingly, the reason why in certain communities yibbum stopped being performed—you can see this already according to some opinions in talmudic times—is because the rabbis felt that yibbum should only be done if that’s the primary motivation of the husband marrying his brother’s widow. They were worried that that might not be the primary motivation in performing this marriage. That’s what I mean, Rama, when I say, of course, you’re absolutely right, that it’s different in various ways, but it raises the question of, what is marriage for? What is your primary motivation in getting married?

Here too, Shira’s mother, I think, wants her to marry Yoḥai. She’s not thinking about Shira’s love or whom she’s going to be in love with. As Rama said very beautifully, Shira doesn’t really know what love is.

Rama Burshtein:

She doesn’t know how to explain it. She does know it’s a love story, but she doesn’t know how to pronounce it.

Meir Soloveichik:

Right. What I mean is that when it’s first broached to her, her ideal is to marry the young pipsqueak that they spied on in the supermarket, right? She wants what all her friends had, I assume, which is someone who’s never been married to somebody else.

For me, the film is a wonderful way of provoking young people into discussing what they think marriage is for and why, for Judaism, marriage should also be based on love, based on whom you want not just to share a life with in terms of happiness, but to answer your covenantal commitments in the future.

I’ll add one final thing on this point to show you, Rama, just one small thing that you’ve helped inspire. I remember a rabbi in yeshiva who was talking about marriage, and I described to him the philosophy I took from the film. This was not a rabbi that I was close with at all. This is the one thing that he had said that really stuck in my mind from the Shabbat where I heard him speak. He said that one of the questions that you need to think about when you find a spouse is, if something happens to you and you’re no longer alive, is this the person that you want, without you being there, to raise your children? I mentioned that in a class where I showed Fill the Void, just as an aside.

Then I had breakfast sometime later with one of the students in the class who was, I think, about to get engaged. He said to me, “That was the thing that you said that just stuck with me.” The film gave me the words that inspired him to marry the woman he chose to marry. Now they have a wonderful family with several children. That’s to the credit of Fill the Void, among other things.

Jonathan Silver:

Rama, I’m eager for your reaction in general, but let me put a fine point on Rabbi Soloveichik’s very provocative summary of how he uses film this as a teaching tool. You told us in the beginning that the location of Fill the Void is in Shira’s heart. We see that one of her first reactions is the very obligatory, duty-bound, covenantal rationale for marrying Yoḥai, which Rabbi Soloveichik reminds us is one of the purposes of marriage as expressed in the sheva brakhot. Yet, both Shira’s father and the rabbi prevents Shira from marrying Yoḥai on those grounds. We have to ask why that is, and how you react to it, and how Fill the Void relates to the sheva brakhot the way that Rabbi Soloveichik describes them.

Rama Burshtein:

I think it’s a combination of things because I do believe in love. I do. I just know that marriage should provoke love. If it doesn’t provoke love, then it’s not real because it’s not re’im ahuvim, beloved companions, as he was saying in the sheva brakhot.

It’s a combination of things here. There’s a child. He’s going to go. There’s no sister there anymore. That has a very strong impact. Then I casted this very nice guy to play Yoḥai. It’s not so hard to fall in love with him. It doesn’t feel like she’s going to go the wrong way if she goes with him. There’s a combination of factors. He’s older, but yet, he’s charming enough and honest. His heart is open. They have something between them that he didn’t have with his first wife. She was more like a doll, more beautiful and very aristocratic. Shira is different. She’s a bit weird. It just takes time for her to understand it. When she does, she’s ashamed of it. She would go to the rabbi, and she would say, “It’s not about feelings.” The rabbi would say, “It is about feelings.” If the heart is not there, then where are we going?

Yet, the heart opens not just because of the attraction. It opens because, like you were saying, it’s beautiful: would I want to leave my kids with this man if I ever have to go away? I think Yoḥai is built like this that you would, and Shira feels it. He’s strong, and he’s real. He’s more real than this boy in the supermarket. She gives up the first thing because he’s the second thing. She gets this great guy. I think that answers that.

Meir Soloveichik:

She realizes, I think. That’s what was so great, I thought, about when she goes on a date of sorts with the other person. She realizes, right, that he’s so immature compared to Yoḥai and that actually his lived experience, both not only for the good parts but the tragedies that he’s suffered, have made him a deeper and better person in a certain way.

Rama Burshtein:

I can tell you that when researching it, when speaking to women who got married like this, a lot of them, even though it was hard for them to admit it, but the way I read it—and I hope I read it right—is that in a way they were a little bit in love with their sister’s husband when she was alive. Not in terms of “I want him,” but “I want someone like him.”

I feel that Shira, in a way, sees that. She sees that in Yoḥai. It’s just she’s very ashamed. This is a bit of my criticism, which is very little because I don’t like to criticize at all, but she feels it’s better to go for something because you’re obligated than because you want it. That’s Judaism a bit, and it’s something that we need to be careful with because we need to want it. There’s nothing stronger than will, which is more than obligation. The will doesn’t have to come because of cheap or shallow things.

Jonathan Silver:

Rabbi Soloveichik, it seems like the deep question that Rama has raised is the relationship of that personal erotic longing and romantic love with these covenantal obligations toward something more, toward the presence of Jerusalem and its redemption. I suppose the question that one could ask is if the film suggests a sort of sequence for these two things to be combined.

Meir Soloveichik:

Absolutely. I, of course, agree entirely with Rama that, and this is stressed in the Talmud itself, if there is not attraction between husband and wife the marriage will not succeed. Even in a time when the Gemara is describing arranged marriages, the Gemara says you have to see whom you’re choosing to marry because if there isn’t attraction there, then it’s not going to work.

In the age before cell phones, there were all these legends about Yeshiva University. It has both a men’s campus and a women’s campus. Men would, for a date, take a van down to 34th Street where the women’s school is. Before cell phones, there may be several people waiting for dates, right? They didn’t know whom they were supposed to be going out with. The legendary jokes were something like, somebody would walk up and say, “Hi. Are you Rivka?” She’d say, “Are you Moshe?” He’d respond “Yes,” then she’d say “No.” Or something like that. Meaning, we’re done here. There has to be attraction. Yet, from the traditional Jewish perspective, it’s entirely possible to be unbelievably attracted and in love with someone and for Judaism still to say this is not the right person for you to marry and you shouldn’t because this is not the right person to form a covenantal partnership with for the future.

Rama Burshtein:

That’s because you kind of fall in love for the wrong reasons. The perfect thing is to be in love for the right reasons.

Meir Soloveichik:

How does that work? Obviously, it’s different for different people. This is an interesting philosophical question. When you ask somebody, “Why are in love with so-and-so?” they could say, “Because X, Y, and Z.” That doesn’t mean that if another person had X, Y, and Z, they would be in love with that person. It’s a very complicated question of what love is founded on. In Judaism, it at least has to be founded on, in part, this shared covenantal commitment. That, to me, is immensely counter-cultural, because most films about love are about love being about two individuals. Their backgrounds should not matter. Their commitments should not matter. Their family should not matter, right? The most famous of Shakespeare lines, right, “What’s in a name? Surely, a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” We say that as if it’s just a statement. What’s going on in Romeo and Juliet is they’re saying, “Who cares what family I’m from or the fact that our families are enemies?” Families shouldn’t matter.

Leaving aside its application in the Shakespearean example, there are times where families do matter. You’re not just an atomistic individual finding another atomistic individual in Judaism. At least what I love in part about the film is that it explores the universal elements of what love and marriage are, but through that profoundly traditional Jewish lens, which allows me to raise these questions to students who may be coming from within Orthodoxy but who are still enmeshed enough in the larger culture that every other cultural depiction of relationships that they’re seeing is bombarding them with the notion that, no, as long as you’re happy, that’s what matters. Happiness means whatever secular society decides happiness means.

Jonathan Silver:

Rama, I’m exercised by this idea that a deeper form of romantic love can be founded upon some kind of mutual commitment to something else, and that in the Jewish case, law preceding love is a recipe for a surer kind of married life. One can see some kind of evidence of that in the film inasmuch as Shira and Yoḥai are both committed to Mordechai before they turn their attraction to one another, symbolically trying to build up something in the future before turning to one another. Though I noticed in this last time watching the film, that, really, for the second half you could say, and throughout their most intense courtship, Mordechai drops out altogether. We actually don’t hear about Mordechai, and we don’t see him. He’s not part of the marriage that we see.

Rama Burshtein:

That’s true. I would drop a sentence, and it’s a new sentence in my head, but I feel that it’s a very strong one. I think the sexiest thing is trust. When two people, a man and woman, trust one another, when their trust grows, their attraction goes. I think that’s what happens with Yoḥai and Shira, and for me, even now on the TV show that I’m working on, it’s about that. I think the Jewish thing is to build trust. The trust doesn’t build because someone is just beautiful or smart or funny. Trust is a very, very deep notion that is an inner-heart feeling.

I feel that in the film this is what rises up. The attraction is shown in the camera. They have this scene where they stand outside in the courtyard. He comes close, and she says, “You’re too close.” He says, “I could have been closer.” I feel that this is the sexiest thing. The more you have trust, the sexier it is. Trust . . . this is our big mission in being a couple, feeling that this person, not only will he never hurt me, he would do everything in his power to protect me.

Meir Soloveichik:

If I could build on that because I’m so interested, Rama. At the end, in the wedding, she still looks. . .

Rama Burshtein:

Devastated.

Meir Soloveichik:

Everyone’s happy. She looks scared, right?

Rama Burshtein:

Well, I have to say yes. Let me tell you something about that because this is very, very, important. The scene where they go into the yiḥud room [after the wedding ceremony], this was a ten-minute shot. We did it in one shot. It was a ten-minute-long shot, one shot, where they walk in. They sit down. She is very into herself.

He says to her, “Is everything okay, Shira?” She says, “Well, it’s going to pass. Give it a second. It’s going to pass.” Then a minute later, he says to her, “Tell me. Tell me what’s going on because I see that you’re withdrawn.” She says, “I’m afraid.” He asks, “What are you afraid of?” She says, “I’m afraid that you’re not going to love me the way I love you.”

This was shot. This is the shot that was shot, the scene that I had in the editing room and decided to take out, and just show her devastation. I’ll tell you why I did that. It was something that I was walking around with for six months before I came to a d decision. I felt that when you get this sweetness between them, you’re going to forget them. It’s not going to bother you. It’s not going to provoke all the questions that you’re asking or you’re teaching.

I gave the sweetness up. I gave it up, and it was not easy for me because I love sweet. I love happiness and beauty. But I wanted the audience to decide themselves. They saw the whole film. They cannot think at the end, if they felt that there’s attraction between the couple, then at that point, it’s very complicated. She’s afraid because it’s her wedding night. She’s a bit into herself because he was married to her sister. It’s a whole thing that was going on. I wanted to leave the people with that feeling. I didn’t want to give them that thing that would make all the religious people very quiet and satisfied. Whatever you’re going to ask, the scene that was shot was a love scene. It was a real love scene—a beautiful, delicate scene that I decided to take out so that I could instead play with my audience.

Meir Soloveichik:

That’s fascinating because to me, it was when they first agreed to get married, it’s the intensity of the love between them you feel. Then at the wedding, she still looks . . . The fact that she’s agreed to do this, I read it as still a terrifying leap into the unknown. It’s a leap into a whole new existence for her that nothing can really prepare her for no matter what. For him, it’s not that in the same way because he’s been married.

Rama Burshtein:

Religious people would say to me all the time, all these years since the film came out, “Why didn’t you show the world how beautiful everything is?” I said, “Because not everything is beautiful. Everything is complicated.” This is what’s true. Judaism is a true thing. It’s not a modeling thing. It’s just true, and it’s complicated.

Jonathan Silver:

I was going to ask you whether the intense tears that we see from Shira at the wedding are tears of sorrow and being distraught or tears of joy. It sounds like there’s sort of both.

Rama Burshtein:

That’s right. I think that the way my storytelling is in this film, and in all my work, I think, is that I like to participate. I don’t like just to sit there and have everything done for me. I think of my audience as people who want to participate. You have to decide. You tell me about those tears, rather than let me tell you. What you felt is what you felt. For me, it’s a love story. It doesn’t mean that there’s no sorrow there. It doesn’t mean that there’s no pain there. It doesn’t mean that everything is sweet. It’s everything altogether. It’s excitement. Some people said that the last scene is one of the sexiest scenes they’ve ever seen in cinema. That’s the way they saw it. I think the interpretation is good because it’s the journey that you as a viewer went through. Everyone has his own journey.

Meir Soloveichik:

In speaking to the actors, how do you explain to them what it means for people coming from within the world of traditional Judaism, husband and wife who have not been together, and the great leap into the unknown? Are these just gifted actors who could just sort of intuit it? Or, is this a world that’s utterly foreign to them and even, I would venture to say—and please correct me if I’m wrong—a notion of relationships that in a certain sense is foreign to them? How do you explain that? As a director, I mean. That to me is so interesting because, I do this to teach to students as rabbi, but you’re obligated to tell them, your job is to tell them how, as it were, to embody it.

Rama Burshtein:

I think we’re all the same at that point. I mean, Judaism has things that other religions don’t have, but not this. We’re all looking for the same thing. We’re all looking for something pure. I’m speaking as someone who was a non-religious woman until the age of twenty-seven, and that path to purity was not shown to me. I never saw it. I couldn’t choose it. I can tell you that all the actors were thriving and were passionate towards that passion.

The TV show that I did recently was supposed to be in the United States, until I in the end decided to do it in Israel. At that point, I was connected with a very big producer, and I asked him “Why do you like this material? Eight episodes of this love that you cannot really pinpoint and say it’s really happening because nobody is touching. Nobody is doing anything. Why would you love that?” And he said, “Because the whole world is selling satisfaction, and you’re the one selling passion. Passion is the most expensive ingredient.” This is what it is. Everyone wants it. My actors were very excited by not going with this thing all the way and instead just feeling it very delicately. They loved it. I mean, even Yoḥai in my film, played by Yiftach Klein, he was living with a woman for sixteen years. He got married with a rabbi right after the film. He felt that passion. He felt it very strongly.

Meir Soloveichik:

Now we have two marriages that we can credit to Fill the Void.

Rama Burshtein:

Oh, there’s a lot more.

Meir Soloveichik:

I think that is what I mean, and I think what others mean, when they compare the film to a story by Jane Austen. I mean, you’re talking about a setting that’s entirely different with characters from an entirely different culture. Yet, it’s precisely the same thing in a certain way. These are people who are living with a traditional notion of relationships. Before they take the leap into marriage, they’re struggling with really figuring out who is that other person. Maybe my whole notion of who that person was is wrong. Maybe my whole notion of whom I really should marry is wrong because my whole notion of what marriage should ultimately be about is a little bit misplaced.

It’s exactly as you say. The spark between them, even if it’s just them sitting in a drawing room in the estate of Lady Catherine de Bourgh, is not all that different from Shira and Yoḥai trying to figure out what marriage should be and who the other really is because it’s not just her who has to learn, right? Yoḥai sees her, originally, as just an immature girl, right?

Jonathan Silver:

Tinoket, he calls her, a baby.

Meir Soloveichik:

Yes, right, meaning he also is prejudiced, as it were, about who this woman is, right?

Rama Burshtein:

He knocks his head before he goes into the shiddukh [matchmaking] appointment that they have. He stands out of the room, and he knocks his head on the wall. This is how much he doesn’t think that this thing is what he needs.

Jonathan Silver:

I want to pick up on something that Rabbi Soloveichik mentioned a little while ago, which is this haunting rendition of Im Eshkaḥekh, drawn from Psalm 137, a Psalm that figures so prominently in the Jewish liturgy and especially, as Rabbi Soloveichik was saying, in the traditional Jewish marriage ceremony. Can you just talk to us about it? It seems to me that Shira’s being inarticulate about how to explain love and how to express the things that are happening in the chambers of her heart is somehow connected to her being a musician, and to the expression of her feelings with her accordion. Can you talk about the role of music in the film and also talk about this extraordinary rendition of that song?

Rama Burshtein:

First, about the music, she’s the only one playing. Everyone else is singing. She is the only one that makes music without her voice because all the other music in the film is acapella. Even Im Eshkaḥekh is only acapella. The only instrument is hers. That’s very particular. First of all, the Im Eshkaḥekh melody is something that was for the film. It’s not taken from any place. It was done just for the film.

Meir Soloveichik:

It’s so good.

Rama Burshtein:

That’s true. He did very good job there. Like you were saying very nicely, Rabbi Soloveichik, when you said that you get up from the shiva and you go to the bris, this is what it is. This is us being Jewish. While you’re happy, you’re many other things. In the climax of the moment you are rejoicing with the person whom you love, but you also have to think about everything that we don’t have. This is what Im Eshkaḥekh is: if I ever forget that, this will be the end of me. I think this is why I love Judaism. It’s like you’re expected, and I love it, to feel so many things at the same time. You don’t have to be just one thing. You just lost a daughter, but she gave birth to a grandson. This is what it is.

Im Eshkaḥekh is all always present. I can tell you that when we went to Venice, to the film festival, the movie was in the competition there. At that point, I have to say, I was still kind of in my home. I was not out yet. I did the film, but it was in Israel. It was shot in Tel Aviv, right where my house is. I was not really out in the world [as a filmmaker]. For me, going to Venice was a very big step out of my home. When they said I that I had to walk the red carpet, I was not sure that I should. I’m a woman. I’m Orthodox. Why would I just walk a carpet and show myself to people?

I had a thing with that. I went to the rabbi, and the rabbi said that I was right. I’m not a model, and as I’m walking in, people would be taking pictures of me. When we said something to the people running the film festival, they said, “Don’t come then, because that’s a necessity.” We went back to the rabbi, because nobody would just let me not go to Venice. The rabbi said, “Your husband should walk with you.” That was what happened. It took the Venice Film Festival five days to answer that question because it was not traditional to walk down the red carpet with your husband or wife, but they let me.

When we stood there, there were a lot of people out there. I don’t even know why they came because it was the premiere for the film, so nobody really knew about it. There were hundreds of people standing outside as we were walking on this red carpet. Suddenly, they played the song very loud as we were walking. I started crying because it felt so crazy for me to be in Italy, and to be around all that, and yet to remember that, and to feel very strongly Jerusalem, the need for redemption. It was a very, very strong feeling. I felt God was really kissing me at that point.

Jonathan Silver:

Because you’ve brought up God, let me ask you my last question, which situates this film in your body of work. Your next film, the film that followed Fill the Void, is called, translated into English, The Wedding Plan, which is a film that is centrally preoccupied with the question of faith. That is a film that is all about believing that God will be providential, that God will give something, that somehow we’re not in control, and that God will give something that we ourselves cannot attain of human initiative. That is a God-obsessed film. I wonder now, looking from the perspective of The Wedding Plan back at Fill the Void, if God is present here.

Rama Burshtein:

Well, just to be precise, The Wedding Plan is not about God giving me all I’m asking for. It’s the belief that He is able to, because sometimes I feel that God can give everyone everything except me and the things that I need. I think to be a true believer is to believe that He is able. Whether He’s going to give me what I want or not, it’s not up to me. You don’t force God. Do you really believe that a good thing can happen? The Wedding Plan is about that. It’s not about squeezing God’s hand. It’s about believing that He’s good, and He’s a giver, and He loves me, and He doesn’t want to punish me, which I, every day, have to speak to myself about. That’s that.

In Fill the Void, it’s really on the table. God is love. God is marriage. God is obligation. God is everything. It’s everything and everywhere. I think in Fill the Void, purity is the godly thing. A girl that is very, very pure, how does she go about her business? It’s a godly thing because we don’t see enough of that, and we should. We should at every age, in any age, just feel that purity that is totally God. I think that there’s a lot of God in Fill the Void, but in a different way.

When Shira lies in bed and starts saying, “Help me get up . . . “—remember she says, “I cannot get up. Please help me. Help me get up. I cannot get up.” This is what it is. We cannot take even one little breath without God, let alone make films and write scripts.