11 August 2013

“A Storyteller, from the Inside”

by Emily Wax

[The article below, by Emily Wax, a staff reporter for the Washington Post’s “Style” section who’s originally from Queens, New York, was originally published in the  Post on 8 June 2013 (sec. C [“Style”]: 1, 4).  Previously based in New Delhi, India, Wax also reported from Nairobi, Kenya, for the Post and she has covered education in Alexandria and Arlington, Virginia, as well as crime in Washington, D.C.  I chose to republish “A Storyteller, from the Inside” for two principal reasons: first, it’s about a fascinating segment of world culture, ultra-orthodox Jews, known in Israel as Haredim; and second, it describes a film made about that society by someone from that society, an unusual occurrence in the worlds of film and Haredi Judaism.  I don’t cover film much on ROT, but occasionally the subject appears (I just posted an article on the infamous Hays Code, for instance; see 7 July), and since it’s a performing art allied to theater, I feel I can dabble in it now and then.  So for everyone’s edification, I present this unique story of Fill the Void by Rama Burshtein.  ~Rick]

It’s way past lunchtime inside a hushed Georgetown hotel lobby, and a film publicist is frantically calling restaurants.

She has to find kosher food. Now.

“It’s 3 and I just feel sooo bad,” she says, wiping away her smudged mascara. “The first place never showed.”

This is an unusual challenge in an industry in which it would be more normal to meet diva demands for, say, all white food.

But the request is for an unconventional film director: Rama Burshtein.

She’s the first ultra-Orthodox Jewish woman to write and direct a feature-length film for a general audience – a notable achievement, since her highly insular community typically forbids watching secular television and movies. “Fill the Void,” opening in Washington this weekend, is also one of a small number of films to focus on an Orthodox religious community from within.

It tells the story of Shira, a lovelorn bride-to-be whose sister, Esther, has just died while giving birth. The 18-year-old protagonist has to choose between wedding her bereaved brother-in-law so he won’t leave the country with his newborn to marry someone else, or face letting down her grieving mother, who is pushing for the arrangement so she can keep her grandson nearby.

If its themes of duty-versus-romance and family-versus-freedom sound a little like a Jane Austen plot, then it feels a little bit like one, too. Except this time, the setting is the cloistered world of Israeli Hasidic Judaism.

Burshtein transports viewers into the rhythms and rituals of the ultra-Orthodox, with scenes of exuberant, music-filled Sabbaths and strong-willed women, like Shira’s disabled, spinster aunt.

“I’m a storyteller more than anything, and I realized that we had no cultural voice. Most of the films about the community are done by outsiders and are rooted in conflicts between the religious and the secular,” says Burshtein, 45, a solidly built – “okay, zaftig,” she offers – mother of four who was born in New York and lives in Israel. “I wanted to tell a deeply human story.”

The film was released last year in Israel during a particularly intense period of political and social tension between secular and ultra-Orthodox Hassidic Jews, known as Haredim inside Israel. Despite the acrimony, the film was Israel’s submission in the foreign-language category for the Academy Awards, and it won seven prizes at the Ophirs, the Israeli Oscars.

Burshtein might be the ideal person to bring outsiders into the Orthodox world. She is what’s known as a baal teshuva, a secular Jew who has returned to the faith. (Before she became religious, she graduated in 1995 from the Sam Spiegel Film and Television School, in Jerusalem, the most prestigious institution of its kind in the country.)

Many baal teshuvas have influenced art and music, especially inside Israel, said Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld, who leads the Washington synagogue Ohev Sholom, which is Orthodox. Most famously, perhaps, was Hasidic reggae-rapper Matisyahu, who last year stirred controversy by shaving his beard, a sign of piety among Hasidic men. One baal teshuva actress is Mayim Bialik, the child star of the 1990s sitcom “Blossom” who is now on “The Big Bang Theory.”

“It’s this phenomenon where you have grown up with a certain skill and passion, and you become religious and want to use your skills,” Herzfeld said. “There’s a great energy around this in Israel.”

But can art and religious fervor exist side by side, without compromising each other or having to censor unflattering truths?

“Sometimes,” Burshtein said. “But not always. It’s really about what drives you to make art. Is it about, come see me, just for the attention? Or is it trying to create something from a deep place?”

Most baal teshuva artists aren’t as religious as Burshtein. Burshtein and her bearded husband, Aharon, a ritual circumciser – or mohel – caused double takes when the couple appeared on the red carpet at last year’s Venice International Film Festival, where newcomer and secular actress Hadas Yaron won a best actress award for her portrayal of the conflicted Shira in “Fill the Void.”

“We certainly didn’t look like the typical red-carpet types,” Burshtein chuckled.

Today, she’s wearing a maroon coiled scarf over her hair and a dress that covers her knees, elbows and collarbone – as is commanded in Haredi modesty laws – along with girly flats with big bows.

“My voice for this film would not be a fighting voice, or a loud voice,” she says, patiently waiting for that late lunch. “I’m not a subversive looking for a revolution. I wanted to tell this family’s very difficult story.”

She first overheard the story her movie is based on at a hospital, where an Orthodox matchmaker was talking about a sister who was debating whether to marry her brother-in-law. The custom is not uncommon, but women do have the right to refuse.

In Burshtein’s hands, the choice doesn’t seem as monstrous as it sounds. She shows us a young woman who is grieving her sister and aching to do the right thing. There’s also a simmering sexual tension between the chaste Shira and her brother-in-law, Yochay, played with a smoldering intensity by Yiftach Klein. They seem to feel both relieved and guilty about this.

“Secular society has very limited familiarity with the everyday lives of the ultra-Orthodox,” said Moran Stern, a lecturer at American University’s Center for Israel Studies. “The behavior of Shira’s mother shows how, despite the strong belief in God and destiny, coping with loss of a loved one is extremely difficult to accept.”

Burshtein herself became religious more than 25 years ago.

“I was always this seeker – for a while I looked into Buddhism,” says Burshtein, who is finally eating a kosher lunch of salmon and broccoli.

It’s a very hard job to be religious,” she says, between bites. “To decide to not numb everything with shopping and movies and books.”

Burshtein’s only other films are part of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox movie industry, moral films meant to celebrate Haredi values. There is no sex, violence or brooding brother-in-laws.

So, how does she explain her need to create a film for a general audience, one that her own 16-year-old son feels is inessential to his viewpoint?

She thinks for a moment, then confesses that after lunch she’s going to see “The Great Gatsby,” which sounds like a lot of sex and extravagance. Is that really kosher?

“For me, it’s just this passion I can’t stop,” she said. “It doesn’t make me less religious. It just makes me someone who has to watch and make movies.”

[Burshtein was born in New York City in 1967 but moved to Tel Aviv with her family when she was 1.  She became deeply religious when she was 25 and when she graduated from film school, she devoted her skills to using film as an outlet for self-expression among orthodox Jews.  Burshtein wrote, directed, and produced films for the orthodox community, some of them for women only.  Fill the Void, released in Israel in July 2012 and shown in October 2012 at the New York Film Festival, is her first feature.  Rama Burshtein’s husband, Aharon, had grown up in the secular Jewish community before also becoming member of the Haredi.  They married when Rama was 27; the couple have three sons and a daughter, ages 11 to 16. 

[The Ophir Awards, also known as the Israeli Oscars, are presented by the Israeli Academy of Film and Television to recognize excellence of professionals in the film industry. The awards were named after actor Shaike Ophir (1929-87) and first given out in 1982.  Haredi (or Charedi/Chareidi) Judaism, is the most conservative form of Orthodox Judaism, often referred to as “ultra-orthodox.”  In the United States, Haredim are most prominently represented by the several sects of Hasidic Jews, but there are many different groups of Haredim around the world, especially in Israel, and they differ greatly among themselves with respect to lifestyle, ideology, and strictness of adherence to religious practices.  Like other fundamentalist communities, such as Amish and Mennonite in this country, Haredi Jews generally keep their communities separate from the mainstream secular world around them.  Baal teshuva (plural: baalei teshuva), a term from the Talmud, literally means “master of repentance” or “master of return,” referring to someone who’s repented or “returned” to God.  The term is usually applied today to a secularized or reformed Jew who returns later in life to embrace orthodox Judaism.]


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