Maven's Nest

Reel Life: Flick Pix

-- The ladies of the congregation - Tikvah (Orna Banai), Yaffa (Yafit Asulin), Ettie (Evelin Hagoel), Ora (Sharona Elimelech), and Margalit (Einat Sarouf) - discover the women’s balcony in their synagogue has been removed.

Three cheers for women happy to be in the back of the traditional bus

Directed by Emil Ben-Shimon
Produced by Osnat Handelsman-Keren and Talia Kleinhendler
Written by Shlomit Nehama
Released by Menemsha Films
Israel. 96 min. Not Rated
Hebrew with English subtitles
With: Orna Banai, Itzik Cohen, Einat Sarouf, Igal Naor, Evelin Hagoel, and Aviv Alush

By Nora Lee Mandel

The Women’s Balcony is a comic celebration of tradition – a hip hurrah for women’s expected place as second class citizens in a religious society because, hey, that’s better than being invisible. This could be the description of liberating a Muslim village in Afghanistan from the Taliban or from ISIS in Syria. But this community is in the Old City of Jerusalem and they are Orthodox Jews vs. Ultra-Orthodox Jews (in American parlance). Director Emil Ben-Shimon gives three cheers for women being happy in the back of the usual bus because at least that’s better than not being on the bus at all, which is the rule in parts of the city. What makes this sit com of happy-to-be-restricted women who are far more competent than their hapless men worth seeing is the insightful portrait of the more extremist rabbi who moves in on their gullible men and leads them around by their male privilege.

At the beginning, the excited congregation processes through the streets to their small synagogue to celebrate the bar mitzvah of the grandson of Ettie and Zion (Evelin Hagoel and Igal Naor). The women did all the work in planning, cooking, and schlepping the food for the kiddush meal afterward, and stage manage the ritual from their separation up in the titular women’s balcony. Until the balcony collapses. The rabbi’s wife is left comatose, the elderly rabbi too bereft to function, and the congregation adrift.

The logistics of their temporary meeting space reduces attendance at the daily minyan of ten men required for prayer because, of course, they’re not going to allow women to count, even during an emergency. So, as is the accepted practice, passing men are importuned to fill the allotment. (Some might recall the Lubavitcher Mitzvah Mobiles similarly seeking men.) Young Rabbi David (Aviv Alush) with a large-brimmed black hat indicating he’s what the Israelis call haredi, is pleased to fulfill this obligation for them. When they’re still short the next day, the rabbi is pleased to provide his yeshiva students. Plus he promises to take care of all the necessary permits to rebuild the synagogue, and supervise its construction so it meets all the religious requirements, too. As Zion marvels to his wife: “He’s an angel!”

Rabbi David is not an Elmer Gantry charlatan, nor a Jim Bakker embezzler, but more like handsome Cotton Mather at the Salem witch trials. In short, everything about women is sinful and impure – sounding a lot like the most conservative imam preaching Sharia Law. Through his sermons and instructions, he truly believes in suppressing women as decreed by a litany of rabbinic laws. He insists on enforcing rules such as covering up women completely and adding to their work in how to keep kosher, while casting aspersions on their beloved grandmothers for not teaching them to be more strictly observant. Even as many of the women and couples go along with the new regime, the opening of the renovated synagogue turns from joyous expectation to shock: there is no women’s balcony, just a back room. This rabbi fervently believes that a commissioned torah is more important than the women.

I don’t want to exaggerate – the rabbi is not quite in The Handmaid’s Tale territory -- but he does sincerely go beyond segregation into purdah or a full-time niddah (marital separation during menstruation). This leads to a nonviolent Holy War the rabbi manipulates through the wider community, and does reflect how theology is politics in Israel today. But forceful Ettie is clearly a born community organizer with skills that go beyond planning a bar mitzvah, including fundraising. One by one she talks other women into challenging the patriarchy (she isn’t beyond blackmail for what she knows about her long time friends), that starts with private Lysistrata tactics and escalates into a public protest. Are the supportive secular feminists really clear on these women’s not so feminist goals?

Though it may not be clear to an American audience, their neighborhood is relatively diverse by Orthodox criteria – screenwriter Shlomit Nehama was inspired by the Mizrahi Bukharan Quarter of her childhood, that has since become increasingly Eastern European Ashkenazi. Zion is friendly with the Hasidic customers at his spice shop, including a young boy with the characteristic long side curls (peyas) and hanging fringes (tzitzit). Unfortunately, the subtitled in English version does not bother to translate the early views of posted warnings in Hebrew common in such neighborhoods that warn against all kinds of improper behaviors, which would be a foreshadowing of Rabbi David’s aggressive tactics to get these evil-doers shunned.

Luckily, not all of Rabbi David’s students are buying his interpretations without question, and Ettie has an eligible niece, so human nature can circumvent a theocracy (this time), not that anyone seems to have been otherwise changed by the experience. I was (inappropriately) reminded of a verse from the musical Lil’ Abner, which is also full of stereotypes played for laughs: “Put ‘em back/the way they wuz/They was dumb, they was heathen/but at least they was breathin’/so whatever else you does/Put ‘em back the way they wuz.” The message of this cute and ultimately complacent movie: Enjoy the back of the bus!

(at 2017 New York Jewish Film Festival of Film Society of Lincoln Center/The Jewish Museum)

May 24, 2017

Nora Lee Mandel is a member of New York Film Critics Online and the Alliance of Women Film Journalists. Her reviews are counted in the Rotten Tomatoes TomatoMeter:
Complete Index to Nora Lee Mandel's Movie Reviews

Since August 2006, edited versions of most of my reviews of documentaries/indie/foreign films are at Film-Forward; since 2012, festival overviews at FilmFestivalTraveler; and, since 2016, coverage of women-made films at FF2 Media. Shorter versions of my older reviews are at IMDb's comments, where non-English-language films are listed by their native titles.

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