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Halakhic Striptease: Avi Nesher’s The Secrets
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Halakhic Striptease: Avi Nesher’s The Secrets

During the 1980s, Israeli filmmakers were preoccupied with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In the 1990s, they explored the dynamic between Israel's urban centers and the country's periphery. The past decade has witnessed a rise in films that seek to portray the experience of communities previously considered marginal to Israeli cinema. Avi Nesher's latest drama, The Secrets (Israel/France, 2007), joins a host of recent Israeli films, both feature-length and documentary, which explore Israel's ultra-orthodox community.

Ultra-orthodox Jews were mostly absent from Israeli filmmaking until the 1990s. This is no surprise, because Israeli cinema has historically reflected the identity of the Israeli establishment, promoting secularism and criticizing religion as a sign of ethno-nationalism rather than as a cultural facet of everyday life. From the late 1990s, however, the religious experience moved to the center of stage of Israeli cinema.

Inaugurating the new wave of religious films was Yossi Somer's 1998 film The Dybbuk of the Holy Apple Field Amos. Somer's film was followed by such films as Gitai's 1999 Kadosh, Sandy Simcha Dubowski's Trembling Before G-d (2001), Anat Zuria's Purity (2002) and Sentenced to Marriage (2004), Ilil Alexander's Keep Not Silent (2004), Giddi Dar's Ushpizin (2004) and, most recently, David Volach's My Father My Lord (2006), Raphael Nadjari's Tehilim (2007) and Avraham Kushnir's Bruriah, which premiered a couple of weeks ago at the Jerusalem Film Festival.

Different as "orthodox films" are from each other, they all focus on the struggle of their characters to reconcile their daily, personal experience with the firm halakhic framework within which they choose, or are forced, to lead their lives. These productions radically diverge, however, in the way that they portray the friction between everyday life and Jewish law.

Some of the films–harsh as their critique of halakha may, at times, seem –also portray the complex strategies employed by believers in their attempts to reconcile their knowledge of the world with the tenets of tradition. Others, most notoriously Amos Gitai's Kadosh, portray the ultra-orthodox community from the perspective of a presumably "enlightened" and "liberated" secular world. From this point of view, a binary opposition is set up between religious narrow-mindedness and secular liberalism. Halakhic existence, as the form of Jewish religious life, is perceived to be oppressive. The only possibility for individuals to be true to themselves and realize their aspirations is by shedding off the oppressive yoke of faith.

Two themes consistently reappear in orthodox films, namely, sexuality and the experience of women. This is no surprise, for the two, of course, are tightly linked in halakha. The Babylonian Talmud thus states: "R. Isaac said: A handbreadth [exposed] in a [married] woman constitutes sexual incitement. … R. Hisda said: A woman's leg is a sexual incitement … R. Samuel said: A woman's voice is a sexual incitement … R. Shesheth said: A woman's hair is a sexual incitement." The Hebrew is blunter, and employes the term erva, the pubic hair, for "sexual incitement." Such statements provide ample ground for critics not only to explore the framework of halakha, but also to outright defy it by presenting that which is forbidden: women's flesh and voice.

In The Secrets, Avi Nesher follows this route, making the film's centerpiece an ultra-orthodox woman, in voice and in flesh. The Secrets is the story of Naomi, played by Ania Bukstein, the brilliant, intellectual daughter of a prominent Bnei Brak Rabbi, portrayed by Israeli entertainer Sefi Rivlin. Following her mother's death, in order to postpone her arranged marriage to one of her father's students, Naomi convinces her dad to allow her to attend a Jewish seminary for women in the ancient Kabalistic town of Sefad. Such a request is highly unusual in the ultra-orthodox community, where higher studies are still very much perceived to be the domain of men, while marriage and family is the assigned realm for women. At the seminary, Naomi encounters the free-spirited Michal, played by Michal Shtamler. Michal was sent there by her father after she had been expelled from her previous seminary, in the hope that in Sefad she would be matched to a suitable man.

A conflict of personalities between the reserved Naomi and the extrovert Michal seems inevitable, but their relationship undergoes a radical transformation when both students are asked by the seminary's headmistress to deliver food to Anouk, played by the veteran French actress Fanny Ardant. As Naomi and Michal soon discover, Anouk was imprisoned for murdering her lover and now, terminally ill, looks for God's forgiveness. Michal talks Naomi into finding a kabbalistic Tikkun for Anouk; unable to find one in the Jewish sources, Naomi develops her own Tikkun. As they go through the different rituals of the Tikkun, their hostility transforms into friendship and then, into a love afair. Now, they have to face their true selves and decide whether and how to realize their homosexuality within the framework of their religious commitments.

Nesher's film seeks to portray the struggle of ultra-orthodox women to assert themselves within a strictly paternalistic and chauvinist religious framework. The seminary provides an institutional setting, not liked but tolerated by the bigoted, ultra-orthodox establishment, where women can hone their intellectual capacities and nourish their dream to be treated someday as equal to men. To that end, it is the headmistress' explicit wish to bring up the first orthodox woman rabbi. However, it is the desires that such ambitions set in motion that compel. Indeed, in The Secrets, the seminarians' intellectual self-discovery is inherently linked to their ability to take pleasure in and express their sexuality. Thus, it is not enough that two protagonists recognize and attempt to undo the strictures foist upon on them by their faith. Rather, they have to shed these fetters, to undress, both figuratively and literally, while the film turns into a performance of this striptease.

The Secrets' beautiful soundtrack plays a crucial role in prefiguring the unveiling of its characters' sexuality and intimacies. Defying the Talmudic ban on the female voice, the film's soundtrack is composed of liturgical pieces sung by women. Several sensual scenes linger on the women seminarians gripped by the singing of liturgical songs. Yet, as long as their desire is only expressed by their voices, it remains figurative and, hence, does not break the misogynist framework of halakha, even if it challenges it.

Michal and Naomi, however, go beyond the figurative into the literal. In a central scene, the two take Anouk to perform a purification ritual at a mikvah, a religious bath. As the three undress and enter the water facing each other, the camera focuses on Naomi and Michal's young nude bodies, but shows Anouk only from the shoulders up. Rather then comment on the tension between religious observance and sexuality, between the young and the aging body, or on the very meaning of transgression performed by the two young women, the scene elides this by narrating a moment of pleasure and gratification. The question becomes, for the two protagonists as well as for the viewer, whether such pleasure and gratification can or cannot be had within a halakhic framework.

As a story, The Secrets is not unlike the Avi Nesher's previous film Turn Left at the End of the World (2004), which tells of new immigrants who arrive at the southern Israeli development town of Mitzpe Ramon and try to adjust to their new life in Israel. Both films follow the friendship of two young women as they wrestle with the strictures put on them by their respective paternalistic, male chauvinist communities. In both, the discovery and realization of female sexuality is employed to shed light on the oppression of women. The initial presentations of this sexuality seems to claim to undermine, even explode, paternalistic values (though we might ask in what ways these values are truly challenged at the conclusion of each film). Finally, in both stories, a reserved woman ends up mounting much more of a challenge to these values than the extrovert.

Such sexual rebellion comes naturally for the characters in Turn Left at the End of the World and to the young women who dream of leaving their small town for the liberal culture and ethos of Tel Aviv. It seems, on the other hand, misplaced in the world of Jewish ultra-orthodoxy The Secrets presumes to portray, a world closed to Israeli secularism. Rather than endeavor to explore the terms in which sexuality may be experienced through the rejection of such liberalism, Nesher's The Secrets prefers the easy solution of, once again, setting a schematic, binary world, in which only secular culture could ensure sexual happiness and contentment.

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