One of the most popular movies in Israel is coming to theaters in the United States, bringing with it a decidedly Israeli story about a Jerusalem congregation’s struggle to rebuild when it must start from a new foundation.
The premise is simple enough – during a Shabbat morning service, the women’s balcony in a Jerusalem synagogue collapses. The only one injured is the rabbi’s wife, though her hospitalization triggers a worsening in the condition of the aging rabbi, who retreats to his home, almost entirely cutting off communication with the outside world. Zion (Igal Naor), a close friend of the rabbi and the grandfather of the Bar Mitzvah boy whose journey into Jewish adulthood was interrupted by the collapse, is one of the ringleaders in trying to repair the synagogue. This operation that comes to be supervised by Rabbi David (Aviv Alush), whose views on religious customs differ considerably from those of the community, triggers a schism within the congregation about the very literal place of women in their synagogue, something they advocate for strongly.
Rabbi David’s entry into the equation comes as a result of an act of kindness, as members of the newly buildingless congregation stand outside their temporary space trying to get a minyan. After a number of men pass them by, he eagerly accepts their invitation to pray but first goes to recruit a number of people from his yeshiva upon learning that he will only be counted as the fifth man. He is struck by the sight of the destroyed synagogue, including the Torah scroll that was crushed when the balcony fell. He asks Zion and members of the community if they will allow him to provide rabbinical supervision for the reconstruction of the synagogue, and problems then begin to emerge when the newly-remodeled sanctuary is very noticeably missing one thing: a women’s balcony, which has now been replaced by what one angry wife describes as an outhouse.
This is a distinct story that could only serve as the plot of a film in Israel. There exists so much diversity between the denominations of Judaism within the United States that this almost seems like a hyper-specific difference of opinion that would ultimately prove inconsequential. In Israel, Judaism and observance are so intertwined with everyday secular life that it makes sense that this situation could present itself. The most comparable entry here in America is probably Is That a Gun In Your Pocket?, which was released this past September and chronicles the happenings in a Texas town where women banded together to withhold sex from their husbands until they got rid of their guns. That may be politics instead of religion, but in both cases, the wives champion a cause and struggle to get their husbands to join them in that same battle.
There are many levels of nuance here, particularly when it comes to a woman’s role in the synagogue. Just as Orthodox women who wish to have their own experience with a Torah at the kotel are an underrepresented segment of a debate that far more often features the more liberal Women of the Wall, this has nothing to do with women taking on an increased role in religious life. Instead, it is about a maintenance of the same traditions that have helped the community to thrive over the years, and the hostile way in which someone who believes that he knows better comes in to try to change things under the guise of religious purity.
This film does a tremendous job of showing the process by which people are compelled to become “more religious” (or, more colloquially, “flipping out”). When he is initially introduced, Rabbi David is defined by an act of kindness and selflessness. One particularly inspirational and passionately-delivered sermon praises women as far greater than men, exempted from studying scripture, and he suggests that the men present should buy their wives a present. This token of love, it turns out, is something far more deceptive, since the gift each man gives his wife is a scarf meant to cover her hair, denoting that they must become more pure by adopting a custom that has never been part of their way of life.
This film contains a good deal of commentary on what it means to be religiously respectful to those who practice Judaism differently. When one woman, Tikvah (Orna Banai), who has begun dressing very modestly and covering her hair, rudely declines an invitation to the home of Zion’s wife, Ettie (Evelin Hagoel), she reminds Tikvah of the time they were traveling in Greece and a flirtatious waiter brought her pork chops on the house, which she pretended to eat and instead fed to a cat. Ettie also puts up a fight when Rabbi David, eating as a guest in her home on Passover, insults her late father’s religious knowledge by deeming the use of a Shabbos goy to fix a circuit breaker forbidden.
Mixed in with all this exploration of what it means to be Jewish, religious, and respectful is a highly entertaining film about a community defined most by social interactions framed in a religious context. Banai and Alsh both picked up Ophir nominations from the Israeli Film Academy, as did the film’s music, costumes, and makeup, but the entire cast, particularly Naor and Hagoel, is terrific. There is drama coursing through this film’s veins since the threat to stability that this new reality presents is real, but there’s also a lightness present throughout that makes the film supremely enjoyable. Its heartwarming nature may not present any real-life solutions, but it’s a great movie nonetheless.
The Women’s Balcony officially opens Friday, May 26.
Still courtesy of Menemsha Films.