This Hebrew-language Israeli film takes place in a Mizrahi neighborhood in modern Jerusalem that is served by an Orthodox temple. As written by Shlomit Nehama, and directed by Emil Ben-Shimon, the film never ventures outside of the neighborhood, and all characters in the story worship at that temple, or at an adjacent one.
The story is set in motion by an accident at the temple, namely the collapse of the balcony where women worshippers are kept in isolation from the men. Orthodox tradition held that women, who were not permitted to study the scriptures of Judaism, were to have a subordinate position in society. Yet the women in the film had no objection to this; they are shown to have lives that are fulfilled by close family relationships, and religious devotion.
What they don’t know, however, is how much the accident will change their lives. The only person seriously injured is the rabbi’s wife, who remains in a coma in the hospital. Elderly and totally devoted to her, the rabbi is unable to perform his duties. He is even delusional from grief, and starts addressing other people, including his gentile attendant, as if they were her.
Zion (Gal Naor), a grocer, is the nominal leader of the congregation. He, and his wife Ettie (Evelin Hagoel), desperately try to find a substitute until their own rabbi recovers. So they are overjoyed when Rabbi David (Aviv Alush), the rabbi from an adjacent neighborhood, volunteers to take over, even if only temporarily.
This leads to the basic conflict in the story. David, it seems, has such an extreme view of biblical tradition that he is unwilling to provide a decent place for the women to worship while the temple is being renovated. They are placed in a cramped, drafty corner that is totally unacceptable to them. As led by a defiant Ettie, they stage a protest outside of David’s own temple. For women to openly defy a rabbi was absolutely unheard of, and David grows increasingly angry when they refuse to disperse. As the conflict intensifies, it exposes a painful rupture between Zion and his wife. Zion is torn between his love for her, and his belief in the absolute supremacy of the rabbi in matters of religious tradition.
The film is informative about the group’s traditions, and the characters are well-motivated. And, of course, it has a happy ending. Yet, while it is well-made, and proving to be very popular wherever it is shown, I kept waiting for a single moment when I was emotionally involved. The actors were well cast, and gave expressive performances. Yet it had a remote feeling to it, as if I were watching a documentary about a tribe in a foreign land. Being Jewish myself, my lukewarm response was baffling.
Upon reflection, I think it has more to do with the emotional and intellectual rigidity of the characters than any weakness in the story. They are people who seem to fully appreciate a life where everything worthwhile is the fulfillment of God’s will, and they have no doubts about their beliefs in any way. Whatever conflicts occur between the characters are about the interpretation of the rules, but never about their actual authority. While they have genuine affection and respect for each other, it seems as much due to spiritual comfort as to any need for physical intimacy. They rarely touch. When two women friends, who have been squabbling, finally make up and embrace, it seems almost shocking.
While seemingly content with their secondary role, the women are truly outraged when they are disrespected. It’s hard to imagine an American audience relating to what these women call victory: a comfortable space to worship in while kept separate, and subordinate to, their husbands. Marriage and raising children are understood to be their only happiness, and this is never questioned. When Yaffa (Yafit Austin), a young girl as yet unmarried, is criticized for laxity in searching for a husband, it is presented as a flaw in her character. We see her on an arranged “date”. But it is really an interview; the man takes notes while she answers questions, such as “who is your favorite biblical hero”. She is embarrassed by his disapproval when she answers “Samson”.
Still, both writer and director show extreme confidence in delivering just what the intended audience wants to see. The film opens with a Bar Mitzvah and ends with a wedding (Hooray for Yaffa!). Only David (Boo!) is not dancing joyously at the final celebration. So what’s not to like?