“Shortly before the 1991 Gulf War, Rabbi Yaakov Smith, a father of six and an emissary of the Chabad Hasidic movement in the Old City of Jerusalem, hosted a Shabbat dinner. As the guests were leaving, one took Smith aside and said something that would reverberate with his host: “That was an amazing act you performed. Whatever is wrong, take care of yourself.” Fast forward thirty years and Yaakov has become Yiscah Smith, a transgender person who still lives and teaches in Jerusalem. Smith’s transformation is the subject of the documentary I Was Not Born a Mistake, created by the Israeli filmmakers Rachel Rusinek and Eyal Ben-Moshe. The film premiered at the Jerusalem Film Festival this past Hanukkah and made its U.S. debut in January.:
On a June evening in the suburban Orthodox mecca of Teaneck, NJ, a long line of women snaked outside a small independent theater that rarely sees much of a crowd. They were waiting to see Mikva the Musical, which came to the U.S. for a weeklong, women-only run following a successful stint in Israel.
Of course, the terms “mikveh” and “musical” don’t normally go together. A mikveh is a ritual bath, in which, among its other functions, married observant Jewish women immerse themselves each month after completing their menstrual cycles. It’s not something one associates with showtunes and zippy dance numbers: precisely the surprising juxtaposition that gives the play much of its humor and charm.
As a particularly raucous Israeli election season enters the homestretch, a recent Israeli film, now making the Jewish film festival circuit with subtitles, provides some perspective. It’s called The Unorthodox (Ha-bilti Rishmiyim, literally “Those Without Permission”) and tells the little known story of the founding of the Shas political party, a punning acronym for “Torah observant Sephardim.”
Lately it seems to be the season of haredim on screen. My immersion in this very particular oeuvre began with Shtisel, the 2013 runaway hit Israeli TV series, which depicts a haredi family in Jerusalem in all of its complicated, charming dysfunction. (The first two seasons are now available with English subtitles on Netflix.) More recently, Autonomies (2018) presents a dystopian division of Israel into separate secular and religious states. In the United States, two recent documentaries showcase radically divergent ways of understanding the New York Hasidic community and the experience of marginal figures within it. Haredi Jews are not always interchangeable with Hasidic ones, and Israeli soap operas are different than American art-house documentaries. Yet in considering all of these offerings, certain patterns inevitably emerge. Counterintuitively, the more serious offerings in this genre are the ones with a lighter touch.
Israel has produced several fabulous television series in recent years, perhaps especially those which depict fictional lives of religious Jews. These include the iconic Srugim, which tracks the Friends-like relationships between a group of single friends navigating the South Jerusalem “national religious” dating scene. The entertaining, if somewhat melodramatic, Kathmandu follows the legitimately exciting lives of a Chabad couple living and working in Nepal. Shtisel, both hysterically funny and understated, set a new bar for subtlety and depth in exploring the dynamics of a rather dysfunctional but wholly endearing hasidic-haredi family in Jerusalem.
Shababnikim, one of the latest additions to the mix, is a slickly produced and fast-paced series that chronicles the adventures, both external and internal, of four twenty-something denizens of an elite haredi yeshiva in Jerusalem. The aesthetics, four studs sauntering off to some irrelevant destination with the backdrop of a throbbing rock soundtrack, recalls the HBO series Entourage. The substance spans the gamut from romantic comedy to profound observations about Judaism, the relationship between the religious and secular worlds, and what it means to be a man. In other words, it’s the kind of series that could only exist in present-day Israel, and it’s the invention of a talented religious graduate of the Ma’aleh film school named Eliran Malka.
For the full review see here
“For Cecil B. DeMille,the revelation at Sinai was a purely solitary affair. Charlton Heston’s Moses ascends the mountain on an individual spiritual quest; he hears the Ten Commandments as the Israelites are preparing to worship the golden calf. The scene certainly captures part of the biblical narrative, but it ignores entirely the collective and communal aspect of the moment, as well as the tension between the people’s desire for direct knowledge of God and their quite correct fear of what such knowledge entails. It also ignores the all-important prelude to the revelation: the covenant between God and Israel, for which Moses is nothing more than a go-between.”
In the Summer 2017 issue of the Jewish Review of Books, I review The Wedding Plan, the latest from Israeli filmmaker Rama Burshtein.
Born in New York and raised in Israel, Burshtein currently lives with her family among a small cluster of Hasidic families in the predominantly secular Tel Aviv. Early in her career, she worked in the ultra-Orthodox cottage industry of films made by and for women, but when Fill the Void came out she crossed over to the international film festival and art house cinema scene, without losing touch with her initial audience. It was possible to enjoy Fill the Void as the tale of an unexpected love story amid tragic circumstances in an exotic setting, but it also spoke to her original audience. That film’s soundtrack was punctuated by a modern Israeli rendition of the song “Im Eshkacheikh” (If I Forget Thee O Jerusalem), which is often sung under the wedding canopy. For those conversant with Jewish tradition, the song powerfully expressed the connection between the film’s plot and the tension between joy and tragedy already evoked in the Jewish wedding ceremony itself.
A similarly poignant countertext in The Wedding Plan is the hymn “Eshet Chayil” (Proverbs 31), which is traditionally sung each Friday night before Shabbat dinner. Like the film itself, it sings the praises of a faithful “woman of valor.” Early in the film, Michal confesses her desire for a husband to sing “Eshet Chayil” to her, and the film closes with a rendition of the song. While the traditional performance of the song presupposes a husband to sing it, the woman of valor’s husband is not really described in the hymn. It is she who takes care of all of her family’s needs, engages in complex business ventures, cares for the poor, elevates her husband’s standing, and is, consequently, cloaked in strength and majesty, as well as wisdom and kindness. In incorporating this song, Burshtein places her idiosyncratic heroine in the tradition of great Jewish women, but not without some gentle irony. How far, after all, is Michal from that desperate bachelor who proposed to her, and every other woman, on the first date?
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This article originally appeared on TheLehrhaus.Com
Animated Disney films, with all of their fantasy and froth, often contain some deep ideas or archetypes. Moana, the latest offering from Disney studios, is no exception. Moana, the protagonist whose name means “ocean” in several Polynesian languages, is a girl who is destined to assume leadership of the fictional South Pacific island of Motunui. Yet she feels drawn to the sea. She undertakes a series of adventures along with a demi-god “trickster” named Maui in order to restore equilibrium to their increasingly imperiled natural environment. All of this is set against a mash-up of pre-modern Polynesian traditions and myths that, according to scholars and critics, is accurately and respectfully depicted. The film’s animation is gorgeous—like Moana, the viewer also feels the call of the shimmering Pacific ocean and expansive sky. All in all, it is an enjoyable film, setting aside some of the pagan elements which go with the territory.
More interestingly, the film also breaks from, or improves upon, the typical Disney formula whereby a princess is stuck in some sort of repressive environment but yearns to break free. The central expression of this trope in Moana is the song “How Far I’ll Go,” composed by Lin-Manuel Miranda of Hamilton fame: