Israeli screenwriter Shlomit Nehama has done something pretty amazing: she has written a movie with a strong feminist voice about encroaching religious extremism that still respects Jewish religious traditions, has a sense of humor and a huge heart.
In Hebrew with English subtitles, “The Women’s Balcony” is a total delight and I urge my readers to see this film when you can. In fact, though the story focuses on a small Orthodox community in Jerusalem, its themes are timely and should resonate with people of all religions.
In the movie, a community begins to splinter apart when a fundamentalist rabbi takes advantage of their crisis: the women’s upstairs balcony in the synagogue has collapsed, the congregation is temporarily homeless and their injured rabbi is temporarily unable to lead. The new, younger and more dynamic rabbi begins to preach extremist views, including the theory that the balcony collapsed because the women didn’t dress modestly enough and did not cover their hair. A few of the women believe his fire-and-brimstone talks and start praying fervently with their hair covered. Marriages begin to fray as more of the men start seeing things the rabbi’s way, and women’s friendships, formerly tight-knit, also begin to unravel. The camp is divided.
When the congregants realize with a shock that the rabbi has repaired the damaged synagogue without the women’s balcony, relegating the women to a cell-like room adjacent to the building, the women finally rebel. This theme of growing religious fundamentalism is timely and universal. Good religion offers a sense of community, identity, purpose and transcendence. But done badly, without sense or heart, it can divide as it conquers, though the conquest will not last.
As someone who wrestled mightily with the structure of Jewish Orthodoxy before I signed on to it (I dislike the Orthodox label but use it as a reference point), the film touched a nerve with me by raising issues that are difficult for many observant Jewish women, such as covering hair for married women, sitting separately from men in shul, and the limits of rabbinic authority. These are the very same issues (among others) that I raise in my long-awaited memoir (long-awaited by me, anyway!), The Skeptic and the Rabbi, out September 5. I hope I did half as good a job as Shlomit Nehama and director Emil Ben-Shimon at adding humor into my story as they did in their film.
“The Women’s Balcony” offers viewers a feel-good, plausible, happy ending, where the bonds of community and the power of love, compassion and common sense overwhelm harsh religious zealotry.