New Film Peers Into the Teenage Jewish Closet

By Adam Stern

Published November 11, 2005, issue of November 11, 2005.
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To proclaim “Hineini” — the Hebrew word for “Here I am” — is perhaps also to posit a question: If this is who I am and I stand here, who are you and where do you stand? Then, maybe, who are we and where do we stand?

On November 13, a 60-minute documentary bearing this provocative Hebrew word as its title will make its premiere at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, as part of the 17th annual Boston Jewish Film Festival. Officially titled “Hineini: Coming Out in a Jewish High School,” the film tells the story of The New Jewish High School of Greater Boston’s attempts to come to terms with its dual mission: the fostering of a Jewish community with a reverence for tradition, and the creating of a pluralistic environment in which the multifarious voices of its students (and faculty) can be heard. The movie focuses on the story of Shulamit Izen, a gay student at The New Jewish High School (now Gann Academy), and how she brought the issue of homosexuality to the forefront of discussion and sought a place for herself and for other gay students in her school. Initially a personal account of Izen reconciling her sexuality with her faith, the film quickly shifts focus and portrays her struggle to form a gay-straight alliance.

As Ariella Wortzman, another student portrayed in the film, says, the issue was “not just ‘I’m gay; create a space where I can be gay.’ It’s ‘I have needs. I have things that I want to talk about. Create a space where I can be open and where I can talk about things that matter to me.’”

An exemplary moment comes when Izen reflects on her encounter with the school’s headmaster, Rabbi Daniel Lehmann. “I wanted to tell him my story,” Izen tells viewers. But, “I left the meeting feeling really defeated… what I got from Rabbi Lehmann was that I can’t be holy and gay.”

A key voice in the film, Lehmann strikes an interesting balance between his role as an administrator and his personal ambivalences. Lehmann admits feeling uncomfortable when Izen first approached him with her story. At other times he comments on the things that a headmaster must take into account when approaching an issue that divides the community. However, in the end it is perhaps Lehmann who articulates the film’s theme most precisely and most eloquently by noting that “the core of our tradition is to bring together those conflicting opinions not in an attempt to somehow resolve them or create harmony, but to actually live in the tension of those differences.”

This story found its public voice in Irena Fayngold, the Boston-area producer who directed “Hineini.” In an interview with the Forward, Fayngold said that she first heard about Izen’s story through her involvement with Keshet, a Jewish community for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Jews in Greater Boston (which eventually became a producer of the film). Izen had been involved, as well, interning there during high school.

Currently an associate producer in the educational programming department at WGBH in Boston, Fayngold initially approached the story thinking that it would make an interesting profile. “As I started to talk with her,” Fayngold said, “I realized that this was not a story about one girl and her identity. It was about a pluralistic Jewish community grappling with contemporary American life.”

Like Izen, Fayngold had her troubles. The administration was, at first, cold to the idea of allowing her to film around the school. “When we first decided to work on the story, we met with Rabbi Lehmann,” she said. “He was concerned, but in the end allowed us to go ahead and start filming.” After shooting one classroom scene, however, the board of directors reversed the headmaster’s decision and they were forced to stop filming in the school.

Despite the setbacks, Fayngold said she “felt that the conversation was still very fresh, so I decided to go ahead, even though it was challenging.” Eventually, the unfinished film was accepted into the Boston Jewish Film Festival and the board of directors also decided to reverse its original decision and allow the use of footage from the school.

The film culminates with Izen receiving the “Women Who Dare” award from the Jewish Women’s Archive and the approval for creation of Open House, a support (but not advocacy) group for the school’s gay students. But the story and discussion continue. Izen is now a student at Brown University, and “Open House” is now the gay-straight alliance at Gann Academy. Its mission is to struggle for “understanding and tolerance and provide a supportive space for discussion and learning.”

“What is unique” about the school, Fayngold said, is that unlike other communities struggling with internal differences, “they worked to bring out those differences in the open and struggle with them.”

Adam Stern is a writer living in New York.

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