Tanya Hoffman is the daughter of Women of the Wall leader Anat Hoffman. / Haaretz
“How I Stopped Hating Women of the Wall and Started Talking to My Mother.”
That’s the title of an upcoming film by Tanya Hoffman, the 26-year-old daughter of firebrand feminist and Women of the Wall leader Anat Hoffman. The summer release is already arousing a certain amount of interest in Israel — but will it be worth seeing? That depends on how well the filmmaker can use her personal story to shed light on a larger question — the question of why many young people, and not just her, are less than enchanted with Women of the Wall these days.
The documentary is as much about Tanya’s conflict-laden relationship with her mother as it is about Anat’s liberal prayer group, which pushes for equal ritual rights for women at the Western Wall. In a Haaretz interview, Tanya explained that she couldn’t be more different from her super opinionated “bulldozer” of a mom, and that no one else in the family ever understood what Anat was after. “None of us ever joined her at the Women of the Wall services. None of us really got it. We were, like, why are you doing this?”
As a child, Tanya hated being dragged to the Kotel for Women of the Wall services, and when she saw the angry reactions the group provoked, she was sure her mom must be doing something wrong. But the recent increase in violence directed at Women of the Wall alarmed her. “I was terrified that somebody was going to shoot her. I just had never seen hatred like that anywhere before.”
Tanya wanted to show support for her mom, but she didn’t want to don tallit and tefillin and pray with Women of the Wall. Instead — being a film school student — she picked up her camera and shot hours and hours of footage.
It turned out that approaching her mom as a subject rather than as, well, a mom, had a therapeutic effect on their relationship. It “leveled out the playing field,” in Tanya’s words. For the first time since her “atrocious” teenage years, she felt like her mom was really talking to her.
This personal-conflict-turned-reconciliation angle could turn out to be the film’s greatest liability; it runs the risk of veering into schmaltz, over-sentimentality and navel-gazing. But, to the extent that it reflects a feminist generation gap, it might also end up being the most interesting aspect of the story.
It’s telling and not at all surprising that someone of Tanya’s generation would find herself unimpressed by Anat’s work with Women of the Wall. Nowadays, the movement strikes some Jews as outdated. It smacks of second-wave feminism, since it’s focused on struggling to secure equal access and opportunities for women at the Kotel, rather than asking the questions that would challenge the assumptions underlying that effort.
Contemporary critics have formulated these questions along a few different lines: Isn’t there something fundamentally problematic about fighting for religious equality in the eyes of a democratic state, “without challenging the state’s right to be an arbiter in those precincts”? Does it even make sense to engage in “the fetishization of one set of stones”? And what about the fact that the Kotel plaza we take for granted today came into existence only after a Palestinian neighborhood, the Mughrabi Quarter, was demolished to make way for it?
If it explores these kinds of questions, Tanya’s main narrative device — a personal story about her failure to connect with her famous mother’s vision — can potentially serve as a window onto a much bigger and more interesting story: the story of how an older version of feminism has become boring, puzzling or even repellant to certain members of the younger generation. That would make this film worth seeing.
Sigal Samuel is the Forward’s deputy digital media editor. When she’s not writing for the opinion section, she’s hunting down her Indian Jewish family’s kabbalistic secret societies. Her novel “The Mystics of Mile End,” available in Canada and forthcoming in the U.S., tells the story of a dysfunctional family with a dangerous mystical obsession. Her writing has also appeared in The Daily Beast, The Rumpus, BuzzFeed, Tablet and The Walrus, among others. Contact Sigal at email@example.com, or follow her on Twitter at @SigalSamuel.