Eccentric and sure-footed Jewesses populate some of the non-fiction films at this year’s New York Jewish Film Festival, which runs through January 27 in New York City. This group includes two pretty young women who choose to leave behind the ultra-Orthodox communities of their youth, a documentarian who chronicles her dating life, a grieving mother who battles to cremate her daughter in Israel, the plucky writer and activist Grace Paley and Israeli teens who talk politics with their Palestinian and Arab-Israeli counterparts. Here are the films in which these women appear:
My So-Called Enemy begins in July 2002, when 22 Palestinian, Israeli and Arab-Israeli teenage girls go to the United States to take part in Building Bridges for Peace, a leadership program that teaches young women about peace-building and conflict resolution. A suicide bombing that takes place while the girls are overseas forces them to speak earnestly about how living in a war zone affects their daily lives. Director Lisa Gossels then follows six of the attendees over the course of seven years as they reconcile their experiences at camp with the harsh realities of life during and after the second intifada, with Gal, an Israeli in Tel Aviv, and Rezan, a Palestinian Christian in East Jerusalem.
The young women are thoughtful and articulate as they navigate issues like women’s rights, army service, the separation wall, religion and educational opportunities. The film stays true to their personal stories, showing us the ways in which their experience of getting to know the “enemy” changed their lives, and the ways it just couldn’t. By the end, the young women and the viewers are hopeful that even if they can’t, for now, dissolve the tensions that separate their groups, they can at least call one another a friend.
Black Bus follows blogger and writer Sara Einfeld and photographer Shulamit Weinfeld, as they try to unpack their experience leaving the Ultra-orthodox community in Jerusalem in which they were both raised. Ostracized from their families, both use their mediums to investigate and document what they strongly feel is deep oppression against women in this community. Director Anat Zuria, who also made the film “Purity” about Jewish family purity laws and “Sentenced to Marriage” about agunot, allows her subjects the space and time to reveal with nuance the hardships they experienced as women in the community, and the struggles they have encountered as a result of having left. We see Einfeld speak with women who are still in the ultra-Orthodox community (they are shot from behind so that they remain anonymous) as they express their feelings of isolation and despair in their highly regimented lives. The film also follows Weinfeld as she attempts to capture candid shots of resistant Orthodox women as they run errands and ride buses around Jerusalem. The film’s soft climax happens when Weinfeld and a friend attempt to question men and women on one of the Soreret — the gender-segregated buses also known as Black Buses — about the law and logic behind their separation.
For Sixty and the City, filmmaker Nili Tal turns the camera on herself to document a year in her life as a 61-year-old looking for love. Tal quickly puts herself at the mercy of a number of quirky men, traveling everywhere from a houseboat in Tel Aviv, to Eilat, France, and even to a singles cruise on the Mexican Riviera, with the hopes of finding Mr. Right. While the scenes with men are hardly revelatory, the pre-dating interviews with Tal and the discussions she has with her single friend and cruise companions display real vulnerability and a sense of humor. Tal and her friend speak bluntly about their looks and the intense self-hatred women experience as they age. At the film’s end, Tal reveals that she met someone, but we learn nothing about him and see only his feet, which is a bit of a disappointment after spending over an hour witnessing her pursuit of and occasionally rooting for her romantic success.
Eerie and a bit disorienting, As Lilith is Eytan Harri’s documentary about an off-beat Israeli mother, Lilith, who wages a battle so that she may cremate her daughter, who committed suicide. The film pits Lilith against ZAKA, a network of voluntary emergency responders in Israel, who try to prevent her from going through with the cremation because it goes against Jewish tradition. Lilith is, on one hand, a suffering mother who is being bullied by the all-male ZAKA crew into having a traditional Jewish burial for her daughter. On the other hand, she is a peculiar woman who is hard to sympathize with. She does not seem overly disturbed by her daughter’s suicide and does not receive much sympathy from her neighbors, some of whom think she was, indirectly, at fault. The fact that the director doesn’t choose sides here is both a strength and a weakness of the film; Harris effectively captures the darkness and chaos of this situation, but at the cost of sometimes making the viewer feel lost.
Grace Paley: Collected Shorts, a documentary by Lily Rivlin, is as strong and charismatic as its protagonist. Grace Paley, a short story writer and poet who channeled the rhythms and wit of her native Bronx Jewish community in her work, is best known for her best-selling book “Enormous Changes at the Last Minute.” She was also a tireless peace activist, who refused to pay her taxes during wartime and sat herself down on New York’s 5th Avenue in order to block a military parade during Vietnam. And then there were her numerous trips to jail. The film contains interviews with Paley, her beloved family, and men and women who admired her, along with footage of Paley reading from her work. Paley, who died in 2007, appears as a sharp and spunky figure until the end, whose empathy for others colored both her writing and desire to bring about positive change in the world.
Elissa Strauss has written for the Forward over a number of years. She is a regular contributor to CNN, whose work has been published in a number of publications including The New York Times, Glamour, ELLE, and Longreads.
The Women of the New York Jewish Film Festival