As a girl, I used to steal books from my mother’s nightstand. Often they were the titles she was reading for the local synagogue’s sisterhood book club, and as such, they were quite often about Orthodox women: “The Romance Reader” by Pearl Abraham, “Kaaterskill Falls” by Allegra Goodman, Naomi Ragen titles.
I devoured these hardcovers on Shabbos afternoons, giddy with excitement at the idea of seeing my Sabbath table, my synagogue, on the printed page.
And so, at a young age, I quickly learned what my religion is, according to the experts: All Orthodox woman are carted off to the wedding canopy against their wills, their heads are shaved, they are forced into loveless marriages, forbidden from pursuing educations or jobs, and expected to birth a child every year. This is, after all, a conveniently evocative narrative for the outsider.
Seeing ‘Disobedience’ last week at the Tribeca Film Festival was no different from reading those stories. Sebastian Lelio’s film stars Rachel Weisz, playing Ronit, the ex-Orthodox woman who returns to her childhood community in London, and Rachel MacAdams, who plays Esti, a young rabbi’s wife and the teenage lover of Ronit (both of whom offer stellar performances).
How strange it is to see one’s own life played out by outsiders, acting against a monochromatic Golders Green neighborhood, coupled with the eerie music of a horror film. A packed house of mourning, the Gefen matzo meal on the window sill. The sea of black hats. The airlessness of patriarchy. The colorless kosher grocery and the ill-fitting clothes. The women’s balcony, and the suffocated eyes of Esti, as she peers out from underneath her quite-convincing wig, a caged animal.
Enter Ronit, the film’s breath of fresh air, the New York-based photographer who has broken free from the shackles of tradition. At the Sabbath table, she retorts to an older woman at the table, “Maybe you should stop having so many children!” The audience at Tribeca guffawed at her super-sharp retort: You go girl. Keep telling those baby-making machines to stop breeding. The schadenfreude in those laughs was palpable.
Later, as the two women walk down the street, Ronit asks, “Do you guys have sex every Friday?”
“It’s expected,” Esti answers, nodding somberly. In that moment, she could have been Elizabeth Moss in the Handmaid’s Tale.
“Medieval,” Ronit huffs.
In the comfortable reclining seats at Regal theaters in Battery Park, I sit in a wig no different from Esti’s, next to a row of stretched-out denim-clad legs, laughing at Ronit’s flippant defiance of the community, sighing at Esti’s suppressed desires. And all I can think is: What do you know? What do you really know of our lives? Do you really understand the secrets of my life?
Have you ever lived a life that is punctuated by prayer and blessing? Have you ever spent an hour swaying and clutching a prayer book, your seventeen-year-old heart filled with hope? Have you ever gone on a shidduch date and told yourself you should just marry him, because you’re 22 already? Have you ever said the Song of Songs for forty days straight in the hopes of getting married?
And then: Have you ever bought a wig for the first time, nervous but also excited about the status, the glamour, that is promised to a married woman? Have you ever woken up and realized that you’re totally illiterate in Talmud, that men’s realm so long forbidden to you, the cornerstone of your religion? Have you ever gone to the mikveh after childbirth and broken into tears, overwhelmed by the tiny child now entrusted to you? Have you ever found yourself irritated by the uniform imposed on you, dreaming of dressing like the rest of the world — and in the next moment, loving the secrecy of your headcovering, the humility it inspires in you, the way it constantly reminds you of who you are? What do you know?
‘Disobedience’ is no different from a long tradition of films surrounding Orthodox women. Consider Natalie Portman in ‘New York, I Love You,” playing a sad bride on the eve of her wedding day, or Renee Zellweger in “A Price Above Rubies,” in which she discards her wig for a Puerto Rican lover, or Hadas Yaron as bright-eyed Meira in “Felix and Meira”, or the three protagonists in the Israeli “Keep Not Silent,” about three Orthodox lesbians forced to repress their true selves.
If I were to believe the films about the community I identify with, Orthodox women are either caged animals, of the Esti variety, or self-righteous yentas snitching on you when you’re sneaking around doing inappropriate things. No personality, no sense of humor, no creativity — and little intelligence, outside of the sympathetic protagonist.
And as an Orthodox woman, I find that pretty offensive.
MacAdams supposedly “researched the role of Esti for months…learning about Judaism”, according to an interview with Weisz in Newsweek. In another interview, Weisz told Maureen Dowd at the Times that Ronit’s return to her childhood place is “time travel because she’s going to live amongst a community where the mores haven’t changed for hundreds of years. They’re not part of modern life. They don’t have the internet or TV and all that stuff. And I grew up down the road from this place…I would see these people sometimes on the way to school. It’s like the ’50s, but it’s happening right now.”
That description alone is woefully inaccurate — and tells us something both about the filmmakers’ vision as they created the movie, and their superficial research process: It is becoming increasingly rare for Orthodox Jews not to have Internet access — certainly not in moderate Golders Green, which is no strict enclave like Mea Shearim. But again, these nuances are entirely foreign to the outsider.
So for the insider, the portrayal falls flat.
Instead, what emerges is an obsessive fetish with Orthodox women — a sort of voyeurism.
I suppose it is titillating for a secular audience to watch the rebellion of the pure virginal rebbetzin. Because in a culture where all is permitted, religious women are the last line of defense, the last Austen-like setting in which there are rules to be broken, in which something is still forbidden. Oh, and combine that illicit love with a cantor singing the mournful ‘El Male Rachamim’ and some shots of austere women in dark clothes, and that’s all you need for critics to laud it as ‘powerful’.
Sorry, but that’s too easy. It is much harder to create art that is authentic without the melodrama.
This is unfortunate because, indeed, there are plenty of utterly heart-wrenching stories in our community — including the experiences of gay members, who will often suppress themselves for the sake of conformity. But here, there was no complexity; religion is simply a source of oppression. There is no joy, no solace, no intellectual curiosity in Judaism; very little is keeping Esti tethered to her community. It’s black and white, good guys and bad guys.
Not all cinematic representations of Orthodox life are doomed, however. Some of the best pictures of frumkeit are coming out of Israel today. In television, “Shtisel”, the drama about a family in Mea Shearim, accomplished this beautifully, while the recent comedy about yeshiva students, “Shababnikim”, hit the nail on the head with social satire. In film, Gidi Dar’s “Ushpizin’”wowed audiences because of its precise tender rendering of a fervently Orthodox couple facing barrenness. Rama Burshtein’s ‘Fill The Void’ won several Ophir awards (the Israeli Oscars) because it showed a community in full color, unflinching from both the pain and the beauty.
But somehow, American attempts seem to fail — perhaps because, unlike Israeli filmmakers who actually live alongside and engage with the Orthodox, and increasingly include Orthodox artists among their ranks, Hollywood still looks at us like we belong in zoo-like display cases.
“Disobedience” and its ilk make for cultural appropriation at its finest: It peddles stereotypes, painting an extremely complicated community in broad strokes, with soapy drama and tears.
I am the first to call out challenges that we Orthodox women face — but I do so because this is my life and I want to improve it for my daughter, because I talk to Orthodox women all the time, professionally, as a writer constantly gathering material, both on- and off-duty.
Want to write about Orthodox women? Speak to actual women, sit in their kitchens, listen to them talking as their wigs are styled, as they teach their children alef-bais, stand with them at weddings and in grocery lines. Listen to their sobs but also to their laughter, to their sharp wit, to their mischievous anecdotes. As Burstein said in an interview about “Fill the Void”: “The characters are not looking for some way to burst out of that world. Instead, they are trying to find a way to live within it.” It is this story that is most compelling, and that is much more challenging to portray.
I wonder when the American Rama Burshtein’s will appear on the scene — I cannot wait for Orthodox-created art, literature and film to grow in stature, for Orthodox Jews to tell our stories from the heart, candidly, bravely, without fearing consequences. Eventually, films like “Disobedience” will fade from memory, and the voices from this community will speak for themselves, rather than let themselves be spoken for.
As the film credits rolled onto the screen, I slid my notebook into my purse, stood up, and felt suddenly very conspicuous — dashing out of the theatre in my uniform, wig and knee length skirt and black tights, I looked like I might fit in better in Golders Green than in downtown Manhattan.
And when I arrived home late that night, I greeted my (rabbinic) husband, took off my wig and let my hair loose, checked that the Shabbos meat delivery had arrived, went to look at my sleeping children, and thought that if the makers of “Disobedience” would enter my apartment, they’d embark on a search for my sadness, my deeply repressed self, my constant oppression by Mosaic law. They’d have to pull back the curtains, look behind the bookshelves, inspect the candlesticks, sniff the mezuzahs — on the hunt for the unspeakable tragedy of being a religious Jewish woman.
And when they’d come up with nothing, they’d shrug their shoulders and leave, disappointed.
Which is fine.
Let me tell my story — and my struggles — myself.
Contact Avital Chizhik-Goldschmidt at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter, @avitalrachel
Avital Chizhik-Goldschmidt is the Life/Features editor at the Forward. She was previously a New York-based reporter for Haaretz. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Salon, and Tablet, among others. Avital teaches journalism at Yeshiva University’s Stern College for Women, and does pastoral work alongside her husband Rabbi Benjamin Goldschmidt in New York City.