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The Uncivil Servant: Ultra-Orthodox Sexism vs. Just Plain Orthodox Sexism

Mitchell Abidor
May 25, 2017

by Mitchell Abidor

THE WOMEN'S BALCONY, directed by Emil Ben Shimon, was the biggest hit in Israel of the past three years, and it’s not hard to see why. Popular cinema is popular cinema, and all the requisite heartstrings are tugged in this tale of the efforts to reconstruct a synagogue in the Bokharan quarter of Jerusalem, where the women’s balcony collapsed during a bar mitsve. Will the synagogue be rebuilt? Will the women get a proper balcony? Will a single woman find love?

The effort to rebuild a proper balcony is derailed, as is the Mizrakhi congregation, with the arrival of a black-hat rabbi, Reb Dovid. His seeming good intentions in filling in for the regular rabbi, who has temporarily lost his mind after the building collapse, turn out to be a cover for his evil ultra-Orthodox machinations to take over the congregation and marginalize -- if not exclude -- its female members. The men are at first swept away by the charismatic rantings of Reb Dovid, who has a bit of Talmudic flimflam to fit all circumstances and all his wishes. The women of the congregation, being Sephardic, don’t cover their hair or obey Ashkenazi norms of modesty. Women, Reb Dovid preaches, are superior to men; in fact, they are the Torah, and so like the Torah they must be covered at all times. A campaign by the men to impose Ashkenazi standards ensues. Dovid is evil in a black suit and hat.

If the men are originally taken in, the women at first resist the blandishments of the usurper, but then for no apparent reason fall for them, then for even less apparent reason, reject them again.

Plot-wise, the film is an absolute mess. Why Ettie, the main organizer against the rabbi and principal fighter for a proper women’s balcony, is suddenly turned on by her closest friends is unexplained and inexplicable — and then God alone can tell us why they are suddenly back on her side. A romantic subplot goes exactly where the least sophisticated of viewers would assume it would go, and given The Women’s Balcony’s soft-heartedness and refusal to offend, it’s no accident that the romance is between a Mizrakhi woman and a student of the wicked black-hat rabbi. That the film is destined for a happy ending is clear from the first minute.

HOWEVER UNINTERESTING the underlying idea of the film is, the main topic, which the director and screenwriter erroneously feel is women’s rights within Judaism, is hardly that. After all, the women in the film are perfectly content to be hidden on a balcony: they only question the size of the balcony, so, despite the women’s lionization by religious feminists when they protest their assigned space, this is hardly a feminist film. A daring film would have had the women fight their actual segregation. Their boldness is all façade.

No, what is interesting in The Women’s Balcony is that though we’re used to accounts in film and literature and the news of conflicts between religious and secular Israelis, here we have a conflict between degrees of Orthodoxy, the battle being between an Orthodox Mizrakhi congregation and a black-hat Ashkenazi (or at least Ashkenazi-thinking) rabbi. He is not by any stretch of the imagination ultra-Orthodox by Israeli (or Brooklyn) standards, compared to the payes-wearing ultra-Orthodox who hang out on the outskirts of the story but play no real role in it. This is a battle between two visions of Orthodox Judaism: a very slightly more relaxed Oriental version, where women aren’t obliged to shave their hair and cover their heads, are allowed to be attractive, and ultimately speak out, versus the increasingly normative Eastern European vision of Orthodoxy, where all men dress the same and women are forced to render themselves as unattractive and submissive as possible.

The success in Israel of The Women’s Balcony is easily explained: It is a film that challenges few assumptions. Yes, it mocks and shows little sympathy for Ashkenazi Orthodoxy, but Reb Dovid, slimy as he is, is presented as a charismatic character and an outlier, for it is one of his students who not only marries the Mizrakhi woman who is hankering for wedlock, but also foils the evil rabbi’s plot. Even within the critique of the Orthodox, the film shows they are capable of redemption and of finding their way to a more acceptable, more tolerant Orthodoxy.

The Women’s Balcony never questions the heart of the matter, so it allows viewers to have their boureka and eat it: to look askance at the anti-humanism of Orthodox Judaism while supporting one only slightly less anti-humanist; to think victory is achieved when women can keep their hair and yet still be kept out of sight.

Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is a translator and writer living in Brooklyn. He has published many books of translations from the French, his articles have been translated into German and French, and his Voices of the Paris Commune has just appeared in a Turkish edition, put out by Kafka Kitap of Istanbul.

Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is a writer and translator living in Brooklyn. Among his books are a translation of Victor Serge’s Notebooks 1936 – 1947, May Made Me: An Oral History of My 1968 in France, and I’ll Forget it When I Die, a history of the Bisbee Deportation of 1917. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Liberties, Dissent, The New York Review of Books, and many other publications.