(photo credit: Courtesy)
Israeli films tend to be about secular Israelis. Of the few movies that have been made here about observant Jews, most were directed, not surprisingly, by religious directors. So when I got ready to meet Avraham Kushnir, the director of Bruriah, a movie about a modern Orthodox woman whose life and fate are intimately connected with the legendary Bruriah, I thought it would be easy to spot him: He would definitely be wearing a kippa.
But he wasn't.
"Sorry to disappoint you," said Kushnir, sitting at a table in a cafe in Jerusalem's German Colony neighborhood, near his home. "I'm not religious."
And he did seem sorry - and even relieved - when I assured him that I wasn't disappointed, just surprised.
Kushnir, who grew up in Jerusalem and attended a religious elementary school, was drawn to make Bruriah out of fascination with the story. Bruriah, who lived in the second century, was known as one of the most, perhaps even the most, brilliant and learned women in Jewish history. But her story is complex.
Her husband, Rabbi Meir, also a scholar, taught his students that "women are lightheaded." She mocked this teaching, and then, to show her up, he sent one of his students to seduce her. According to the legend, the student succeeded and she committed suicide.
"Once I heard the Bruriah legend, it was impossible not to make a movie about," says Kushnir.
The film is quite a departure for Kushnir, 63. He has had a long career as a documentary filmmaker, but Bruriah, which opened last Thursday, is his first feature film.
He would have filmed the Bruriah legend as a documentary, he says, "If I could have interviewed Meir and Bruriah."
Since that wasn't an option, he decided to dramatize their story and update it.
In Kushnir's film, Hadar Galron stars in the title role, a contemporary, well-educated Orthodox woman who was the daughter of a rabbi. Her beloved father wrote a controversial book about the Bruriah legend and the modern-day Bruriah goes on a quest to find a copy of her father's book, which his religious opponents burned when she was a child. Her quest puts her into contact with a younger man, while at the same time, she faces conflict with her husband, as their oldest daughter declares that she wants to study to be a rabbi.
KUSHNIR, WHO has created documentaries about the Ashkenazi and Sephardi sages of the Jewish tradition, was drawn to the topic because he saw in the Bruriah story "the summit of the conflict between man and woman... a microcosm of what is at the heart of our existence."
But although the film deals with some issues that will be of interest to the religious community (such as the strictures on women studying Talmud and whether women can become religious authorities), Kushnir hopes that the film will find a wide audience. The secular director sees the stories of both Bruriahs as universal.
His attitude to the material is illustrated by an anecdote he tells about collaborating with Yoni Rechter, who composed the score. He gave Rechter a note and told him to look at it after he composed the music. When Rechter finished the score and Kushnir heard the dramatic classical music he and written, Rechter looked at the note and laughed. "It said, 'Just no clarinet,'" since Kushnir had been afraid the musician would give the score a stereotypically klezmer-ish sound.
"He [Rechter] said, 'The story is happening here in Tel Aviv,'" says Kushnir. "Or it could be in Manchester, Afghanistan, Afula or Glasgow."
Kushnir collaborated on the screenplay with Yuval Cohen and his two leads, Galron and Baruch Brener, who are both Orthodox. Because of his leading actors' passionate involvement in the writing, Kushnir says, "I was able to direct with a finger," meaning with a light touch. "They did the work at home."
Alon Abutbul, one of Israel's best known and busiest actors, appears briefly as a Talmud student. "When he heard I was making a movie about Bruriah, he asked me to write a part for him. He's studying Judaism and was very interested."
Kushnir is especially effusive when it comes to his leading lady, the London-born actress/screenwriter/playwright and comedian, Hadar Galron. "She is the ultimate," he says. "She does not give 100 percent. She gives 120 percent."
Asked about the film's ending, which many viewers will argue over, he refuses to give an easy answer, asking, instead, what I thought of it. Pressed to be more specific, he spoke about the conflict between "spirit and desire."
Then he referred to a line in the film, spoken by Sasha (Israel Damidov), the young man Bruriah meets while looking for her father's book, who also studies Torah with her husband, concerning the Bruriah legend: "It has everything: betrayal, death, God... sex."
Kushnir hopes audiences will be saying the same line about his movie.