Exploring the 'Covenant'

A recent film offers a woman's perspective on the Jewish male's first rite of passage.

covenant feat 88 298 (photo credit: )
covenant feat 88 298
(photo credit: )
Nurit Jacobs Yinon is a 33-year-old wife and mother of three who lives in Shoham. A progressive thinker and video artist whose lifestyle is steeped in traditional Judaism, Jacobs Yinon's recent movie Covenant: Woman, God and All Between is making waves. An exploration of the relationship between Jewish circumcision rites and the headspace of contemporary motherhood in Israel, the movie has been screened at many film festivals around the world, and it recently won the Best Documentary award at Trento, Italy's 2006 Religion Today International Film Festival. Jacobs Yinon has been working in the motion picture industry as a freelance screenwriter, editor and director ever since she graduated in 1999 from film school at the Ma'ale program in Jerusalem. Most of her work has been in television, writing for the Children's Channel for example; but she has always tried to focus on less commercial projects with maximum intellectual and artistic appeal. Two of her most creative projects, Holy Stone and I Stood in Jerusalem, were highlighted over the past two years as part of The Jerusalem Film Festival's domestic art-short screenings, curated annually by veteran filmmaker Micha Shagrir. Speaking with Metro in-between promotion meetings, Jacobs Yinon goes into detail about the heady themes she has sought to probe in creating Covenant. "In Hebrew, the word brit means both 'covenant' and 'circumcision,'" she explains. "There's a distance between the two; there's a moment of conflict - a classic conflict between the wish for the covenant and the fear of the circumcision. Through this conflict, you can start the whole story of relationships with God." These themes manifest themselves in Covenant through profiles of three religious young Israeli wives and their spiritual associations with motherhood. Na'ama is having trouble conceiving; she undergoes IVF (in vitro fertilization) treatments and seeks strength and solace through Orthodox purity rituals and through reading the Scriptures' accounts of barren women. Dafna, a resident of Otniel, a settlement in Samaria, wonders about the cosmic relationship between the baby she carries and the soul of her brother, who was recently killed in a terror attack. Orli, a French immigrant, is tormented over the question of her baby's name, another dimension of the brit ceremony: Should he be named for her grandfather or her husband's grandfather, the Baba Sali (Rabbi Yisrael Abuhatzeira, the famous Moroccan mystical leader)? Moreover, her husband insists on performing the ceremony himself, while she prefers to commission a professional mohel for the incision. Throughout the presentation of these personalities and storylines runs the Jacobs Yinon-penned narration, which gives context to these contemporary mothers through allusions to the biblical matriarchs. Sarah is referenced as the giver of the ultimate sacrifice, since her son Isaac is offered as a sacrifice to God. Moses's wife Tzippora is forced to circumcise her own sons in a nightmarish passage of midnight blood. Hannah is a figure whose brazen prayers to have a child yield her a son who ultimately abandons his family and serves as a prophet to his nation. Less straightforward biblical figures with more complex relationships with motherhood are cited as well, including the prostituting Tamar and the cursed Mikhal. "I am trying to make a comment about the timeless relationship between mothers and God," says the filmmaker. On the other hand, Covenant has a largely personal dimension to it as well. The women profiled are hardly representative of any group. "It's not a survey - it's a specific story," asserts Jacobs Yinon. "Not every film is about everybody." Even more personal is the movie's autobiographical bookend elements: Covenant begins and ends with a sequence depicting Jacobs Yinon herself at her own son's brit as the first-person voiceover brings the audience into the subject matter, explaining, "I stood far from the knife and near to God. I have watched mothers at brits ever since," she says. "Judaism teaches men that it is their covenant, and not for women," she tells Metro. "As a Modern Orthodox woman, I have to figure out how to make the covenant relevant for me. It's not given to me as relevant, so if I want it to be relevant in my life, I have to make it so." Hence the wrestling that takes place through making the movie. Jacobs Yinon began research for Covenant several years ago, using word of mouth to interview hundreds of expectant mothers, eventually finalizing on three worthy subjects. As the project began to gel, she formulated proposal documents and shopped the concept around for funding, a process that took so much time that the movie's original subjects all gave birth, rendering them irrelevant for the project. Eventually, Jacobs Yinon's proposal was picked up by three funding bodies: Tel Aviv's Rabinovitch Fund; the government's Second Authority for Television and Radio; and Gesher. The latter is a non-governmental organization that funds initiatives that foster brotherhood among Israel's eclectic population. Gesher's financial involvement in film and video has gained momentum in recent years, with some 11 of its productions screening in various international film festivals in 2006. The fund's recent Ushpizin feature was a blockbuster hit locally and received a limited US theatrical release. Finding an audience both here and abroad is never easy for independent filmmakers, and marketing representative Ruth Diskin is making remarkable headway in finding exposure for Covenant at festivals the world over. Considering the movie's esoteric subject and personal perspective, Jacobs Yinon is amazed by how commonly it resonates with audiences that are very different from her. The movie featured prominently at Warsaw, Poland's Jewish Motifs Film Festival and at the Sesily art collective's film festival in the Republic of Georgia this summer. It is also an integral part of the line-up for the Holy Land in the Heartland series, which travels around the United States providing a week of Israeli film, having gone to Atlanta, Georgia, last month and going to Albuquerque, New Mexico, in the spring. In Warsaw, a Christian teenager approached Jacobs Yinon after a screening to discuss her school research project on Jewish circumcision. At the Italian Religion Today festival last month, Jacobs Yinon enjoyed a barrier-smashing, multicultural experience. There, Covenant shared a schedule with an Italian documentary on the staging of folk passion plays in the Alps; Iranian filmmaker Fereydoon Hasanpour's Ramadan documentary; and Bulgarian filmmaker Rossen Elezov's profile of Svoboda Bucharova, an author who left Communism behind in favor of devout Christianity. Jacobs Yinon's diverse peers were captivated by her work, and she walked away with the coveted Best Documentary prize. In the process, she had the opportunity to meet fellow festival guest Sheik Abdul Aziz Bukhari, the head of Jerusalem's Sufi community. The two remarked on the bizarre twist of their having to travel so far in order to meet. She also had a rapport with some members of the Iranian delegation, who lamented that it would be impossible for them to maintain a relationship once they left Europe. Covenant is set to be screened at Akhziv's Jewish Film Festival over Hanukka and will air on Israel's Channel Two in 2007 as part of the movie's Second Authority sponsorship deal. In the meantime, Jacobs Yinon has been networking at the festivals overseas, trying to sell the broadcast rights to international television networks. Working so hard on promotion and marketing "is not fun," she says, but Jacobs Yinon recognizes that it's an important part of the artistic process in the modern world. "With music, you buy it and you listen to it over and over. But with a movie, the moment that it screens is the moment when it happens." She holds up a copy of the Covenant DVD, resigned to the realities of industry but hopeful that she can make an impact. "It's just a box," she says.