Make time for ‘Ponevezh’

A compelling documentary enters the inner sanctum of the legendary yeshiva in Bnei Brak.

Ponevezh Yeshiva in B’nei Brak (photo credit: Screenshot)
Ponevezh Yeshiva in B’nei Brak
(photo credit: Screenshot)
Ponevezh TimeWritten and directed by Yehonatan IndurskyHebrew title: Zman Ponevezh.Running time: 53 minutes.In Hebrew and Yiddish. Check with theaters for subtitle information.
Yehonatan Indursky’s Ponevezh Time is a poetic and affectionate look at the Ponevezh Yeshiva in B’nei Brak. The documentary is playing throughout the month at the Jerusalem and Tel Aviv cinematheques. The Ponevezh name is a legend in the yeshiva world, since it was the one of the largest and most distinguished learning institutions in Lithuania before the Holocaust. It was reestablished in Israel in 1943 and has more than 1,000 students. If the name of this yeshiva doesn’t ring a bell, you should realize that it is equivalent of Oxford, the Sorbonne and MIT all rolled into one in the eyes of the non-Hassidic ultra- Orthodox. Now imagine that cameras had never been allowed into Oxford, the Sorbonne or MIT before (or at least never been given this level of access), and you’ll get an idea of how unique this documentary is.
Indursky was able to create this intimate portrait of Ponevezh (often pronounced Ponevitch) because, like Rama Burshtein, the director who made the acclaimed feature film Fill the Void , set in the haredi community in Tel Aviv, he is both an insider and an outsider. While Burshtein studied at the Sam Spiegel School for Film in Jerusalem, then became haredi, Indursky grew up in a haredi family in Jerusalem and was a student at Ponevezh for three years, then went on to study at Spiegel, a parallel but in some ways opposite journey. Indursky has said in interviews that he still considers himself haredi, but he does not practice the religion as strictly as he once did. In any case, he obviously still feels a deep connection to Ponevezh, and that shows in the film.
Ponevezh Time is not a political film, and it does not address any of the controversies that have engulfed the haredi world in recent years concerning the military draft, discrimination and disrespect toward women, Ashkenazi institutions discriminating against Mizrahi Jews and other issues that have made headlines. Instead, it is a look at what life is really like for students and faculty there.
With the large number of students and the emphasis on excellence in Torah studies, it is a challenging place for younger and more sensitive students, but clearly it can be a very fulfilling environment as well. Indursky follows several students and faculty through important moments in their lives and in the year. The students he shows are extremely devoted to their studies, and the teachers are equally committed to helping them excel. But these students have the same fears, hopes and problems as any other adolescents or young adults, even though on the surface they seem far more calm and obedient than typical secular teens.
Some of the students feel lost at Ponevezh, and we see a 16-year-old who looks much younger talk wistfully about a dream he had that he was still at home with his family.
Another boy goes to the head of the yeshiva to discuss his difficulties with his study partner, whom he feels looks down on him. Finding the right study partner ( hevruta ) is akin to making a best friend in the secular world. When a study partner leaves the yeshiva, the remaining partner feels bereft. The dynamic of these partnerships is a bit like dating.
The devoted students who awaken at dawn to pray and get in some extra study seem like star athletes of the yeshiva. And, while the celebrity culture of the outside world is absent here, the students are clearly shaken when one of their rabbinic sages takes ill and are united in mourning after his death.
The filmmaker allows his subjects to express themselves in a relaxed way, and it is refreshing to see people on camera who seem natural, in sharp contrast to the often artificial-feeling participants in so-called reality television or many other documentaries. Indursky’s portrait of Ponevezh makes its subjects more human and less remote. It is unlikely to change the way anyone will vote in the next elections, and that wasn’t the director’s intention. Instead, it may well change the way you look at ultra-Orthodox people you pass on the street.