The heart of the matter

A decidedly unconventional hassidic woman lets Jerusalemites in on a slice of her life, and what has made her an icon in her Belz community and the world of haredi cinema

Marlyn Vinig (standing) is ‘At Home’ at the head of her table, flanked by Deputy Mayor Ofer Berkovitch (left). (photo credit: YAIR MOSS)
Marlyn Vinig (standing) is ‘At Home’ at the head of her table, flanked by Deputy Mayor Ofer Berkovitch (left).
(photo credit: YAIR MOSS)
In order to fully understand who Marlyn Vinig is, you must first forget anything you know or think you know about how a haredi woman should act.
Vinig is well aware that she defies any stereotypes, and even seems happy about it. Last week, her house – located in the heart of one of the capital’s haredi neighborhoods – was one of the venues for the Jerusalem Season of Culture’s opening feature, the “At Home” mini-festival.
The Shabbat table in her living room was arranged as it would be for a typical gathering: covered by a white embroidered tablecloth, with small glasses of sweet kiddush wine, slices of kugel and pickled cucumbers.
To the sounds of hassidic music, Vinig opened her first tish to non-haredi guests.
There was no question that she was enjoying every minute of the tish – a traditional hassidic gathering with food and song. Being at the center of something, almost anything, seems to be a natural act for her.
Indeed, her personal story sounds like a high-quality drama, and she makes a fascinating heroine. She would probably enjoy writing a critique on such a movie.
Born in Australia to an Israeli father who spent many years there and came back to raise his family in Jerusalem, she grew up not far from the Mea She’arim neighborhood. Her family gave her access to arts and culture and developed within her a thirst for reading and knowledge. Her years at the Experimental School in the city center, her stint as a writer for some local youth magazines, and her subsequent army service as a correspondent for the IDF’s Bamahaneh journal (where Yesh Atid MK Yair Lapid began his journalism career as a military correspondent) all seem to have laid the groundwork for her future interest in cinema – a field to which she has brought more than a little chutzpah and a lot of charm.
Today, she is a hozeret bit’shuva – one who becomes religious later in life – and is married to her longtime boyfriend, who grew up in a secular family and with whom she is raising seven children. For years, the couple has shared their yearning for spirituality and the sense of a divine presence in their lives. Their choice to join the Belz Hassidic sect might not be an obvious one, but for Vinig and her husband, it was natural.
Still – and she admits this openly – the move seems to have been easier for her husband, who has changed his name from Erez to Shulem and become a devout hassid who doesn’t even look at women.
Her own lifestyle modifications were slightly different. She insisted on keeping her original name, which is not a Jewish one, and her head covering diverges from the norm in her new community.
“Belz women wear a wig covered by a hat – and I wear that only for synagogue,” she explains, showing her black knitted bonnet, which she readjusts periodically to cover some rebel curls peeking out.
But these changes were peanuts compared to her main achievement: She obtained permission from the Belzer Rebbe (to whom she refers as “the Rav,” with the requisite Yiddish accent) to continue with her studies and her work in film, specifically haredi film.
Vinig has a master’s from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in theater and cinema, and she recently published a book on ultra-Orthodox cinema – a topic on which she is conducting scholarly research. She also teaches theater and cinema in several haredi women’s colleges, writes film critiques on the Saloona website and is the only haredi member of the Israeli Film Council. One of her aims is to develop a community of critics for haredi movies, something entirely absent from the field at present.
In addition to all that, she writes erotic poetry, some of which she read at the tish. Again, not what one would expect from a haredi woman.
Vinig explained to her curious audience of approximately 40 people that since these were her capabilities, she could not imagine having them silenced. Anyway, right from the beginning, she acquired a sort of carte blanche from the rebbe, because she had come to the community from outside.
“For all these things I have asked from the rebbe... I got the answer, ‘Adraba [Why not?],’” she recounted. “This means he accepted me as I am. It is not, as one might think, that I submit a request and get an authorization – that’s not how it works. If the rebbe – directly or, as it primarily happens, through my husband – says, ‘Adraba,’ it means he doesn’t see a threat in what I want to do, but rather is giving me a blessing.”
For her, it is clear that her skills, which she perceives as a divine gift, are part of her personality.
“These are the things I am good at and therefore am committed to; otherwise I would feel I have wasted them, that I haven’t done my part,” she said.
As for the erotic poetry, she stunned her audience by explaining that the most intimate issues, in her view, related to her relationship with God, and that erotic poetry describing the attraction between two human partners was not something to be kept hidden.
The “At Home Festival,” which ran for four consecutive evenings, also provided the framework for an encounter between her and Shifra Kornfeld, the young woman who became famous several years ago as the winner of popular reality TV show Big Brother. In a way, it was a meeting of two women who had taken directly opposite paths in life – Vinig from the secular world to the hassidic community, and Kornfeld from a strictly religious family to the secular world.
But at the tish event, which went by the title “Marlyn’s Lexicon,” the two women slipped easily onto common ground. They told the audience afterward that they had begun their evening with a joint reading of Psalms – something Vinig does almost daily and Kornfeld stopped doing some 15 years ago.
“And yet,” Vinig pointed out, “the sparks were immediately present, and we read together, in perfect harmony, on my balcony, facing the sunset over the Jerusalem hills, and it was a magical moment.”
Answering some questions at the end of the session, she admitted that her chosen lifestyle was not always easy.
Two years ago, when Deputy Mayor Ofer Berkovitch – who was present at the session and characterized himself as a “devoted fan of Marlyn” – convinced her to run on his Hitorerut list for the city council, things became ugly, and she ultimately had to resign.
“I didn’t realize how hard it would be, because all the things that could be accepted by my community – in which I have become an icon – could not go through when I touched the most sensitive aspect: political life. That was a frontier I was not allowed, at any price, to trespass,” she recounted. “It was a lesson for me.”
Haredi women and cinema
Marlyn Vinig’s chosen field – haredi cinema – is such a novelty that when she presented the topic to her professors at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the reply she received was, “Is there such a thing at all?” She says that not only does haredi cinema exist, it is flourishing – and perhaps most interestingly, it is largely created by ultra-Orthodox women. Vinig discovered it by chance about 10 years ago, when she was invited to a screening by one of the Belz Hassidic community’s leading women.
In her book Orthodox Cinema – which is based on her master’s thesis and which she published through the Resling publishing house’s “Fetish” series for cultural studies – Vinig describes that experience as a seminal one for her, one that eventually took her into the field and turned her into the first female haredi critic of haredi film. In her opinion, scholarly research on haredi cinema has many aspects, but the most crucial is to show that it should be considered a genre in its own right.
“The heroines in a haredi film,” she says in the book’s introduction, “are totally different from those in the general cinema. No director (man) is there to tell them how to look or how to seduce the spectators, [nor] to undress them.”
One such film, which describes the life of an ultra-Orthodox family through the eyes of its haredi woman director, made its way to the general public: Rama Burshtein’s acclaimed Fill the Void.
In her book, Vinig counts no fewer than 44 films by and about haredim. She concludes that while this is a relatively new sort of artistic expression, it is certainly gaining praise – and that the role of women in all of it is amazing.