IT HAS long been a custom for Beit Avi Chai to host film screenings on Tisha Be’av. The films have something to do with either baseless hatred, unconditional love or both. Sometimes the theme is obvious, and sometimes it is hidden and presented as a social problem, as was the case with the first film, Marry Me However, made by Rabbi Mordechai Vardi, who has headed the screenwriting department at the Jerusalem-based Ma’aleh Film School for 20 years, directed many documentaries and is the rabbi at Kibbutz Rosh Tzurim.
The film was appropriate for several reasons. Tisha Be’av is only a few days ahead of Tu Be’av, the ancient Jewish version of Valentine’s Day, so a film that opens with a joyful marriage scene in which there is a lot of goodwill spells the message of both Tisha Be’av and Tu Be’av. The bride and groom are members of the religious-Zionist community.
The snag was that most of the women in the film are divorced or in the process of getting divorced from gay men. Two are lesbians, and a couple of other women – wives of rabbis and teachers in their own right – are empathetic counselors. Although the Torah explicitly forbids homosexuality (which indicates that it existed when the Law was handed down from God to Moses), increasing numbers of Orthodox rabbis are coming to terms with the fact that homosexuality cannot be reversed and is part of a person’s sexual identity.
Orthodox rabbis and gay religious Jews
Only in recent years have certain Orthodox rabbis become more accepting of gay religious Jews, but there is still the community pressure to get married, to marry young and to raise a family. Rabbis used to tell gay young men who came to them with their secret to get married anyway, and assured them that it would all work out. Some of the young men were so eager to fit into the community that they believed them. A few told their prospective brides that they were gay, but the teenage virgins, who had no experience of sexual relations, said that they could live with that and were sure that eventually things would improve. The sad thing was that the wives were genuinely in love with their husbands, and the husbands, who were fond of the women as individuals, were not sexually attracted to them.
One woman said that every month, after going to the mikveh for her ritual bath, her husband was not at home. Yet when she was leaving the mikveh, she saw other husbands waiting for their wives in eager anticipation.
The men who were interviewed said that marriage had been agony for them because they were not being true to themselves. Yet most fathered children, and were very good fathers, as attested by their ex-wives, one of whom was the mother of six. The couple had tried very hard to keep their marriage together, but it just didn’t work.
Judging by the film, when a marriage between a homosexual and a heterosexual falls apart, it’s easier for their children to accept than when two heterosexuals get divorced because mommy and daddy don’t love each other anymore. In the latter case, the children are afraid that one or both parents will also stop loving them. But when the reason for the divorce is that one parent is gay, and the parents remain on good terms, that fear does not exist.
In some religious-Zionist communities, the rabbi and almost everyone except the bride knows that the groom is gay, and nobody tells her. This poses yet another dilemma. Should she be told, and who should tell her?
In one of the on-screen cases, the sister-in-law of the husband accidentally discovers his secret when he forgets to close the computer on a gay site. She decides to support him because she can see that he tried to make a go of it. But his own blood relatives cannot accept him as gay, or forgive him for the divorce.
There are several stories in the film, and both the men and the women are incredibly candid. There is no hatred on the part of the wives – just sadness.
Vardi said later that the worst thing a rabbi can do is to tell a bride or groom who has confided in him about their sexual identity, to go ahead with the marriage, and that everything will be okay.
The second film, Like a Beating Heart, is a semi-personal documentary by Jerusalem filmmaker and writer Yair Agmon, who is also a natural stand-up comedian, as evidenced by the peals of laughter during his post-screening address to the audience.
Yeshiva-educated and raised in a religiously observant family, Agmon felt no less broken in spirit than his wife when she gave birth to a stillborn baby.
He needed some kind of spiritual adrenalin and thought that he might best receive it if he went to Uman in Ukraine, where thousands of Jewish men from Israel and the Jewish world congregate annually for Rosh Hashanah at the graveside of Rabbi Nahman of Breslov.
He had not originally thought to make a film. He just needed a spiritual uplift, which, in the final analysis, he failed to get. But he took his camera with him and, when looking later at the footage, realized that he had something special.
Uman is like a kosher Woodstock, with Jewish men of every stripe, and a small sprinkling of women. For some reason it attracts religious, irreligious, Sephardim, Ashkenazim, hassidim, non-hassidim, musicians and quite a few weirdos.
Chief cook and bottle washer is Shma’aya Levi, a hulk of a man with long earlocks, a broad, perpetual smile, an excellent set of teeth, and an enormous hooked nose such as those often seen in antisemitic cartoons. The viewer gets caught up in the idyllic spirit of camaraderie in which everyone embraces everyone else, dances spontaneously, and doesn’t mind the unhygienic conditions or the dormitory-style sleeping arrangements.
The third film, Legend of Destruction, an animated historic production about the destruction of Jerusalem, written by Gidi Dar and Shuli Rand, was followed by an address by former Blue and White MK Tehila Friedman, whose focus was on learning the lesson of Rabbi Yohanan Ben-Zakai, the importance of togetherness, and the ability to compromise, all of which she said would contribute to political success, which she said Israelis are not very good at, even though they excel in other spheres.
In the past, the screenings concluded just before the end of the fast, and there was a sense of community, as everyone gathered for hot and cold beverages and pastries. In those days the whole event was free of charge. This time, everyone paid, but the event was over by 6 p.m., and there were no refreshments. The former spirit of Beit Avi Chai was lacking.