Getting to know Marlyn Vining, a Belz Hassid researching haredi cinema

Women of Jerusalem: profiling Marlyn Vining.

Marlyn Vining  (photo credit: KATARZYNA ANDERSZ)
Marlyn Vining
(photo credit: KATARZYNA ANDERSZ)
Marlyn Vining is one of Jerusalem’s many unsung extraordinary women.
Having served in the IDF and worked as a field reporter on cultural issues for a TV station, the 40-year-old Vining, a spry mother of seven and member of the Belz Hassidic sect, became religiously observant together with her husband after their wedding. 
Now a lecturer at a religious college and an ultra-Orthodox women’s seminary, she researches haredi cinema at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and is a film critic. For a short time in 2018 she was a candidate on the pluralist Hitorerut Party’s list for city council, but had to quit following recriminations from her community. 
Drawing upon seemingly unlimited energy, the Romema resident has published two volumes of poetry and two books on haredi cinema (the second is being translated into English). She examines cinema and its place in the haredi sector as a genre of its own and an expression of haredi feminism, as it is essentially made by and for women in this community. 
The COVID-19 crisis has caused an increase in negativity toward the haredi sector. How does it affect you?
There is nothing new about it. Haredim have always suffered from negativity from the general society. I still remember how people called us “animals” because our children were so excited to see the light rail for the first time. It has always been there. 
But now this has escalated; haredim are accused of spreading the virus – and many haredim do not follow the restrictions. 
True. It’s not new, but it has certainly burst out more recently. These accusations, of course, are inaccurate. The media spotlights extreme and weird cases – for example, it was published that only boys were allowed to return to the Talmud Torah and the girls remained at home without education. This is simply a lie, but it persisted without any serious fact-checking. 
But inside the community, there were many acts not in accordance with Health Ministry restrictions. How do you explain that? 
My community, the Belz, was accused of this, yet in my neighborhood, the part of Romema where the Belz live, there were few infections. Has anyone from the media taken the initiative to come and check? Of course not. 
But you can’t deny there are haredim who disregard the instructions.
You know, we also have our “punkists” and anarchists. Those who learn about us only through television believe they are representatives of all of us. Few care that this is not the case. Sometimes I feel like yawning when I hear those things. 
So you don’t pay attention to this issue?
I try not to, although it saddens me to see the changes this atmosphere of hatred has already caused. My son was attacked a few weeks ago and since then he no longer wants to join me when I have to attend meetings or other events in the non-haredi sector. He feels uncomfortable and threatened, so now he prefers to stay in our neighborhood. 
I believe that more haredim will now seclude themselves from secular society. After a period in which we felt that there was a rapprochement between us, I feel this is fading away and hatred is now the only language. Isn’t that sad? 
Apart from those who are in daily contact with the “outside” world – journalists, politicians and so on, the rest of us live their lives inside the community. They are not aware of or even interested in hearing what is said about us outside. They don’t know and they don’t need to know. Who really cares, out there in the secular world, about our life? About our customs, our community life, its beauty and rewards? 
The desire is only to find out one more scandal or “juicy” bit of bad news to bring forward. But most of us, the haredim, just don’t care about what the world outside thinks of us. We live a beautiful life in our families, communities, society and traditions; we don’t need the outside look at us. 
What should be done? There have been a lot of dialogue programs and projects, but you say this distrust has never really gone away. 
We are different sectors that should learn to love each other. So many among us are busy promoting peace, but how can you promote peace – for example between us and the Arabs – while the same people cannot love us, the haredim? If you love humanity, if you want to promote peace, you’ve got to love all the people, not only Eritrean or Palestinian children, right? After all, in the context of the present pandemic, we all know that COVID-19 doesn’t skip over anyone.
Where does this disconnect stem from?
The situation doesn’t fit the spirit of our times. The present tone takes the whole of Israeli society backwards. What kind of generation do we want to raise here? Do we really want to raise children who are always surrounded by hatred? Our children will then ultimately paint secular society in dark colors of hatred; it’s unavoidable. Do we want to reach a point when we ignore each other completely? Aren’t we here to live together? If every side pulls the blanket to his side, the blanket will simply be torn. 
COVID-19 has taken most of us to a terrible place. Violence and hatred are the primary languages used now by all sides. On television, you only see those who violate restrictions; you never see the majority who strictly observe the rules. Why? These people obviously do not represent the haredi sector, so why focus on them? After all, we already know that this virus attacks us all without any distinction.
What can be done?
Those who live in a world of creativity, a world of arts, have the capacity to see things differently. We should all live real life with real people, not based on images provided by the media. Today there is no dialogue in Israel. No side really talks to the other side. What we need urgently is the voice of gentleness, the voice that comes from arts and culture but has completely disappeared since the pandemic arrived. 
You are a Jerusalemite – what is the status of art and culture here in your eyes?
I grew up here. All childhood my memories are here, including the period before I became haredi. Every alley, every corner belongs to my life. But in recent years, I feel Jerusalem is becoming grayish. It’s always about construction, towers, rails and roads – but no one can purchase a decent house here. 
I work from Tel Aviv, not from here. The status of artists here is not high. We receive some assistance, but it is just enough funding to keep artists above water. Most of the cultural events here (before coronavirus) are attended by seniors – and the culture scene is taking place somewhere else. 
Jerusalem used to be one of the most exciting places; it is not anymore. It was so promising, so stirring, but nowadays I have to go to Tel Aviv because most things in the arts and culture world happen only there. I feel as if Jerusalem now is only an attraction for tourists, a culture of malls. We do not utilize, in the right sense, Jerusalem’s sanctity and special soul. 
So you think the holiness of the capital is not properly considered?
I feel as if we are all ignoring a huge elephant in the room without calling it by its name – the sanctity of this city that we should not run away from. 
Your field of focus is movies, especially haredi cinema.
Yes, and my second book on this topic is coming out in English soon; that makes me so happy. This is a true feminist aspect of life in haredi society – made by women, for women, with no support from foundations or public money. It is a female thing and a thrilling one, totally ignored by the secular public. 
People are not aware of the enormous spectrum of this industry. As many as nine films are produced every year. This is an aspect of feminist haredi life that few outside of this society are aware of, but it is spreading here in Israel and wherever there are haredi communities. In my first book on the topic, I describe the phenomenon, in my second book I delve deeper into this, exploring additional aspects and attaining greater understandings. It’s a multiple-generation experience – girls aged seven or eight go to watch such a movie with their mothers, their grandmothers – it’s a totally different and extraordinary experience that exists only in haredi society. 
What are these films are about?
Mostly, it shows the various aspects of our lives, our daily reality, but the stories are brought to life through film. It’s about us, it’s told by us to us, and that’s beautiful. 
It would be great if non-haredi women would join to this experience; after all, it’s open to all women. Perhaps as soon as we get over the coronavirus, with God’s help.