No sex please, we're haredi

Modesty, morality and good clean fun. Welcome to Gefilte Film Kasher.

gefilte film 88.298 (photo credit: )
gefilte film 88.298
(photo credit: )
Shalom Isenbach grew up in a two-bedroom flat in Mea She'arim with 13 siblings. There was no TV in his house, no radio, which they called the "Kli Hatameh," the impure instrument, and no newspapers. If the children wanted entertainment, they had to provide it for themselves. So they did. What started as small amateur sketches became full length films, a monthly haredi entertainment show and more. This despite obstacles in the form of funding, logistics, and, of course, the boundaries set by Jewish law. By the time he was 11, producer and director Shalom and his brother were putting on theatrical performances in local school dining rooms and makeshift halls. "Ha'achim Isenbach" performed moral fables, stories of tzaddikim and Purim plays - all in Yiddish. Over the next few years they started drawing crowds of both children and adults (male only) and making a name for themselves. "As time went on we really invested more and more in the set design, the costumes. We became increasingly popular," he explains from producer Aran Patinkin's Mevaseret home. Back in 2001, they sank $5,000 into an enormous production, their biggest yet. Pashkavilim, posters warning against the production's moral "kashrut," started going up all over the ultra-orthodox neighborhoods of Jerusalem. "In Mea She'arim we always used to say that Pashkavilim were the best free advertisement in the world," Isenbach chuckles with a childish grin and the remnants of Yiddish gesticulations. "Whatever you spend on marketing, the minute they start a campaign against you, everyone will know about it." The advertising worked. Hundreds of boys and men came, but protesters blocked the entrance and didn't let people pass. "It's not that the content of that play was any different from any other," explains Isenbach. "It's just that the minute you start making money from something like this, 'they' [ the religious extremists] get scared." The brothers lost half of their investment in the production, but the evening encouraged them to think of new directions. They filmed the show and sent it to Galpaz, one of the first haredi film distributers. "They were interested but told us to make it into a film, and make it in Hebrew." For Shalom Isenbach, who moved away from haredi life, dabbled in secular culture and returned to a mitzvah-observant lifestyle (he now lives in Tel Aviv with his wife and child), this heralded the birth of Hassidishkeit, a monthly cultural magazine studio "show" produced on CD and of Gefilte Film Kasher, films for the haredi community. In Hassidishkeit (that recently amalgamated with Actualishkeit, a news magazine to become, simply, Siddish), Isenbach presents entertainment and music stories from the haredi world, as well as a "Rabbi's corner" and a halacha spot. Adverts specializing in products tailored for the haredi consumer are incorporated seamlessly into the show. Orange and Pelephone advertise with them, but there are smaller players too: local baby product shops, food markets and such like. The show is presented by Shlomo Tolker, a well-known figure in the haredi media world. There are no women in any of these CD magazines, and no women's voices. "If an ad comes in with a woman's voice, we change it," says Isenbach. "Not that there's necessarily a problem with hearing a woman talk, but they'll find some problem with the show anyway, so we try to make it as kosher - from our perspective - as possible." Siddish is sold for NIS 9.90 and Isenbach is currently working on the 51st edition. "It costs about NIS 60-70 to produce, but at that price who would buy it? As it is people cut the CDs, share. It's hard to estimate how many people are actually watching," says Isenbach. The company covers itself through advertising, and Isenbach dreams that one day, all the big companies will make kosher, professionally executed "spots" for the haredi market. At present, Siddish has 1,200 subscribers, but that's simply the tip of the iceberg. The CD is distributed at 250 music shops throughout the country and 700 grocery shops. "If they sell haredi papers, they sell us," says Isenbach. Gafilte Film Kasher, his movie company, is more for the sake of creative expression than paying the rent. Making the films is an expensive project for him, even though the budgets are laughable (never more than $15,000). The stress factor is high and the returns low. Nevertheless, Isenbach persists. Over Hanukka, the 7th Jerusalem Jewish Film Festival screened a documentary following the making of the last Gafilte Film Kasher. Secular director Aran Patinkin followed Isenbach back to his childhood neighborhood and back to his parents' house where the film was shot. It was a roots journey that allowed the secular viewer to understand the limitations - and richness - of this world as well as giving them an understanding of what making a haredi film in the heart of Mea She'arim really entails. In this film, 'A Week Without Mother,' the mother goes away with the daughter for recuperation time leaving an inept father and his four sons to cope. Many of the jokes that prevail rely heavily on slapstick humor. All the white shirts come out pink from the wash, the father's hevruta, learning partner, (the haredi comic star David Hahakian) slips on foodstuffs forgotten on the floor, the kids get sick of the awful food, and so on and so forth. When mother comes back, (they open the door to her but she isn't seen or heard) her role as domestic goddess is appreciated triplefold. A woman of valor is truly found. In Patinkin's documentary we see the film crew trying to adjust to the reality of Mea She'arim and having both fun and frustration with the logistical difficulties. They start filming on a minor fast day, and they can't even get one scene to go right before everyone crashes with a headache; at one point they have to stop filming because women take to sitting on a public bench within their shooting range. "It's like a foreign country to me," comments Omer Leshem, one of the members of the secular tech crew. THE CONCEPT of haredi movies and haredi studio shows sounds like an oxymoron. This is a community that won't go the movies and don't own TVs. As Isenbach points out, some of these people have never even seen the sea or left their town, but increasingly, producers like Isenbach are finding creative solutions to get their entertainment into the community's homes via DVDs and CDs watchable on (relatively) kosher computers. They're doing a good job, too. The haredi entertainment market is growing rapidly. Greentec, one of the leading Israeli companies that specializes in haredi films and entertainment, puts out between 5-10 new titles each month, with a stock of over 10,000 titles in total. The films, documentaries and magazines are all made in Hebrew (they have no market as yet for Yiddish entertainment) but are dubbed appropriately for distribution both here and abroad. "There isn't rabbinical permission for these movies, but educational figures do check them." says Avi Greenberg, director of Greentec. "They want to see that the films aren't violent." Like Isenbach, these "inspectors" also want to see that the material is kosher in other ways: that they are sexually modest, have appropriate story lines, etc. And there are no women to be seen - or heard. Films made by haredi women, for haredi women, are slow to take off and have an even smaller audience. Greentec only stocks one title at the moment, Inbal Cohen's Believe it or not, a series of comic sketches that comes with a warning that it should be viewed by women and girls only. "Women can and will watch haredi films made by men, with only men in them. However, only women can watch the films made by women. It's obviously very limiting in terms of sales," says Greenberg. Of course the problem with all haredi entertainment is that a limited audience also makes for a limited budget - and limited quality. Isenbach dreams of being able to spend more serious sums. In A Week Without Mother they had to make do with four sons, instead of say, ten, which would have offered up more creative opportunities - and been more representative of haredi life. They also filmed the entire movie in less than a month and with Isenbach's parents' home as the only set. "We pay these actors about $150-200 a day. We don't have the luxury of messing around. We need to get it finished and out there." Isenbach bemoans the fact that there is currently no funding whatsoever to promote and enrich the industry. Foundations like Avi Chai endorse and support films and TV series with religious subject matter, and Gesher promotes films that grapple with religious and secular co-existence and pluralism, but there is no government or private funding for the line of entertainment that Isenbach is making. "No one is willing to help us enrich the culture of this section of society," says Isenbach. "If they were, the market would explode." But while these films may have a growing audience and enormous potential, questions still remain about the nature of the industry. While these films may be more kosher than what they're screening at the local mall, as Greenberg hastens to point out, the question still remains how far they incorporate the spirit of the law. Advertisements such as those on Siddish promote a consumerist culture, and any film viewing distracts from time that could be spent learning Torah. Isenbach's brother, his partner in "Ha'achim Isenbach," back in the early days, now refuses to appear in Shalom's films. "As an educational figure I can't," he tells Shalom in Patankin's film. "This is what I'm fighting the children against, computers, the internet." But his brother disagrees. "They tell this story about a haredi father and his son," says Isenbach. "He didn't want to expose the boy to the treif of this world. Finally, when the boy was 18 his father took him on a walk in the neighborhood to see the real world. "When he saw a woman for the first time he said, 'Abba, what's that?' The father replied 'that's a duck.' 'Abba,' the son said. 'Will you buy me two ducks?' The films we offer are kosher. If people aren't exposed to anything but a page of Talmud, then when they see that there's a big-wide world out there, they'll go to the extreme end of secular culture. Here, we're offering good, clean entertainment. When parents have all their kids on holiday they can't always get them to sit and learn, or take them out on trips every day. It's another alternative." Greenberg, equally, doesn't feel the need to apologize. "I can't look at it from that angle," he says. "Everybody has to make their own decisions about how they want to spend their time." "There's a very wide spectrum in haredi culture," adds Patinkin. "Not everyone is Neturei Karta." For some, however, kosher films and TV magazines aren't simply a second-choice, or a fall-back option. As Yitzchak Goldman, one of Isenbach's actors, comments in Patankin's documentary: "When you bring these films to people, you're bringing joie de vivre, simhat hayim. The guy sees the film and enjoys it. You're doing kindness, hesed, with him."