Time to learn

The film ‘Ponevezh Time’ is not only an intimate look at what makes part of the haredicommunity tick; it comes from the most knowledgeable of authorities on the subject

Ponevezh Yeshiva 521 (photo credit: Philippe Bellaiche)
Ponevezh Yeshiva 521
(photo credit: Philippe Bellaiche)
While it might be early to call it a “trend,” there has been increasing interest of late in the haredi side of our society.
Last year the Israel Museum hosted an extensive, and rich, exhibition based on the largely cloistered lifestyle and customs of the community just down the road, in Mea She’arim, and around 18 months ago Gil Cohen-Magen published a handsome book of intriguing and eye-opening shots of life there.
While both artistic endeavors certainly added to secular Israeli society’s knowledge of what goes on, on the haredi side of the tracks, Yehonatan Indursky’s documentary Ponevezh Time adds a strong sense of intimacy to the exploratory fray. The film will be shown at the Jerusalem and Tel Aviv cinematheques starting Sunday, and up to March 30.
Ponevezh Time is not only an intimate look at what makes part of the haredi community tick; it comes from the most knowledgeable of authorities on the subject. Indursky is not a secular Israeli who suddenly became interested in the “exotic” ultra-Orthodox sector, he comes from that very background, and even attended the eponymous talmudic educational institution.
Ponevezh Yeshiva, in Bnei Brak, is considered by many to be the crème de la crème of religious higher education. When then 16-year-old Indursky arrived to spend what became a three-year stint there, he was more than a little overwhelmed.
“Ponevezh is at the top of a hill in Bnei Brak, and there are all these steps that lead up to the entrance,” he recalls, 12 years on. “I had wheels attached to my suitcase and one of the wheels was worn away, and I dragged the suitcase all the way from Jerusalem, so it was all a bit daunting when I got there.”
Indursky comes from a haredi family in Givat Shaul in Jerusalem, and followed in his older brother’s talmudic learning footsteps. Unsurprisingly, one of the main characters in the documentary is a 16-year-boy named Haim, who struggles to find his place in the overwhelming institution. Indursky, too, found the going tough at the yeshiva and, after three years of doing his best to keep up and to find some personal meaning in the intensive religious studies, he eventually left and, at least outwardly, crossed to the other side of the religious tracks.
But this was not a rebellion of earth shattering proportions.
Unlike many formerly Orthodox people who opt to follow a secular lifestyle, Indursky did not storm out of the religious fold slamming the door behind him. “I still consider myself haredi,” he says, even though, by his own admission, he keeps Shabbat in his own way and was bareheaded when we met. “I don’t know if haredim would consider me haredi, but that’s how I feel. When I left the yeshiva I carried on living at home for a few years. I have wonderful parents and there was never any rift between us after I left the yeshiva.”
It was his father who helped to ease Indursky’s burden of solitude at the yeshiva, in a wholesome way. “You know, there are some yeshiva students who smoke because it is a way of distancing themselves from those around them, and making everything and everyone around them a bit fuzzy,” Indursky notes. “There are all sorts of rabbis – don’t forget Rabbi Schach [who lived to the age of 103] smoked a lot – because they feel there is something almost spiritual in smoking, not like food.”
Indursky Sr. provided his son with a healthier means of escapism. “My father likes classical music, he has loads of cassettes he recorded from the radio, and he gave me a Walkman with a tape of Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 3. I know that symphony by heart, every single note, because I used to listen to it every night before I went to sleep. It gave me the space I needed, to be on my own.”
PONEVEZH TIME actually started gestating quite a while ago, in fact from that first and formative moment when the wetbehind- the-ears teenaged Indursky arrived at the steps of the yeshiva.
“I remember looking up at this big building and wishing I had a camera so that I could take pictures of my first days at the yeshiva,” he says, “you know, all those things you have to endure at the beginning – until you get your bedroom, and find your place in the dining room and all the other teething problems. I tried a few times to find a good hevruta [study partner].”
It wasn’t easy, although Indursky says he doesn’t regret any of it. “Those were the toughest three years of my life, but they were also the most precious and beloved years. So, when I eventually got my hands on a camera I wanted to capture that feeling, of being lost in a big place, far away from my mother and father, and just trying to survive the experience.” That comes across, almost painfully, in the documentary.
Indursky says that Ponevezh Yeshiva is no place for the fainthearted, and that the powers-that-be there do not set too much store by addressing the emotional needs of the students, not even of the youngsters who are living away from home for the first time in their lives. It was that, more than anything, that led Indursky to finally make a break from the haredi lifestyle.
“There is great emphasis on the cognitive side of life at the yeshiva,” he explains. “You have kids, aged 16 – like I was – who feel utterly at sea there. You are all on your own, with no one to turn to, and the only way you can express yourself is through your intellect.
Everything is regimented – the way you can express yourself, the way you ask questions and conduct yourself.”
Indursky needed other channels of self-expression. “I started discovering the world of art, and all sorts of other ways – more emotional ways – that you can put your ideas, and feelings, into visible and tangible form,” he says. “That appealed to me far more than the intellectual approach of the yeshiva.”
The “epiphany” was not long in coming. “There was a boy who shared my room who was doing some kind of research and he needed a book, and he found out he could get it at the Hibat Zion Library on the border of Ramat Gan. I went along with him and, while he looked for his book, I saw a volume of poetry by Rahel. I’d heard her name but I didn’t really know anything about her.”
The works soon starting pulling on the young man’s heartstrings. “I started reading the book and I realized that here was a woman who had experienced quite a few a things in her life, and put her emotions out there, on the page, into the world. I realized that there was a value to expressing these things.”
It was a sentiment that has stayed with Indursky, and set him on his own path of creative discovery through his filmmaking. “I realized you could express your emotions, rather than seeing them as an obstacle on the way to achieving your intellectual objective at the yeshiva. At the yeshiva you are taught to focus solely on the intellect. I had the odd moment at Ponevezh when I managed to get to that point, but most of the time I felt I was a failure.”
Even in this era of reality shows, when it appears there are no holds barred and there is nowhere the camera can’t venture, Ponevezh Time is a fascinating portrayal of life at one of the haredi world’s most prestigious bastions of study and, indeed, preparation for male adult life, a world that few outside the fold had ever seen before.
There are all sorts of intriguing and colorful characters in the film, from the head of the yeshiva, Rabbi Eliezer Kahaneman, to the mashgiah – the supervisor who fills one of the most important positions in the institutions – Rabbi Eliyahu Pellerman, to avrechim (students) of varying degrees of seniority, erudition and canniness.
It is probably fair to say that there are few people who could have achieved such an authentic and convincing end product as Indursky. He was less a fly on the wall during the study sessions, tête-à-têtes and more intimate scenes, than a welcome presence. “I have been back to the yeshiva many times over the years,” says the young filmmaker. “Nobody there considers me an enemy.
Mind you, to begin with, with the camera, boom and microphone and other equipment we stuck out like a bit of a sore thumb there, but they gradually got used to us being around and they just went about their business.”
There were occasions when a lower profile was in order. “When the circumstances demanded it I went there on my own, with a small handheld camera,” Indursky notes.
Secular Israelis may have a generalized – and possibly none too rosy – image of the regimen in such places which from the outside may seem foreboding, impregnable fortresses where none but the pious and suitably religiously inclined may venture. That comes through to an extent in Ponevezh Time, but the documentary also paints some other less expected aspects of life there.
Despite the joint study sessions and an implied sense of camaraderie or, at least, shared belief, Indursky says that, to a large degree, Ponevezh is something of a jungle and that it is a case of every yeshiva student for himself.
“I didn’t have to go to Ponevezh, but I wanted to go there because it is the best place to study at,” he states. “There is no official policy of competition between the students there, but it is implicit that if somebody goes to Ponevezh he goes there to try to be No. 1. It is not discussed openly but it is a major driving force behind everything that goes on there.”
It is, says the director, in the yeshiva management’s interests to keep that the subliminal sense of rivalry alive. “There’s no real discipline, per se, at the yeshiva. You can plan your own daily schedule, and no one is going to check up on you if you don’t turn up for prayers or study sessions, but it is clear that from the first day the student gets to Ponevezh he is there to do his best to get to the top, to ask the best questions, to show interest and make sure he gets noticed.”
Indursky may have found it tough to fit in, but his travails also offered him some added value in keeping him excluded from the mainstream at the yeshiva, and that allowed him to maintain an objective observational standpoint throughout.
That outsider berth eventually spawned the film.
Indursky never left his haredi beginnings behind him and, when he eventually decided to make good on his filmic aspirations and studied at the Sam Spiegel Film & Television School in Jerusalem, he was naturally drawn back to his alma mater.
“When I graduated from the film school I thought that it was time to do something on the yeshiva,” he recalls. “So I went back there, and I did my best to persuade the heads of the yeshiva to allow me to come back with a camera, to film what goes on there.” It was hard work but, as Ponevezh Time amply shows, he got there in the end.
DESPITE HIS intimate knowledge of the place, the documentary is not an entirely accurate portrayal of what life was like for Indursky when he was fumbling his way through his talmudic studies there. Some things have changed there since he left, and some for the better. “Today they realize they need someone younger – like the current mashgiah, who is maybe 40 years old – who understands a bit more what the younger kids at the yeshiva need,” notes Indursky. “There is a little more attention to the individual.”
There is a lovely upbeat moment in the documentary when a couple of the older students go to Rabbi Kahaneman and suggest they hold Simhat Beit Hashoeva festivities on Succot. There is a bit of toing and froing, during which Rabbi Kahaneman tries to stick to the traditional hard line, while the students point out that the other yeshivot have such joyous gatherings, so why shouldn’t they. Eventually the mashgiah relents, and everyone seems to be happy with the decision. The event duly takes place, and naturally Indursky and camera are around to capture the momentous and merry ambiance. But not everyone appears to be having a great time. We see Haim, the fish out of water, searching almost desperately for his slot – physical and emotional – as the party progresses. “He is lost, they are all a bit lost,” says Indursky.
Today, he looks anything but lost. There is something “different” about him, despite his apparent secular appearance.
When I suggest he has a spiritual vibe about him, he does not argue. “I believe we are who we were in our childhood and youth. That’s where we come from, whether we like it or not.
You can fight it all your life or you can accept it and embrace it as where you come from. I come from the haredi world, and it is a part of me.”
Indursky’s graduation project from the film school was a movie about the haredi community, and he has a new series, called Shtissel, which is also about the sector and is due to be aired on Yes in the near future.
At the end of the day, what may have opened the door to the yeshiva for Indursky and his film crew was that the filmmaker made it clear that he wanted to make a documentary about that world from the standpoint of someone who respects the lifestyle there, even though it wasn’t for him.
“We are all human beings, with our faults and strengths, and we try our best,” he says. “We have our place in this world, and we all deserve compassion. I hope Ponevezh Time opens up that world a bit for people who may have not prior knowledge of what people do in yeshivot, and particularly in the Ponevezh Yeshiva. A 16-year-old kid who leaves home to try to manage in a huge, cold institution feels the same whether or not he comes from a haredi home and is trying to manage in a yeshiva, or is secular and joins some non-religious place. They all have the same difficulties and they could all do with some help. If that message comes across the film will have done its job.”
For more information about screenings of Ponevezh Time: www.jer-cin.org.il and www.cinema.co.il