Taking the mask off: Marlyn Vinig combines ultra-Orthodox and career

Vinig became a feature of Culture Club via the show’s host, Shifra Kornfeld, who recommended her for a position after having met her while working on a project in the past.

Haredim making phone calls 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Haredim making phone calls 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
In the middle of my interview with Marlyn Vinig, her phone rang. I then realized that this was the first time in my unbelievably long talk with her that it had rung, which is extraordinary, considering that she works in the fields of media and theater and is a mother of seven.
For those who don’t recognize her name, Vinig was the first haredi (ultra- Orthodox) film critic for mainstream media.
These days, she is juggling more than a handful of projects. Recently, she became a field reporter for the Channel 11 program Culture Club; a couple of months ago, her third book of poems, Freestyle Panic (Hebrew), was published; she’s writing scripts for a new movie and a new show; and she will be a guest of honor at the Warsaw Film Festival in October.
The call was from Ofer Berkowitz, Jerusalem’s deputy mayor and the holder of the education portfolio in the municipality. It turns out that he invited her to become a member of the city council.
What does that mean for you?
“It means the ability to change,” Vinig says with a sparkle in her eyes. “I have a mission; I have something to say. Men represent us always as having nothing to say. I can represent haredi women.”
Vinig, 37, lives in Jerusalem with her husband, Erez, and together they adopted a religious lifestyle around 15 years ago. Today, he studies full-time in a yeshiva, and she runs back and forth between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Vinig was born in Australia and made aliya at the age of three. Her parents are completely secular.
“From my perspective, my connection to religion was always there; I was always looking for the voice of God,” she says. “I always had existential questions. From as far back as I can remember, I was speaking with God, even when I was in a very secular environment, and on Shabbat, just as all secular families did, we would go to the beach and parties. But for me, there was always something there, outside of all that noise from the dance clubs, and I yearned for that place, without knowing what it was about at all.
“In high school, all my best friends, one after the other, adopted a religious lifestyle, and I was the only one who didn’t. Their change frustrated me – I lost friends and I didn’t understand why. We had so many arguments because I thought the whole time that I also believe in God but it isn’t necessary to observe the commandments to be a believer.”
Today, she says, she understands that she had to wait for her husband so that the two could become observant together. Until he arrived, she had only one boyfriend.
“I understand today that God was protecting me, because to get into bed with 50 to 100 men leaves scars, because you become attached and then you experience devastation,” she says.
How do you manage with the religious perception of women’s status?
“I got lucky, and my spouse grew up in a very liberal household with a single mother, and somewhere along the line he saw a very strong feminist example of a mother who is ready to fight to survive and to cope, and that’s what made him able to handle a woman like me, someone who is a free woman with her own freedoms.”
Where do your freedoms stand in relation to Halacha?
“I don’t shake hands with men. I make sure not to be alone with men in certain scenarios. I don’t dress in an enticing way. I go around in Tel Aviv with 80-denierwool stockings. I learned over the years that inner beauty also has an outer charm, and it is worth 10 times more than all the show-offs and the cool people, because it expresses a simple truth. I’m very much an outsider in Tel Aviv, and there’s no shortage of people who don’t understand me.”
For example?
Most of the prescreenings for reporters are in Tel Aviv, and I had to build up a relationship with the publicists so that they would let me watch the films in Jerusalem, via Internet links that they would send me. At the beginning of my career, it really surprised me that it was men who were the driving force in the realm of the media. That is not how I thought the secular world ran. It was kind of a disappointment, because they educate you about certain standards, and then you see that in reality it’s all just been catchphrases and slogans.”
As would be expected, Vinig has to deal with people wondering about the apparent contradiction of being a film critic, who, more often than not, needs to watch movies that don’t exactly accord with her observant lifestyle.
“I’m happy that there is a religious, haredi answer for people who wonder about this,” she says. “I divide and conquer. I have my personal life – I live in a haredi neighborhood, my husband studies all day, I pray, keep Shabbat, and am strict in the observance of halachic safeguards. On the other hand, I have my professional expertise, which makes me want to be as original and precise as I can, and to bring a refreshing perspective.”
Where do you think you’ve brought a new look to the field of cinema?
“Let’s start with the research aspect. I was the first one to research haredi film on an academic level, and the thesis that I wrote at the Hebrew University became a popular book, titled Haredi Cinema (Hebrew), published by Resling. I tried to say as many new things as I could, and to bring a story that no one else knew about. As a result of the book, Limor Livnat, who was then education minister, appointed me to be a member of Israel’s film board. For almost four years, until I left the board, I learned about the field of cinema from every angle – about the regulations of film funds, how the unions work, meeting dozens of people in the business – while at the same time also trailblazing a path for the haredi world. I established a film course for Jerusalem haredi girls’ seminaries, and talked about it with religious colleges, too, and I established the Haredi Creators Guild with a couple of partners.”
How did you get to writing reviews?
“The work gave me an appetite to create, and it turns out that it was an enormous hunger. These amazing strengths that I never knew that I had inside me all of sudden came to life. But all the film critic positions were taken, so I decided to start a forum, with Lior Elefant and Limor Pinhasov from the Forum for Israel Cinema, which eventually became the Women Critics Table. After a year there, I left for the Saloona website, on which I’ve been writing until now.”
Why specifically cinema?
“I’m very versatile, but I feel that cinema does something for me, as though it were a drug. Something happens when I’m in front of the screen. There’s something there that makes me high, that really gets me going. My love for this medium is huge. Everything, all my strengths, come from it.”
What do you mean ‘it gets you going’?
“I was enticed to run in the Jerusalem municipal election four years ago with the Hitorerut faction. And I was in the seventh slot, which meant it was realistic to be elected, and it was all on condition that I would be given the council’s film portfolio. Obviously, I got out while I was on top, because I found that there are redlines.”
Vinig became a feature of Culture Club via the show’s host, Shifra Kornfeld, who recommended her for a position after having met her while working on a project in the past.
“There was a deep connection and familiarity between the two of us,” Vinig says. “I remember before the interview that I told myself in the car that I know what my weaknesses are – I’m chubby and you can’t see my hair – and on television aesthetics plays a major role.
“I said to myself, Here I’m going to be daring, and in order to get the job I’m willing to go on a diet and put on a wig and a hat for the screenings. I got there for the job interview, and they asked me the regular questions, and at the end of the interview I said: ‘If I’m chubby, I’m willing to go on a diet, and I’m sure that something can be done about my hair if necessary.’ And then Meni Abiram, the production company’s CEO, looked at me for a second and said: ‘No, we want you just the way you are,’ and then all of sudden my entire thought process was transformed, and I understood that my strength comes from what I am, because I have something to say and people want to listen, and no one’s going to make me do any makeovers.”
You were in doubt about this before that happened?
“The secular world attaches a lot of importance to exterior looks, and I know who I am and what I have to say. I’m a mother of seven children, I don’t have wavy hair, and then I say, ‘Yeah, for sure, they would rather hire a model.’ As a woman, the attitude of ‘We’re embracing you as you are’ really moved me. After we finished the interview, I said: ‘But remember – I have a kosher telephone, with no text messaging or WhatsApp,’ and Meni said, ‘Must be great for you.’ I felt that they understood my world.
“I get along fine in the media business without texts, WhatsApp and Internet, and the sun continues to shine every day. When I connect to Wi-Fi, I go where I have to and get updated.
“People know that if something out of the ordinary is happening, they can just call. You can’t replace a look or talking to someone up close and personal. There’s something complete in what I do; I’m always 100% connected with the person who’s standing in front of me. And when I’m at home, I close the door and let the worldexplode, for all I care. And only when I see that there have been urgent calls will I pick up the telephone and have a meaningful conversation. I don’t waste my time.”
And the children?
“I tried to establish harmony and a good listening relationship between me and my children in the first few years after they were born. Those years were unbelievably intense, and during that time I was studying for my master’s and supporting the family financially. They were babies, hungry for warmth and love, and I didn’t compromise. I breastfed them all, and they would come with me to lots of places.
Every child gets the attention that he or she needs.”
JUST AS Vinig is a strange bird in the secular world, there are times when she’s not accepted in the haredi world as well.
“There are haredim who compliment me, and I have a great relationship with the top rungs of the opinion-shapers and the rabbis,” she says.
“On the other hand, there are other people who are against me and don’t know what to think of me. This was really prevalent at the beginning of my journey. I would get threatening emails about my children, that I was ruining their lives and that I was the devil incarnate. It reached a high when I ran for election, when I would receive threats by telephone. I was in distress, feeling lonely and not capable of doing anything about it, because my children have always been haredi and there’s nothing I can do about it now.
“But it’s also like that in the secular world. On the one hand they really appreciate me and admire me, and on the other hand there are people who question and denigrate and make comments like ‘God is a Nazi’ or protest against God or against the way I chose to live my life, or think that my husband, because he studies Torah all day, is such-and-such a person. There are people who, when I arrive, straightaway take a look at my stockings, giving me a look as if something’s wrong with me.”
So do you think that Tel Aviv is a bubble?
“Yes. When you meet people on the street, these are the same people whom you’re meeting at the film screenings and at the coffeehouses and at the parties. So, naturally, there’s a certain organic connection that creates societal conventions. In the periphery, that doesn’t happen. How many stars do you know from Jerusalem, the South, the North? How many haredi icons do you know? [TV presenter] Sivan Rahav Meir, [film director] Rama Borstein, [radio personality and author] Noa Yaron? When I meet secular men who try to shake my hand, I say to myself, ‘What? Don’t you know how it works in the haredi world?’ And of course it turns out that they don’t know any haredim, only stereotypes from movies, from television, from the media.
“A lot of people with whom I work have such a high standard of living that they’ve forgotten that, on the other side of the fence, there are people who don’t have all that. As someone who lives in Jerusalem, I give lots of people lifts, I see lots of families in financial hardship where the father studies all day and the children sleep in the living room, and they’re forced to cut back on every single purchase that they make. Sometimes I really believe that I have a split personality. Here I meet dazzling Tel Aviv celebrities, and here, I get to Mea She’arim and see all the cats hanging out by the garbage containers that they aren’t taking away. I’m also in contact with Natorei Karta. The people of Tel Aviv, I don’t think they know or will ever know these people.”
In your opinion, the haredim do not create antagonism?
“It comes from a desire to live a secluded life, for fear that the Western culture that is influencing Israeli culture will eventually seep into their culture. Western culture represents the opposite of traditional Judaism. Secular society always thinks about the future; the religious world aspires for the past. The haredim are attached to their past by an inseparable bond. That’s why the perspective is different. Take the elderly, for example. For secular people, the youth are the future; for haredim, it’s the elders and what they have to say.
“I could have gone around with a thick head-covering and hidden myself in the privacy of my home; I could have been something that I’m not, so as to be in tune with society and with the definition of a haredi woman – but I do not play games.
“I’m here to follow my truth, and I’m not willing to lie for others. I consider it living when I allow myself to be straightforward and to look people in the eyes and tell them the truth.
“For example, in Dover Koshashvili’s film Love Birds, there’s a scene with Arab women, nuns and haredi women eating carrots, as though to say that haredi women are nuns and that sexually they must satisfy themselves with eating carrots. So I posted a photo of myself eating a carrot, with the post ‘A gesture for Dover Koshashvili,’ and it got hundreds of likes. I’m not haredi, I’m not secular, I’m not evil – I’m just Marlyn.”
Translated by Benjamin Glatt. Originally published in Ma’ariv.