Women-only movie sparks debate, understanding

When presented with an opportunity, religious and secular Jews have the ability to talk – and to listen to one another.

Haredi orthodox Jewish men protest 311 (R) (photo credit: Ammar Awad / Reuters)
Haredi orthodox Jewish men protest 311 (R)
(photo credit: Ammar Awad / Reuters)
As an Orthodox woman – hassidic, even – it has been hard for me to watch the news and developments from Israel in recent weeks.
On one hand, Jewish law and traditions of female modesty are very important to me. Although I did not grow up in an observant family, I came to embrace the value of personal modesty as an adult. Especially in Southern California, where the popular culture glamorizes and profits from immodesty, I have found tzniut (the laws of modesty) to be a refreshing, counterculture expression of honoring female dignity. I resent the fact my eight-year-old son has to be assaulted in the street by sexually explicit, in-your-face billboards. Why must we have these images imposed upon us? Because somebody is making money, a lot of money.
On the other hand, Orthodox communities abroad successfully maintain appropriate, halachic standards of modesty without segregated buses, burkas and banishing women from public life, as have made headlines here, despite what’s going on around them. In Los Angeles, haredim (ultra- Orthodox) peacefully co-exist with each other as well as everyone else. Women manage to be both modest and attractive. Accomplishment is encouraged.
But here in Israel, extremists seem to rule the day. Fringe groups on the Left viciously attack haredi values, while fringe groups on the Right have imposed ever-more extreme measures in the guise of piety. It is a volatile and polarized climate.
In the context of these issues, it is significant that the Jerusalem Cinematheque, a bastion of secular Israeli culture, agreed to include my film, The Heart That Sings, in the Jerusalem Jewish Film Festival. For the first time the festival featured a film made exclusively for women, with a request for men not to attend, in keeping with its mission “to explore Jewish religious practice and promote crosscultural understanding.”
The premier of the film and the discussion session that followed showed clearly that, while deep cultural divisions do indeed plague Israeli society, secular and Orthodox Israelis, especially women, can still find a common language and the ability to discuss these issues in a fruitful, productive manner.
THE POWER of art, especially the cinema, is that it can break through barriers and melt divisiveness by means of story and character, image or song. Instead of the Cinematheque screenings turning into a battleground for clashing ideologies as I had feared – the film is a musical that stars mostly Orthodox actresses who by heritage and choice do not sing or dance in the presence of men – it served as a catalyst for discussion and interaction, a forum for uplifted encounters and transformational exchanges of ideas.
Though we asked men not to attend in deference to the wishes of the performers, we have not and will not stop anyone from seeing the film. Indeed, some men did attend the opening. One man approached me after and in a quiet, halting voice said, “I want you to know, I am very touched. I have religious family and I am going to call them to come see the film.”
I thanked him, and, though I believe he violated the spirit of halacha (the actual law prohibiting a man from hearing a woman sing pertains to live performance) by watching the movie so I couldn’t condone his presence, it was clear to me that God wanted him to have this experience.
Another woman, who looked to be secular, argued that the film should have been shown in a haredi (ultra-Orthodox) venue, but said it certainly did not belong at the Cinematheque. I told her that I understood the philosophical challenges our special request posed, but I strongly disagreed with her position. This festival, more than any other in the world, was where we most belonged. By engaging in cross-cultural dialogue about modesty, the movie has served to open up channels of communication. It would also be like saying all Jews get to participate in the Jerusalem Jewish Film Festival except for Orthodox Jewish women.
For secular women and men in the audience, the discussion session helped them understand that kol isha – the halachic ban on a man hearing a woman sing – is a mainstream Orthodox position. It is not a fringe position.
Furthermore, in my view the film’s charm derives precisely from the fact that the actresses knew they were not performing for men and were therefore artistically free to express themselves.
Nor is this view limited to my haredi world view: At a recent Brooklyn showing, a popular feminist-lesbian blogger, Ariel Federow, who is not Orthodox, attended “undercover” with a long black skirt and stockings, and covered-up knees, elbows and collarbones – and had a surprisingly powerful night at the movies.
“I kept thinking how awesome it is to see women making their own art... not just because there were no men, but because women actually talked about themselves and each other caringly, and all got to be real characters... I liked that it was a film about girls learning and growing and not a film about girls worrying about boys,” she wrote.
I am certainly not suggesting that all culture and art should be gender segregated, but I am definitely saying that cultural gatherings for women by women are inherently worthwhile and exciting. Our Biblical tradition teaches that the Jewish People and all humanity were not annihilated following the sin of the Golden Calf in the merit of the faithful women who did not participate in the event.
Today, women may be making headlines for being banished from society, but this negativity will soon be turned around. By shining the spotlight on observant women and telling the truth about our very public role, though cloaked in modesty, we will finally emerge as we again lead our people into a more civilized and harmonious future.
The writer has been directing theater, network television and films for nearly 28 years.