Archive for August, 2013

Review of ‘Filling the void’, a film about ultra-Orthodox Jewish marriage.

// August 6th, 2013 // No Comments » // Israel Blog

Changing the subject: love, or marriage, instead of war

(Written at the time of Israel’s 2012 Gaza war.)

A blogger should write about the war, perhaps, but since almost everything that conceivably could be said about this subject has been said, I shall refrain.

Instead I shall write about Fill the Void (Lemale Et Ha’Chalal). Coming with the support of a wide and distinguished range of sponsors, from French TV and the Israel Film Fund to the Sundance Festival, and being screened for several weeks at the shrines of secular Jerusalem, the Cinematheque and Lev Smadar cinema, the film is the latest to satisfy what I see as a voyeuristic taste for films about ultra-Orthodox (haredi) life. Earlier ones include Pursued – an autobiographical exposé of sexual abuse (Menachem Roth, 2012) and Ushpizin (Gidi Dar, 2005).

 

The film illustrates the absolute centrality of shidduch in haredi society. A shidduch is, literally a pairing, or a match – i.e. a marriage. From the moment of a child’s birth it is a topic of constant concern in the family, among relatives near and far, and among schoolfriends and fellow students.

 

When Fill the Void was premiered this year at the Venice Film Festival, Hadas Yaron who plays the lead part, won the best actress prize. Interestingly, unlike the other films just mentioned, it is directed not only by a woman, but by a haredi woman – Rama Burshtein.  If you want to know how she learnt to make films, then you should know that she is a ba’ala t’shuva, a returnee or ‘newly-religious’, from a non-haredi New York background who studied at Film School in Jerusalem, presumably before she made that dramatic change in her life, or at least before she completed it.  The plot is summarized thus on the website of the Toronto Film Festival:

 

The youngest daughter of an Orthodox Hassidic family living in Tel Aviv, eighteen-year-old Shira (Hadas Yaron) is thrilled about her upcoming arranged marriage to a promising young man from a good family. But, on the verge of realizing her dream, Shira has her world shattered: her twenty-eight-year-old sister, Esther (Renana Raz), dies on the Jewish holiday of Purim while giving birth to her first child. Deep in mourning, the family postpones Shira’s wedding and struggles to deal with their crushing grief.

However, circumstances arising from this tragic event force them to make painful decisions. Even though he feels it is far too early, Esther’s husband Yochay (Yiftach Klein) bows to pressure from his family to remarry. A potential match is arranged with a widow from Belgium, who refuses to move to Israel — which means that Yochay would have to move, taking his infant son with him. Desperate to keep her grandchild, the only thing that remains of her beloved daughter, in the country, the girls’ mother makes a startling proposition — one that will force Shira to choose between her obedience to her family and her heart’s desire.

The summary is misleading in interesting ways: after their oldest daughter’s death in childbirth the parents do not just postpone the younger one’s marriage – they tell her that the other party has inexplicably called it off, which may or may not be true. (Actually, there is a convention whereby one never gives reasons for breaking off a prospective match.)  Shira’s and Esther’s mother, who is in many ways the central character, and certainly the main weaver of the plot, such as it is, happens upon the idea of her younger daughter marrying the bereaved Yochai almost as soon as the funeral baked meats had cooled off, long before the alternative Belgian match emerges. There is an intriguing shot where Shira seems to be taking to the role of caring for the baby, though that theme is not pursued. And there are two sub-plots: a friend, Frieda, suddenly blurts out that Esther had said to her that if anything happened to her then she, Frieda, should marry Yochai – and Shira believes her.  Eventually, in a completely random ‘fix’ to tie up the loose ends, Frieda is married off to… the shadchan (marriage broker)! The other sub-plot is even more random: the mother has an armless sister. Her disability is dropped like a stone in the middle of a conversation and she plays the role which I saw as that of the second witch trying to undermine the eventual ‘happy marriage’, while my friend saw her as the voice of emotional reason: she saw that they were unsuited, being of different ages, and she saw her sister’s self-interested interference, and she said so. Finally there is a delightful scene with the Rebbe (no, not the Rebbe, just a wise old Rebbe), but which again is utterly random: while he is deep in conversation with Shira and her parents an elderly lady creates mayhem in his house because she wants to see him. She will not tell his staff what it is about but insists so much that he agrees and when he asks her what is troubling her, she says it’s about a new oven: she can’t decide what to choose. The Rebbe immediately captures her problem: do you not have a friend? – no; do you have a brother or sister? – no; do you have a neighbour? – no. She is just lonely. So he goes out and helps her. A further wry touch is the quick succession of the burial of the mother and the circumcision of the child (it just had to be a boy) barely a week later: when it comes to the circumcision ceremony the chazan, on automatic pilot chanting a verse he has chanted a thousand times, makes the mistake of praising the mother as if she was still alive, and has to correct himself – though a few seconds later he repeats the mistake without correcting himself.

So the plot reminds me of the phrases heard so often from yeshiva tutors and experienced parents when I was doing research on the shidduch system with my colleague Batia Siebzehner: they explained how they constantly reminded youngsters to focus on the rational, because emotional attachment would most likely lose its spark and the important thing was to raise a family successfully. In this film as my friend insisted, Shira, having seen that marrying her sister’s widower is the right thing, managed to fall in love with him too.

It is a film with long silences, no rain and a happy ending. It does not give us a clue how the parents fund their prosperous lifestyle and haredi-chic clothing. It is surely a propaganda piece trying to show the human side of haredi life for secular audiences who tend to see that world as emotionless, repressive and authoritarian. Maybe, but it also shows how, with a good deal of determination and emotional investment a mother-in-law/grandmother/mother can get her way. That, of course, is not a new or uniquely haredi or Jewish theme. Ask an Indian friend.

To learn more about the shidduch system among haredi Jews, read the article on this website: 

http://www.davidlehmann.org/david-docs-pdf/Pub-pap/Shiddouch%20paper%20as%20published.pdf