“The Women’s Balcony”: A Loving Look at Jerusalem’s Kippah Srugah Orthodox Community

Jun 10, 2017 by

There are some films that are so sweet, so loving, and so replete with recognizable figures who might live next door to anyone who spends more than a week or two in Israel, that viewers could be excused if they wished the story would go on long after the final credits roll across the screen. Such is “The Women’s Balcony” (Yismach Chatani), an Israeli film by the one-time husband-and-wife team, screenwriter Shlomit Nehama and director Emil Ben-Shimon.

Ms. Nehama and Mr. Ben-Shimon, who are now divorced, have presented a warm-hearted look at a relatively small, close-knit Orthodox community in Jerusalem that defies stereotypes. Based on Ms. Nehama’s own childhood in the Bukharan Quarter of Jerusalem, where her Kippah-Srugah (knitted kippah) community and shul would have identified with the Religious-Zionist movement, the film offers a glimpse of people whose own religious practices are readily recognizable. They scrupulously observe halacha (well, some more than others); love and care for their rabbi, his rebbetzin, and the shul; and want nothing more than to continue observing Jewish law and customs as their families have for generations.

In the first few minutes into the film, a near-disaster strikes. During a joyous bar mitzvah celebration, the women’s balcony collapses, damaging the shul, severely injuring the rebbetzin, and throwing the congregation into disarray.

Just as the men are trying to decide whether to try to keep the congregation together or simply join another nearby shul, they, by chance, find a young hareidi rabbi who thanks them for giving him the opportunity to help them.

But not every rav, no matter how well-intentioned, is right for every congregation.

The intentions of Ms. Nehama and Mr. Ben-Simon are not immediately clear either. Are they merely trying to showcase the kind of shul in which everyone participates in one another’s simchas and tragedies? A community in which nothing is more important than helping a young member find his or her shidduch? Or is it, rather, to focus on how evil a zealot can be?

The hareidi rav, played to perfection by Israeli teen heartthrob Aviv Alush, is by no means a cardboard anti-hero, nor is he the snake in the Garden of Eden. If a rav honestly disagrees with his congregation over a matter of halacha, does he have the moral obligation to try to persuade them, in whatever way possible, to see things his way?

Unfortunately, Ms. Nehama and Mr. Ben-Simon were not content to leave that as simply a philosophical question. Ms. Nehama has characterized Rabbi David as “an extremist rabbi” who “takes advantage of a crisis in the community and infiltrates it.” Mr. Ben-Simon sees him as “a rabbi full of blind faith.”

Of course, even in the film it is clear that Rabbi David has nothing personally to gain from, in his view, trying to help the congregation. Therefore, in a somewhat deus-ex-machina attempt to show what his creators think of the character, they have Rabbi David engage in an action that, certainly secular courts and probably most religious ones as well, would consider illegal. In this, Rabbi David is a flawed individual and, hopefully, not a symbol of hareidi Judaism.

Some critics have praised “The Women’s Balcony” for taking on the issue of women’s rights in Judaism, even trying to equate the women in the film with the efforts of the left-wing feminists trying to assume traditional men’s roles at the Kotel. Nothing could be further from the truth. The women in the film want to return to the status quo ante, before balcony collapsed. They don’t want to do away with a women’s section; they don’t want to lead the davening; they don’t want to be counted in a minyan. They simply want to be treated with the same respect they have always enjoyed in the community and in the shul.

“The Women’s Balcony,” which is showing in theaters in NJ, including the Claridge in Montclair, the Bow Tie theatres in Tenafly and Milburn, and the Showroom in Asbury Park, should be seen for the superb performances and the important issues it discusses. For more information on where it can be seen, the distribution company, Menemsha Films, can be reached at 310-452-1775 or www.menemshafilms.com.

As Mr. Ben-Simon correctly recognizes, the film, in its gentle, humorous, and tender way, raises important questions about religion, community, tradition, the true path of faith, and the endeavor of every believer to choose his or her own path to the Eternal.

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