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Society

For Orthodox Jewish Women, Cinema Inspires A Silent Revolution

Orthodox women are not allowed to go to the cinema and their film screenings are often interrupted by protesters. But in Israel, there is a booming audience for their films and a big cultural shift is happening.

Jewish woman praying in Israel

A Jewish woman prays with the tefillin and taillit in Israel.

Igal Avidan

In 1994, the AMIA Jewish community center in Buenos Aires was the target of a terror attack that killed 85 people and injured 300 others, most of whom were Jewish. The perpetrators were never identified, probably for political reasons. Shattered, a new film by Israeli director Dina Perlstein, follows Argentinian Jewish prosecutor Anna, who lost her father in the attack, as she searches for the truth. She is joined by a young Israeli Orthodox Jew, Yael, whose older sister was also killed in the attack. Their journey will bring a long-buried secret to light and change their lives forever.

The film, which was recently shown at the Jewish Film Festival Berlin Brandenburg, is unusual. Like Perlstein’s 14 other films, the three-hour long production only features women – most of them Jewish. Perlstein is the first and best known female Orthodox Jewish filmmaker in Israel and she also makes English-language films that are shown at special screenings for Orthodox Jewish women in the USA.

Marlyn Vinig knows these screenings well. The feminist cinema expert and mother-of-seven is the only female Israeli Orthodox film critic. She grew up as a secular Jew and became stricter through the influence of her husband, who is a religious scholar. Vinig will not shake hands with a man, dresses modestly, observes the Sabbath and abides by dietary restrictions.

She has also closely followed Orthodox Jewish culture for 20 years and seeks to build bridges with the secular cultural scene, both as the first Orthodox Jewish member of the Israel Film Council and through her books, essays and film criticism.

Female pseudonyms

“In the late 1990s, Orthodox cinema was dominated by men,” says Vinig. “They made simple, amateurish action films or dramas on a shoestring budget.” The pioneering director Yehuda Grovais was very popular and his Orthodox viewers bought DVDs of his films, which were often the only films they had seen. “As soon as CDs began to be illegally copied, revenue dropped dramatically and at the same time rabbis started to condemn these films,” says Vinig. “Women began to step into this space. Some directors started to make ‘women’s’ films under female pseudonyms.”

The first generation of female directors, such as former teacher Perlstein, tend to make films that are more didactic in nature. Still, Vinig calls them “silent feminists” because they never receive any public funding and therefore have to finance the films themselves, although screenings often attract total audiences in the hundreds of thousands.

The films are not shown in cinemas because strict Orthodox Jewish women will never set foot in a secular cinema in a secular part of town, and there are no Orthodox cinemas. The director must pay out of her own pocket to rent a room – in a community center, a school, a religious school or a cultural center. “I even have to bring all the equipment along myself,” Perlstein sighs. “The unsuitable environment has a negative impact on the screenings. It’s very frustrating.”

The first generation of female directors tend to make films that are more didactic in nature.

Most of the audience come four times a year on Jewish holidays, Vinig says. “I have never seen such packed, excited screenings. I watched Shattered in Jerusalem with 1,200 women. There are women of all ages and the audience is always very involved: They scream at horror films and cry into their handkerchiefs at romances. Women are packed in, with younger girls sitting on the floor, and sometimes there is standing room only. But when I go to see very good secular films, I am sometimes the only person in the audience.”

Shattered ꓲ Trailer ꓲ English Subtitles ꓲ 2022

ShatteredRegie: Dina Perlstein ꓲ 2022

An imaginary world

Over the last few years, cinema has replaced literature as the most popular form of culture among Orthodox women, who have gained higher social status and greater access to education. The films depict an imaginary world – full of religious women who are judges, lawyers, doctors and police officers, when in reality there are none – because they feature no men. Why? “Because Orthodox life is segregated by gender,” says Vinig.

“Perlstein used men in minor roles or as extras. She shot them separately and mixed them in the editing room. That was less well received by female viewers, because it’s not what they’re used to seeing.” Perlstein usually avoids showing men on screen “to keep everyone happy”. When she showed a “short film”, around 90 minutes long, the audience was very disappointed. “These women very rarely get to see appropriate films, so they want to make the most of a screening and are happy when films run longer,” Perlstein says.

Demand is high, despite opposition from militant Orthodox Jews, who sometimes tear down advertising posters or shut off the electricity in the middle of a screening. Posters are designed to look very modest, so as not to provoke them. The posters don’t name any people, often featuring only the director’s name. To avoid committing slander – strictly forbidden in Jewish law – documentaries are rare. Perlstein shows each new film to female Orthodox Jewish teachers before it is screened to make sure it doesn’t contain anything that will offend her audience.

Demand is high, despite opposition from militant Orthodox Jews.

Seven years ago, the religious film school Ma’aleh in Jerusalem launched a special course for Orthodox Jewish women in response to popular demand. From the start, they took advice from Orthodox rabbis and avoided the potentially controversial word “cinema”. The students – who range from 18 to 60 years old – enjoy full artistic freedom. Course leader Neta Ariel is proud of the fact that 80% of the course’s 70 or so graduates now make their living from films – whether making adverts, videoing family parties or working in TV. “Two thirds of them are the main breadwinner in their family, as their husbands are students at religious schools.” Some of them work on Perlstein’s sets.

Everyone agrees that Orthodox Jewish cinema is changing Orthodox society. “Most of the filmmakers in Israel are men, but 98% of Orthodox moviegoers are women,” says Vinig. In their short documentaries, Ariel’s Orthodox students show great courage. A 50-year-old photographer made a documentary about her blond daughter and dark-skinned grandson; Her daughter abandoned her religion at 17 and had two children with an African-American man to whom she was not married. “But this heart-breaking and brave film was only shown in our school.”

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