Israeli screenwriter Shlomit Nehama spent part of her childhood in Jerusalem’s Bukharan Quarter. The area was once home to a diverse array of central Asian Jewish communities, but now it — like all neighborhoods in the north-central part of the city — is populated exclusively by Haredim.
Nehama’s Persian-Moroccan family was traditional, but over time, her father, who also grew up in the Bukharan Quarter, shifted rightward and became ultra-Orthodox. Nehama, who had difficulty with this, moved away from religious observance and adopted a more secular identity and when she turned 18 and was drafted to the IDF.
“I never really sat down with my parents to talk about how and why the religious world didn’t work for me,” Nehama told The Times of Israel.
Instead, as a way of communicating with her parents, many years later Nehama made “The Women’s Balcony,” a feature film opening Friday in New York after a year of topping Israeli box offices.
The film is about a close-knit Mizrahi congregation in the Bukharan Quarter rocked by the collapse of their synagogue building, and torn apart by a fundamentalist young rabbi who tries to take over when the community’s elderly rabbi is incapacitated.
Now, 47, the screenwriter had a lot to say about growing religious extremism, exclusion of women, and the haredization of neighborhoods that were once accepting of different customs and levels of observance. But rather than do it in a hyper-realistic film set in contemporary Jerusalem with a ripped-from-the-headlines sensibility, she decided instead to make it intimate and small, with a timeless and fable-like quality.
It’s a clever and effective bait-and-switch: “The Women’s Balcony” presents as a light, fun comedy-drama that leaves audiences feeling uplifted. It’s only later upon reflection that viewers realize just how much depth the film has.
“The Women’s Balcony” begins with the bar mitzvah of Etti and Zion Yazdi’s grandson in the Moussaieff synagogue (named for a real synagogue in the Bukharan Quarter). As the bar mitzvah boy parades around with the Torah before he reads his portion, the women’s balcony collapses, resulting in the injury of several congregants, including the rabbi’s wife.
With the building in ruins, the rebbetzin in a coma, and the elderly rabbi so traumatized he loses touch with reality, the community’s men carry on with services the best they can in a borrowed neighborhood classroom.
Along comes Rabbi David, a charismatic young black-hatted rabbi. He offers help, and the men are pleased to take it. The men — normally relaxed about religious rituals –are even open to the rabbi’s suggestions that the congregation take on stricter observance, including requiring the women to cover their hair, and forgoing the use of a Shabbes goy to flip the light switch when a fuse blows during the Passover seder.
Shaken to the core to see a synagogue in ruins, Rabbi David repairs the sanctuary — but omits the women’s balcony in the renovation. The message to the women is clear: There is no place for them in the main part of the synagogue.
Etti (excellently played by Evelin Hagoel) and the other women take offense, and the narrative’s action revs up as the women rectify the situation. A Lysistrata-type rift eventually materializes between the sexes, lasting until the women ultimately prevail.
These middle-aged women do not take a radical Jewish feminist stance. All they want is a return to the status quo ante, in which they had a public place in the life of their beloved congregation. It sounds reasonable, but as the film aims to demonstrate, it’s a real struggle for women to hold their ground in today’s Israel, where the ultra-Orthodox have a stranglehold on public religious life and fundamentalism is on the rise.
The fact that “The Women’s Balcony” could not actually be filmed in the Bukharan Quarter is telling.
“We filmed in Musrara, Nahlaot, Yemin Moshe and Talbiye,” said the film’s 41-year-old director Emil Ben-Shimon, referring to West Jerusalem neighborhoods that are still diverse and tolerant.
“There was no way we could film in the Bukharan Quarter. It’s totally Haredi now, and I know of other productions that tried to film there and had a lot of problems,” he said.
The Bukharan Quarter depicted in the film no longer exists. Traditional, yet religiously moderate people like Etti, Zion and their friends no longer have a place in this neighborhood.
There are deliberate visual cues that confuse the setting time-wise. Is this the present, or the past? It’s difficult to know for sure when the women wear 1950s and 1960s-style outfits and hairstyles, we don’t see any cars, and no one seems to use a cell phone — let alone a smartphone. No one appears too concerned about making a living and Zion sits around his spice shop without a single customer entering to make a purchase over the course of the entire film.
According to Nehama the chronologically ambiguous production design was deliberate.
“Our intention was for the film to have a timeless quality. It’s symbolic of the last 50 years of the changes this and other neighborhoods in Jerusalem have undergone,” Nehama said.
“For Mizrahi Jews in Jerusalem, your neighborhood was more important to your identity than your ethnic group. Everyone in the neighborhood was in it together, and it didn’t matter what your background was. That isn’t the case anymore. That way of life, that pluralism, has disappeared and it makes me sad and angry,” she said.
The lack of younger characters — especially children — in the film is glaring and signals that this congregation is out of step with modern-day family-friendly Israel. If these older people are barely holding on to their place in the neighborhood, it’s obvious their children and grandchildren have already moved on to other parts of the city — or more likely out of Jerusalem to more secular regions of the country.
Ben-Shimon, who had previously worked with younger actors, enjoyed directing a more mature ensemble cast (including Igal Naor, Itzik Cohen, Einat Sarouf, and Orna Banai, who was nominated for an Ophir Award for her role as the feisty Tikvah).
“But it’s clear that this community has no future,” Ben-Shimon said regretfully.
In the same way that the time setting of the film is vague, so is the background of Rabbi David. Nehama said this was purposeful so as to not associate him too closely with any particular Jewish sect. However, those familiar with Israel will assume that the young rabbi (given a North African accent by actor Aviv Alush) is from Shas, the movement and political party of Haredi Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews founded by Rabbi Ovadia Yosef and currently led by Aryeh Deri.
“He is not a representative of any specific party,” Nehama insisted.
“His motivation is not politics or money. He wants to change people and is motivated by his belief. He is basically a religious missionary,” she said.
The filmmakers have been amazed by the success of “The Women’s Balcony” not only in Israel, but also abroad. It was well received in Spain, and also in Orange County California and South Florida, where it was in limited release.
“The film’s premiere was at the Toronto International Film Festival [in September 2016], and the show sold out to 800 people. I went and checked the line three times to make sure it was really for our film. I couldn’t believe it.” Nehama said.
“In Spain, audiences connected with the setting. Jerusalem reminded people of places like Toledo. And people there also could relate to the subject of charismatic religious leaders,” Ben-Shimon said.
Nehama, who wrote “The Women’s Balcony” from such a personal place, meant for it to be very Israeli. However, she learned from the American audiences’ reactions that the story also expressed feelings American Jews have about Israel.
“Jewish religious pluralism is so much not an issue among Diaspora Jews. It’s very hard for them to accept what is happening in Israel,” she said.