Thursday, June 27, 2013

A Hasidic woman seeks fulfillment

The Israeli film, Fill the Void, conveys emotional issues within an insular world.
First-time director Rama Burshtein's parents moved from Brooklyn to Tel Aviv when Burshtein was only one. In interviews, the 46-year-old Burshtein has said that her husband also grew up in the secular Jewish world. Both have since become Haredi, members of Tel Aviv's ultra-Orthodox Hasidic community. The couple has four children.

If you follow news reports, you've read about the growing Israeli tension between the various branches of Hasidism and secular Israelis. Reports about Haredi communities have been anything but flattering. Stories about ultra-Orthodox protestors throwing stones at school girls because they don't like the way they're dressed make the Haredi seem more like intolerant zealots than people with whom most of us would want to identify.

If you're interested in an entirely different, less media-driven view of the Haredi, you'd do well to see Burshtein's Fill the Void, a movie that demonstrates, often with great beauty, that human emotions -- feelings recognizable to all of us -- continue to flourish even within the an insular Hasidic environment. As you already might have guessed, Buhrstein's movie expresses no interest in any of the issues that roil beyond the boundaries of the world it depicts.

In Fill the Void, Burshtein tells the story of Shira (Hadas Yaron), an 18-year-old who wants to move on to the next stage of her life. In Shira's case, that means marriage. Within Shira's community, it's customary for parents to present a marriageable woman with alternatives. The woman then decides whether she wants to pursue an engagement.

Shira never questions whether her parents would present her with anything but worthy suitors, leaving the ultimate decision up to her. She has the power to say "no."

At the outset, Shira -- eager for marriage -- agrees to a match. But when her older sister Esther (Renana Raz) dies in childbirth, the plan is put on hold.

I won't burden you with plot details, but what ensues is a drama that tests Shira's ability to come to terms with the conflicts that impede her fulfillment as a woman.

Here's just where Burshtein starts to put Shira's problem into sharp focus. Foot dragging on the part of Shira's grieving family causes the prospective groom's family to back out, leaving Shira adrift.

Fearful of losing her newly born grandchild, Shira's mother (Irit Sheleg) proposes a solution. Shira should marry the newly widowed Yochay (Yiftach Klein), the man left wifeless after Esther's death.

Now, it's important to know that Fill the Void never feels like a drama of repressed desire. Burshtein's characters are complex creations, men and women whose lives are governed by religious law, but who simultaneously can be conflicted about issues involving familial duty.

As Burshtein heself has noted, her characters are not rebelling against what might have been presented as maddening religious constraints and limitations -- the separation of men and women in religious ceremonies, for example.

Although religion is not her primary subject, Burhstein obviously does not see strict religious observance and adherence to Jewish law as constraints, but as guideposts that her characters accept as entirely meaningful.

Shira is anxious about how to proceed with a proposed marriage to Yochay. She's willing to accept the idea of such an arranged marriage, and she's able to give her consent so long as she sees it as an expression of familial obligation.

What she can't entirely come to grips with is the passion aroused by the possibility of physical and emotional intimacy with the patient, attractive Yochay, whom she obviously finds appealing.

If she acts on those feelings, will she be betraying her late sister?

Beautifully played by Yaron as an 18-year-old yearning for hormonal and familial fulfillment.

Far from being a conniving woman, Shira's mother couldn't be more honest about her motivations or more understanding of her daughter's right to make a choice based on her own wishes, as well as those of her family. She's not a guilt-inducing cliche of a Jewish mother.

The same generosity of spirit isn't expressed by Shira's disabled aunt (Razia Israeli) who believes that Yochay should marry a cousin whose marriage possibilities are fast dimming.

Not surprisingly, the whole matter winds up before a rabbi who -- rather than dispensing a legalistic opinion wrapped in Talmudic intricacies -- cuts straight to the human heart of the matter in a lovely, bittersweet scene.

As played by Klein, Yochay is a more frustrated character, an appealing man who wants his new son to have a mother and who might, therefore, be pushed into a marriage with a woman in Belgium. It's this prospective marriage that threatens to take the new born Mordecai away from his grandmother and grandfather.

For the most part, though, Burshtein concentrates on the women who occupy this world. She finds beauty in them and in the lives they lead, and she portrays the yearnings and confusions of a young woman as well as any adolescent film set in more recognizable surroundings. Burhstein wisely relies on the humanity of her characters to sustain interest, and the approach works.

As I watched the movie, though, I wondered how it would play with audiences who knew little or nothing about Jewish tradition. And for all the considerable honesty when it comes to dealing with emotions, it seemed to me that Burhstein couldn't entirely resist idealizing the Hasidic world of which she's a part.

The movie doesn't acknowledge the necessary tradeoff in Shira's life. Her education probably has been entirely religious. Her ability to earn a living may be limited. The dominant role in her life will be that of a wife and mother. Has she made a choice or has she been so isolated that she doesn't even know that there's a choice to be made? It's interesting that Burshtein, who I've watched in interviews on You Tube, didn't allow Shira a choice that she herself was able to make.

The closest Burhstein gets to depicting life beyond the community arrives when we hear the distracting beat of contemporary music in the streets outside the family apartment. No one pays it much mind.

Burshtein might argue that she has presented an insider's view, the approach taken by someone who is not in conflict with her community but nourished by it. As such, Fill the Void stands as a substantial and moving coming-of-age story about a young Hasidic woman captured in the full blush of her ripening.

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