Ruth Margalit

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Me­nashe a film di­rected by Joshua Z. We­in­stein

Srugim a tele­vi­sion se­ries cre­ated by Laizy Shapiro and Hav­vah Deevon

Me­nashe a film di­rected by Joshua Z. We­in­stein

Srugim a tele­vi­sion se­ries cre­ated by Laizy Shapiro and Hav­vah Deevon

How in­su­lar a com­mu­nity is may be mea­sured by its share of mem­bers who wish to ap­pear on cam­era. When a cast­ing call went out to New York’s ul­tra-Ortho­dox com­mu­nity, which num­bers in the hundreds of thou­sands, to ap­pear in Me­nashe, a fea­ture film set in the Bor­ough Park neigh­bor­hood of Brook­lyn, only sixty peo­ple showed up. “I would call it un­cast­ing,” Joshua Z. We­in­stein, the film’s direc­tor, told an in­ter­viewer. Even af­ter they agreed to par­tic­i­pate in the film, many of the ac­tors soon dropped out, cit­ing rab­bini­cal pro­hi­bi­tions or cold feet. A full cast list has yet to be re­leased; the film­mak­ers are wor­ried that even ex­tras could face ex­com­mu­ni­ca­tion. Me­nashe’s clan­des­tine as­pect—it was shot in se­cret en­tirely within the Ha­sidic com­mu­nity it de­picts—has at least one salu­tary side ef­fect: it lends the story an un­der­stated, nat­u­ral­is­tic qual­ity that might have been miss­ing in a flashier pro­duc­tion. That qual­ity is height­ened by the fact that most of its cast mem­bers are first-time ac­tors, and many had never stepped in­side a movie theater. Me­nashe is spo­ken com­pletely in Yid­dish, ex­cept for one brief but con­se­quen­tial scene in English (to which I’ll re­turn). It loosely tells the real-life story of Me­nashe Lustig, the ul­tra-Ortho­dox ac­tor play­ing the ti­tle char­ac­ter. Hav­ing been wid­owed for a year, Me­nashe wants to raise his tenyear-old son, Rieven, by him­self. But his re­li­gious faith won’t al­low it. As the Book of Gen­e­sis says: “It is not good that the man should be alone.” Un­til Me­nashe re­mar­ries, a rabbi de­crees, Rieven is to be left in the cus­tody of his un­cle and aunt. But Me­nashe doesn’t wish to re­marry, and the rabbi gives him a week to prove him­self as a sin­gle fa­ther.

The plot takes place dur­ing that week, as Me­nashe, a de­voted fa­ther but a help­less klutz, bum­bles his way through his parental du­ties and his low-pay­ing job be­hind the cash reg­is­ter of an ul­tra-Ortho­dox-owned su­per­mar­ket. He is al­ways short on money and on the verge of be­ing fired. He gets drunk on a night out with his son, over­sleeps, then gives Rieven Coke and cake for break­fast. Our de­sire to see Me­nashe win cus­tody of Rieven is com­pli­cated by the fact that he is far from an ideal fa­ther. When Me­nashe’s strin­gent brother-in-law blames him for hav­ing ne­glected his wife when she fell ill, Me­nashe doesn’t dis­pute him.

Still, we find our­selves root­ing for Me­nashe. It helps that Lustig is a born ac­tor, with a rare abil­ity to project comic ex­pres­sive­ness at key dra­matic mo­ments. One of the film’s most riv­et­ing scenes is with­out di­a­logue: we sim­ply watch as Me­nashe moves about his cramped apart­ment, knock­ing over a plas­tic cup here, scratch­ing his belly there. His phys­i­cal­ity is thor­oughly com­mand­ing—like a paunchy Chap­lin with a yarmulke. So em­bed­ded are we within the stric­tures of Ortho­dox life that even when Me­nashe slaps Rieven for a small in­frac­tion, we quickly for­give him. When Rieven asks his fa­ther, who wears a black yarmulke and whose tz­itzit, or prayer shawl fringes, dan­gle out from un­der his shirt like cur­tain tas­sels on a windy day, “Why don’t you wear a hat and coat like ev­ery­one else? You’d look much nicer,” I found my­self think­ing: Yeah, Me­nashe, why don’t you?

The life­like feel of Me­nashe is fur­ther com­pounded by im­pro­vi­sa­tion. We­in­stein has said that be­cause of his cast­ing prob­lems, the film’s script had to go through count­less it­er­a­tions. A large part re­served for Me­nashe’s fa­ther-in-law, for ex­am­ple, had to be scrapped: the ac­tor play­ing the role pulled out af­ter shoot­ing be­gan. Then there was the lan­guage bar­rier. Yid­dish is the main lan­guage spo­ken by most ul­tra-Ortho­dox Ha­sidim (but not by Chabad­niks or Lithua­nian Ortho­dox Jews, who con­verse in He­brew). Yet nei­ther We­in­stein nor his fel­low writers speak it. So the ac­tors were given free rein to trans­late the English script as they saw fit. The re­sult­ing di­a­logue comes across as re­fresh­ingly un­pol­ished—the English sub­ti­tles rightly read like a trans­la­tion, not like a su­pe­rior orig­i­nal. The same un­pol­ished ve­neer char­ac­ter­izes the film’s vi­su­als. At one point, Me­nashe and Rieven look for dec­o­ra­tions to liven up the bare walls of their apart­ment. Most pic­tures are out of the ques­tion. In­stead, they set­tle on a wa­ter­color por­trait of a rabbi, set against a pink­ish sun­set. “Very au­then­tic,” Me­nashe says ap­prov­ingly. For a film that fo­cuses on par­entchild re­la­tions in the wake of a tragic death, Me­nashe re­mark­ably es­chews sen­ti­men­tal­ity or lazy con­jec­ture. You may, for ex­am­ple, pre­sume, as I did, that Me­nashe does not wish to re­marry be­cause he is still in love with his late wife. You’d be wrong. Their mar­riage, we find out, was not a happy one. The cou­ple met through a match­maker on a mu­tual trip to Is­rael, and spent most of their time to­gether fight­ing. Even a mo­ment of ten­der­ness, in which Me­nashe gives his son a fluffy lit­tle chick, isn’t sac­cha­rine. As Rieven pets it, his fa­ther belts out a song in Yid­dish: “To­mor­row

we’ll have you in the chicken soup.” Both fa­ther and son laugh. Me­nashe thus fol­lows the very best of Yid­dish lit­er­ary tra­di­tion—Sholem Yankev Abramovitsch (known by his al­ter ego Men­dele the Book Ped­dler) comes to mind, as does Solomon Nau­movich Rabi­novich (Sholem Ale­ichem)—in which gal­lows hu­mor is the surest sal­va­tion from kitsch.

Me­nashe’s de­pic­tion of Ha­sidic so­ci­ety is like­wise nu­anced. We­in­stein, whose back­ground is in doc­u­men­tary, is in­ter­ested in life as it is, not in life as it should be. (Nor is he in­ter­ested in bog­ging down his story with ex­pli­ca­tion: we watch Me­nashe and his neigh­bors feed a grow­ing con­fla­gra­tion with no commentary on its be­ing Lag BaOmer, a hol­i­day cel­e­brated by light­ing bon­fires.) De­spite Me­nashe’s small re­bel­lions—his in­for­mal at­tire, his re­fusal to re­marry—there is no ques­tion of his leav­ing the con­fines of his re­li­gion, no mat­ter how un­fair its rab­bini­cal edicts. Whether or not Me­nashe gets to raise his son, the film makes clear, he will re­main within the rigid bound­aries of Bor­ough Park— home to one of the largest Ha­sidic com­mu­ni­ties out­side Is­rael.

Ha­sidism, a spir­i­tual move­ment that grew out of ul­tra-Ortho­dox Ju­daism in the eigh­teenth cen­tury, is com­prised of dif­fer­ent sects, each with its own tzadik, or “right­eous” leader. The ma­jor­ity of Bor­ough Park res­i­dents are Bobover Ha­sidim who orig­i­nated in Gali­cia, in to­day’s south­ern Poland. The Bobovers are cred­ited with es­tab­lish­ing a ma­jor ul­tra-Ortho­dox com­mu­nity in the United States af­ter a near-com­plete an­ni­hi­la­tion of their sect in the Holo­caust. Much like the Sat­mars of Wil­liams­burg, they be­long to a zeal­ous, an­ti­mod­ernist branch of ul­tra-Ortho­dox Ju­daism, though one that is less vocal against the State of Is­rael than the Sat­mars. Lustig him­self is a mem­ber of a far smaller sect, called Skver, that is based in New Square, a vil­lage in Rock­land County, New York, where men and women walk on sep­a­rate sides of the street. Women of­ten oc­cupy a para­dox­i­cal po­si­tion in Ha­sidic life—a po­si­tion Me­nashe deftly por­trays. They are largely ab­sent from civic life, yet hold much power when it comes to the home. In some Ha­sidic cir­cles, they are even em­ployed in fields that are con­sid­ered too mod­ern for men, such as com­puter work or design. This is par­tic­u­larly true in Is­rael, where Haredi, or ul­tra­Ortho­dox, women serve as their house­holds’ main bread­win­ners while more than half of Haredi men don’t work and spend their days study­ing the Tal­mud. An old Jewish joke tells of a de­vout woman who says that her hus­band is in charge of the “big things,” such as go­ing to war or re­la­tions with the king, while she is re­spon­si­ble for the “lit­tle things”: their liveli­hood, their chil­dren’s ed­u­ca­tion. This am­biva­lent sta­tus of ul­tra­Ortho­dox women—out­sized yet marginal­ized—can be summed up in one sen­tence that Me­nashe ut­ters mat­terof-factly part­way through the film. Why marry, he asks his rabbi, if a step­mother wouldn’t be al­lowed to touch his son any­way? In other words, a woman’s pres­ence is so vaunted that a man can­not be ex­pected to raise a child with­out her, but she is also deemed rit­u­ally im­pure and can­not touch even a young boy who is not her blood rel­a­tive. Such is the plight of ul­tra-Ortho­dox women. Un­sur­pris­ingly, the di­a­logue in the film is spo­ken al­most ex­clu­sively by men. A rare ex­cep­tion is a scene in which Me­nashe goes on a blind date or­ga­nized by a com­mu­nity match­maker. The meet­ing is cold, like the ice cubes in the cou­ple’s Coke glasses. As be­fits Ortho­dox cus­tom, they barely make eye con­tact. “Be­sides mar­riage and chil­dren, what else is there?” Me­nashe’s date asks him solemnly. Me­nashe sighs. Oy.

Not only are women oth­er­wise largely miss­ing from the film, but so is sec­u­lar life. Un­like the Chabad-Lubav­itch move­ment, which is fa­mous for its out­reach, the ma­jor­ity of ul­tra-Ortho­dox Jews shun non-Ha­sidic so­ci­ety. Only once do we see Me­nashe in­ter­act with any­one out­side his com­mu­nity, and to hear him sud­denly speak in English (a

halt­ing English, at that) is so jar­ring that we for­get this has been New York all along. He is seen sit­ting with two His­panic em­ploy­ees of the su­per­mar­ket af­ter a long day’s work. All three are sip­ping beer from forty-ounce bot­tles as the men in­vite Me­nashe to join them on a night out. Me­nashe laughs. With them he feels wel­come, at ease. And yet part of the joke is pre­cisely the im­pos­si­bil­ity of their propo­si­tion: Me­nashe will not be join­ing their fi­esta, of course. Though he may find his re­li­gion suf­fo­cat­ing, its pull is too strong for him to re­sist.

Me­nashe ends ex­actly as it be­gins, with a long shot of Me­nashe pac­ing the streets of Bor­ough Park, drowned out by a sea of other peo­ple—with one dif­fer­ence. He now wears a long coat and black hat. Not only will he not be re­belling against his com­mu­nity but he seems to have taken to heart their crit­i­cism of him and to be ea­ger to do bet­ter. It may not be the les­son we were hop­ing for, but this, af­ter all, is life.

An­other por­trayal of the pres­sures on young re­li­gious peo­ple to marry can be found in Srugim, an Is­raeli drama se­ries that pre­miered a decade ago and streams with English sub­ti­tles on Ama­zon. Though de­cid­edly less in­su­lar than the ul­tra-Ortho­dox of Bor­ough Park, Is­rael’s na­tional-re­li­gious move­ment, known out­side of Is­rael as Mod­ern Ortho­dox, still tends to view sec­u­lar tele­vi­sion and cinema with a com­bi­na­tion of skep­ti­cism and dis­trust. Srugim was writ­ten by two re­li­gious film­mak­ers, and deals with the dat­ing lives of sin­gle re­li­gious Jerusalemites: Yi­fat, a ge­nial graphic de­signer; Ho­daya, a rabbi’s daugh­ter who un­der­goes a cri­sis of faith; Nati, a heart­throb doc­tor; Amir, a di­vorced He­brew teacher; and Reut, a no-non­sense ac­coun­tant. In an early episode, Yi­fat and Ho­daya, who have been best friends since their days in Bnei Akiva, a re­li­gious youth move­ment, are squint­ing in front of a com­puter, be­moan­ing the fact that nearly all re­li­gious parts on Is­raeli com­mer­cials and TV are per­formed by non­re­li­gious ac­tors.

Ho­daya: “That re­li­gious kid smil­ing next to the Coke bot­tle?” Yi­fat: “I don’t think an Ortho­dox fam­ily would al­low its son to shoot a com­mer­cial for Coca Cola.” Ho­daya: “The ul­tra-Ortho­dox guy from Visa?”

Yi­fat: “I think he’s Swedish.” Ho­daya: “Why is it? Don’t we de­serve models from the sec­tor?”

The irony, as Is­raelis will pick up on, is that the two well-known ac­tresses of­fer­ing this bit of di­a­logue—Yael Sha­roni and Tali Sharon—are them­selves non­re­li­gious, as are the other ac­tors. And yet when it came out, Srugim proved a hit among re­li­gious Is­raelis— as well as a hit gen­er­ally: the news­pa­per Ye­diot Ahronot called it “a rare in­stance of su­perb tele­vi­sion.” While Me­nashe will not be watched by the very com­mu­nity it por­trays, Srugim is a more main­stream af­fair. In a way, Srugim can be seen as the re­verse of Me­nashe: writ­ten by “in­sid­ers,” cast with “out­siders,” and watched by both in­sid­ers and out­siders alike.

Srugim means “knit­ted” and is short in He­brew for kip­pot sru­got, or “knit­ted yarmulkes,” the ones worn by Is­rael’s na­tional-re­li­gious Jews. To say of a group of peo­ple that they are srugim con­jures in Is­rael a spe­cific seg­ment of so­ci­ety: peo­ple who take an ac­tive part in all of the coun­try’s in­sti­tu­tions (mil­i­tary, par­lia­ment, uni­ver­si­ties) while also ad­her­ing to the strict in­ter­pre­ta­tion of Jewish law. They keep the com­mand­ments; they ob­serve the Shab­bat; they do not touch mem­bers of the op­po­site sex be­fore mar­riage.

Ac­tive par­tic­i­pa­tion in po­lit­i­cal and civic life has been the main dis­tinc­tion be­tween the Zion­ist re­li­gious Jews and the Haredim—the ul­tra-Ortho­dox— since the found­ing of the State of Is­rael in 1948, an event that tore re­li­gious Jews apart. Lead­ers of the ul­tra-Ortho­dox com­mu­nity re­jected the nascent coun­try as an “at­tempt to re­place divine agency with hu­man agency,” in the words of Moshe Hal­ber­tal, a scholar of Jewish phi­los­o­phy, whereas na­tional re­li­gious Jews came to re­gard Is­rael’s found­ing with rap­ture—as a has­ten­ing of re­demp­tion and of the ar­rival of the Mes­siah. If sec­u­lar Is­raelis de­fined the coun­try’s early decades (David Ben Gu­rion, Golda Meir, the kib­butznik pioneers), the Zion­ist re­li­gious Jews are likely to de­fine its fu­ture. Their ranks, due to very high birthrates, are swelling: about a quar­ter of Is­raelis iden­tify as na­tional-re­li­gious, ac­cord­ing to 2014 sta­tis­tics from the Is­rael Democ­racy In­sti­tute. In­ter­est­ingly, only 10 per­cent of Is­raelis de­scribed them­selves as re­li­gious when asked solely about re­li­gios­ity with­out adding na­tion­al­ism to the mix, sug­gest­ing that the def­i­ni­tion is fluid and that Zion­ism plays an im­por­tant role in their self-per­cep­tion.

Srugim has been de­scribed, not out­landishly, as the Is­raeli Friends (though it’s not a sit­com). Most of its scenes take place in­side an apart­ment in the Old Kata­mon neigh­bor­hood of Jerusalem, and the fo­cus never veers from the group of five sin­gles at its cen­ter. But be­cause this is Is­rael, pol­i­tics are never far away, ei­ther. Yi­fat at­tempts to clear her head and es­cape city life by mov­ing to a West Bank set­tle­ment—a move that is pre­sented as ra­tio­nal and com­mon­place. In a 2008 in­ter­view with a re­li­gious Is­raeli pub­li­ca­tion, Laizy Shapiro, the co-cre­ator of the show, who lives on a set­tle­ment him­self, took pride in hav­ing bussed the en­tire pro­duc­tion team “across the Green line” for the shoot, call­ing it a “great ac­com­plish­ment.” Only twice, and briefly, do we see Arabs men­tioned on the show: once when Nati gets rid of a nonkosher sand­wich by hand­ing it to an Arab doc­tor, who quips, “I hope it’s not poi­sonous.” An­other time, Yi­fat and Amir think they see an Arab man and run away in fear, only to dis­cover that the man was, in fact, a neigh­bor’s rel­a­tive.

If all this sounds ril­ing to a lib­eral sen­si­bil­ity, Srugim was also met with crit­i­cism from ul­tra-re­li­gious groups in Is­rael who ar­gued that the se­ries had “crossed many red lines,” as one re­view on Arutz Sheva, a news site iden­ti­fied with the re­li­gious right, put it. The show’s trans­gres­sion? “Say­ing prayers in vain, hav­ing a woman bless the wine in front of men, and, above all, break­ing many of the mod­esty pre­cepts be­tween men and women, from touch­ing to more bla­tant acts.” That the se­ries should be re­buked by re­li­gious Jews for

not be­ing mod­est enough is un­sur­pris­ing. What is sur­pris­ing is the op­po­site: that its cre­ators man­aged to bring to Is­raeli prime time a show about dat­ing where the most “bla­tant acts” in­clude noth­ing more than a rare kiss or a day­dream of jump­ing on a bed with one’s love (on a bed, not into bed), and one scene in which sex is por­trayed only by show­ing a mar­ried cou­ple in bed, fully cov­ered, af­ter the fact.

If any­thing, Srugim makes a rather con­vinc­ing case for re­li­gious Ju­daism, with an em­pha­sis on fam­ily and on a tight-knit sense of com­mu­nity. By con­trast, the pic­ture that emerges of sec­u­lar life re­volves around light­hearted bro­mides about food. Sec­u­lar peo­ple, we are told, eat fancy cheese and “fly off to Barcelona to eat squid” and com­plain about store-bought cake. On the one hand, Ho­daya’s grow­ing dis­il­lu­sion with re­li­gion is pre­sented sym­pa­thet­i­cally—in one of the show’s most af­fect­ing scenes, she has an ex­change with a for­merly re­li­gious writer who tells her: “All the laws and the com­mand­ments and the fact that ev­ery­one knows what to do all the time, I felt like that’s the fur­thest thing from God.” On the other hand, there is a nag­ging im­pli­ca­tion in the se­ries that sec­u­lar­ism equals self­ish­ness. As Ho­daya ques­tions her faith, she re­peat­edly turns down job of­fers and ro­man­tic part­ners, deem­ing them all be­neath her. “Stop look­ing down on ev­ery­thing,” Yi­fat be­rates her at one point. “Stop think­ing that you’re so spe­cial.”

I con­fess that I may be bristling at the show’s de­pic­tion of non­re­li­gious life more than is war­ranted. To be fair, one of the most en­dear­ing char­ac­ters is Avri, a sec­u­lar Ph.D. with whom Ho­daya falls in love. But since I grew up in a sec­u­lar fam­ily in Jerusalem only a few blocks from where the se­ries takes place, watch­ing Srugim felt strangely per­sonal to me, like a home video beamed out to the world. The se­ries namechecks lit­tle havens of non­re­li­gious life that my friends and I used to fre­quent: Smadar cinema, Café BaGina, Emek Re­faim Street in the Ger­man Colony.

But such places are dis­ap­pear­ing at a dizzy­ing pace (or else turn­ing glatt kosher). To­day, 35 per­cent of Jerusalem res­i­dents de­fine them­selves as Haredi while only 21 per­cent say they are sec­u­lar—an in­crease of 5 per­cent and a de­crease of 7 per­cent re­spec­tively com­pared to a decade ago, ac­cord­ing to Is­rael’s Cen­tral Bureau of Sta­tis­tics. This in it­self would not be an is­sue were it not for the grow­ing re­al­iza­tion that sec­u­lar peo­ple are in­creas­ingly un­wel­come in the city: the process of Jerusalem’s “Haredi­za­tion” peaked a few years ago when all im­ages of women were scrubbed from the city’s bill­boards. It’s no co­in­ci­dence, per­haps, that when Ho­daya and Avri af­firm their love, they’re on the beach in Tel Aviv.

Srugim at times feels con­trived, heavy-handed. More than once it suf­fers from what I’ve come to think of as a ten­dency in Is­raeli pro­duc­tions to cram in “and, and”—in this case, to deal with di­vorce and ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity and in­fer­til­ity and los­ing one’s faith, some­times in a sin­gle episode. I sus­pect this has to do with the rich­ness of Is­raeli so­ci­ety and the at­tempt by Is­raeli writers to en­com­pass it all, to check every box on its mul­ti­tude of lay­ers. All the more so in re­cent years, when so much of Is­raeli tele­vi­sion is be­ing made with an eye over­seas, where a larger au­di­ence and big money beckon. (Such pro­duc­tions have a proven track record: Home­land orig­i­nated in Is­rael, as did HBO’s In Treat­ment; the thriller Fauda, about a spe­cial forces unit of the Is­raeli mil­i­tary, is avail­able on Net­flix; the ex­cel­lent drama Sh­tisel, about a Haredi fam­ily, is cur­rently be­ing adapted by Ama­zon.)

But it’s not of­ten that a TV show cen­tered on ro­man­tic en­tan­gle­ments— that most hack­neyed of tropes—comes across as brac­ing. “There’s no place for sin­gle life in the re­li­gious com­mu­nity,” Shapiro said when the show’s first sea­son aired in Is­rael. “If you don’t have a fam­ily or a wife, you barely have an ex­is­tence in re­li­gious so­ci­ety.” Dat­ing, for the char­ac­ters of Srugim, isn’t ca­sual or di­ver­sion­ary: it is ex­is­ten­tial. A sense of high drama drives their en­coun­ters—chaste as they are—em­pha­siz­ing just how high the stakes are. No mile­stone is dreaded on the show quite like turn­ing thirty alone. And so the char­ac­ters date ag­gres­sively: speed dat­ing, on­line, through ac­quain­tances, even at syn­a­gogue. (“You pray at Yakar, but all the girls are wait­ing at Ohel Ne­hama,” Yi­fat tells Nati). They are des­per­ate to start a fam­ily, but are not will­ing to give up on love in the process, or on pro­fes­sional ful­fill­ment. When Reut re­al­izes that her boyfriend re­sents her earn­ing more than him, she promptly breaks up with him. And that, in the end, may be the show’s qui­etly rad­i­cal stance— one that is also echoed in Me­nashe. Love and mar­riage, yes. But at what cost?

Me­nashe Lustig in Joshua Z. We­in­stein’s film Me­nashe

The cast of the Is­raeli tele­vi­sion se­ries Srugim

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