The New European - - Eurofile Cinema -

New re­lease Disobedience comes at a time when the Or­tho­dox Jewish com­mu­nity is start­ing to ad­dress LGBT+ is­sues – and the book on which it was based has surely helped with that process, says KAREN E. H. SKINAZI

More than a decade after Naomi Al­der­man’s novel Disobedience caused a stir with its story of a les­bian re­la­tion­ship be­tween the daugh­ters of the ul­tra-or­tho­dox Jewish com­mu­nity of Hen­don in North Lon­don, a star-stud­ded film adap­ta­tion has just ar­rived in cin­e­mas.

Rachel Weisz and Rachel Mca­dams of­fer com­pelling por­tray­als of long-lost lovers who re­unite in a pas­sion­ate, colour­ful af­fair on the screen, while in the back­ground, the Or­tho­dox com­mu­nity threat­ens to de­stroy Esti (Mca­dams), who is still a mem­ber of it.

Disobedience is a timely film. For many years, Or­tho­dox Jewish com­mu­ni­ties, un­like their more pro­gres­sive de­nom­i­na­tional sis­ters, have avoided or de­ferred con­ver­sa­tions about their LBGT+ mem­bers. When I was grow­ing up, at­tend­ing an Or­tho­dox Jewish school, we stu­dents asked our teacher, an Or­tho­dox rabbi, how Or­tho­dox Ju­daism felt about ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity only to be told, “there are no ho­mo­sex­ual Jews”.

To the credit of my class­mates, we all laughed. The world al­ready knew about Har­vey Milk and Gertrude Stein and Allen Gins­berg. Of course, he might have meant, “there are no ho­mo­sex­ual Or­tho­dox Jews,” im­ply­ing Or­tho­dox as the only way to be Jewish.

But still, it was laugh­able. In fact, un­til the 2001 doc­u­men­tary Trem­bling Be­fore G-d, which fea­tured per­sonal sto­ries by Jews torn by their con­flict­ing de­vo­tion to Or­tho­doxy and their non-het­ero­sex­ual ori­en­ta­tions – a doc­u­men­tary Al­der­man says helped in­spire her to write her novel – dis­cus­sions of LGBT+ were qui­etly rel­e­gated to the per­sonal spa­ces of the

home, the ther­a­pist’s of­fice, even the rabbi’s of­fice. But they were not pub­licly aired.

Schol­ars such as Sa­muel Heil­man, con­sid­ered one of the fore­most au­thor­i­ties on Or­tho­doxy, have de­cried this si­lence. In his 2006 book, Slid­ing to the Right (2006), Heil­man calls for the “need [for rab­bis] to find a way to har­monise Or­tho­doxy with such thorny is­sues as fem­i­nism [and] ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity”. And, in Septem­ber, Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, the UK’S chief rabbi, made a first at­tempt to do so.

The pur­pose of Mirvis’s re­port, The Well­be­ing of LGBT+ Pupils: A Guide for Or­tho­dox Jewish Schools, is not to solve the “thorny is­sue” of ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity within an Or­tho­dox frame­work – per­haps that is ask­ing too much as a start.

The rec­om­men­da­tions are ac­tu­ally quite mod­est. Much of the re­port fo­cuses on anti-ho­mo­pho­bic bul­ly­ing and, to a lesser de­gree, sug­gests role mod­els. “For a young per­son who is dis­cov­er­ing their sex­u­al­ity or gen­der iden­tity,” the guide

notes, “hear­ing role mod­els such as teach­ers and school lead­ers us­ing terms re­lated to LGBT+ lives sen­si­tively can be hugely pow­er­ful.”

But whether these rec­om­men­da­tions are only to show com­pas­sion for LGBT+ stu­dents or to demon­strate the fea­si­bil­ity of be­ing a part of the LGBT+ com­mu­nity while re­main­ing in the Or­tho­dox fold is not spelled out.

Tes­ti­mony in Mirvis’ re­port from former pupils of Or­tho­dox Jewish schools re­veals the lone­li­ness and alien­ation that young peo­ple in these kinds of en­vi­ron­ments en­dure. Avoid­ing the oft-touted (though far more by the Chris­tian right than Jews) Leviti­cus

18:22 – “You shall not lie with a male as one lies with a fe­male. It is an abom­i­na­tion” – but also avoid­ing some of the in­ter­est­ing, nu­anced com­men­tary that revered Jewish sages pro­duced about sex­ual am­bi­gu­ity in the an­cient world, the re­port in­stead high­lights the generic, uni­ver­sal hu­man duty to kind­ness, as ex­pressed in Leviti­cus 19:18: “Love your neigh­bour as your­self.”

In a Guardian ar­ti­cle, Al­der­man, who left Or­tho­dox Ju­daism after pub­lish­ing Disobedience, con­clud­ing through the writ­ing of the book that she couldn’t stay in a com­mu­nity with no place for its LGBT+ mem­bers, praised the chief rabbi’s re­port. She wrote that she feels “proud” of the com­mu­nity that she came from for mov­ing in the right di­rec­tion. In fact, she didn’t say – but per­haps should have – that she feels pride for her own con­tri­bu­tion to the change in that com­mu­nity that must have felt, a lit­tle over a decade ago, like an im­pos­si­bil­ity.

My re­search fo­cuses on rep­re­sen­ta­tions of Or­tho­dox Jewish women, and in my new book, Women of Valor: Or­tho­dox Jewish Troll Fighters, Crime Writ­ers, and Rock Stars in Con­tem­po­rary Lit­er­a­ture and Cul­ture, I write at length about the ways that Or­tho­dox Jewish com­mu­ni­ties are

sen­sa­tion­ally de­picted in lit­er­a­ture and film and pop­u­lar me­dia as be­ing dan­ger­ous places for women.

Ex­am­ples abound: last month, BBC Ra­dio 4 did an ex­posé on the ul­tra­Ortho­dox com­mu­nity of Stam­ford Hill, paint­ing a ter­ri­fy­ing im­age of an ar­chaic and un­eth­i­cal pa­tri­archy whose “sub­servient” women were forced into crime.

Watch­ing di­rec­tor Se­bastián Lelio’s film adap­ta­tion of Disobedience, I was pleased to see both women’s agency and sex­ual di­ver­sity – such im­por­tant and nu­anced is­sues in Or­tho­dox Ju­daism – brought to the big screen.

That said, I found the film some­what dis­ap­point­ing. In a re­cent ra­dio in­ter­view, Al­der­man praised the film, in­clud­ing its end­ing, which is dra­mat­i­cally changed from the novel’s.

Her rea­son is sound: “There is no sin­gle right an­swer for frum [Or­tho­dox] LGBT+ peo­ple,” she wrote in the Guardian. I sym­pa­thise with her point – though for me, Lelio un­does some of the good work that Al­der­man did in her novel. In the novel, Esti stakes a fresh new path that prom­ises the pos­si­bil­ity of co­ex­is­tence be­tween Or­tho­doxy and les­bian­ism. In the film, Esti seems to be leav­ing the com­mu­nity.

If every­one who didn’t fit into Or­tho­doxy’s un­re­al­is­tic and dated vi­sion of it­self as free of LGBT+ is­sues and mem­bers – the vi­sion that my teacher tried to claim years ago – were ei­ther silent or left, then Or­tho­dox com­mu­ni­ties could ac­tu­ally re­tain this im­age. But that is not the way for­ward, and it seems even the chief rabbi agrees. So, per­haps it is worth see­ing the film – but only as a com­pan­ion to the far more pow­er­ful novel.

Karen E. H. Skinazi is a se­nior teach­ing fel­low and di­rec­tor at the Univer­sity of Bris­tol; this ar­ti­cle also ap­pears at thecon­ver­sa­

COM­PELLING:1 Rachel Weisz, left, and Rachel Mca­dams in Disobedience2 Mca­dams and Weisz with Alessan­dro Nivola in a scene from the film 1


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