My husband and I recently saw the award-winning, critically-acclaimed film “Fill the Void,” directed by an Israeli Hasidic woman, Rama Burshtein. It’s playing in select theaters throughout the country. (We found a showing in Manhattan.) I had been hearing great things about it, so I was curious to see the movie for myself. Despite the all hype, I was not disappointed at all. In fact, “Fill the Void” exceeded my expectations. It was funny, full of great acting, a compelling storyline, and even had a lead character who was a Sacha Baron Cohn look-alike. (I googled it – other people noticed too!)
I remarked to my husband afterwards that so often these days movies and TV shows rely on gratuitous violence, sex scenes, and cursing to entertain audiences. And this movie had none of that. There was no overt sexuality as this was a movie made by a Hasid, yet the interactions between the two lead characters were brimming with romantic tension – tension which was only able to come about came about due to the restraint the characters exercised. Even as the movie ended, in a rare occurrence in this day and age, what happened next was left up to your imagination.
Burshtein was smart to not paint her world as a flawless one. Despite the fact that Orthodox Jews believe the Torah is perfect, there is no community that upholds every Torah value completely. You saw a man who was being offered tzedaka (charity) throw it back in the face of the donor because it wasn’t “enough.” You saw the challenge that some of the characters (particularly the women) faced when they were not able to get married. But because Burshtein was willing to show the viewers the warts, when you saw the love and beauty and meaning in this very pious, closed off society, you trusted that you were getting honesty there too. And you saw humanity. Something you RARELY see when Hasidim are in movies and TV shows.
And not only did the viewers see this – the secular Israeli actors did too. In this sweet interview of Hadas Yaron at the Venice Film Festival (who plays the lead character Shira), getting to know Burshtein and learning about the Hasidic world showed her a depth and appreciation for Torah she didn’t have before. You even see Yaron breaking down a myth about arranged marriages when she corrects the interviewer and explains that while the parents (in Hasidic circles) choose the potential match, it’s up to the one dating to agree (or not agree) to go through with the marriage.
“Fill the Void” reminded me a bit of the film “Ushpizin” – also an award-winning Israeli movie about Hasidim. What these two movies have in common that no other movies about Hasidim (to my knowledge) have it’s that they were both made by insiders. So instead of seeing the Hasidic world as an outsider thinks it looks, i.e. super serious with the men chanting “oy yoy yoy yoy” all day long, you see people laughing, girls shrieking when they’re excited, and women with strong opinions, which people from all walks of life can relate to.
What both of these movies have done is what we’re trying to accomplish with Jew in the City. Base your understanding of Orthodox or Hasidic Jews on an actual Orthodox or Hasidic Jews*- not the Hollywood version of them. The media will sometimes speak to insiders from the Orthodox or Hasidic world, but the insiders they choose are almost always the ones who had negative experiences.
While I believe that those voices should be heard from time to time, the positive voices need to be heard sometimes too. My hope is that with JITC’s continued efforts, we’ll see more interviews of happy, “normal,” Orthodox people who weren’t abused or mistreated. While I’m told repeatedly that there’s nothing newsworthy or surprising about a happy, “normal” person, I would argue that because so many unhappy ex-Orthodox people have gotten so much media attention in recent times, to hear from a balanced, successful one would actually be the unexpected story. Perhaps that, in part, is what has made “Fill the Void” and “Ushpizin” such popular films – every movie goer loves a good surprise!
*or in “Fill the Void’s” case, people who are acting according to a Hasidic Jew’s direction