The Feminist Utopia of Haredi Cinema

Born nearly a century after cinema emerged as a form of entertainment for general audiences, ultra-Orthodox Jewish films are made exclusively by and for women

Diana Bahur Nir 14:3419.01.20
On the last day of Hanukkah, December 30, 2019, outside a community center in Bnei Brak, an ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) suburb of Tel Aviv, dozens of Haredi women and girls were crowding the street. They were trying to gain admittance to a rare event that was about to take place inside, but tickets were sold out in minutes and a guard placed there to keep order would not let them in. "I got a babysitter for my two-months-old to come here," one of the women said, begging to be let in. "We took a taxi to get here," tried another. "I cannot believe it; it took us so long to find this place."


Most of the women eventually dispersed quietly, disappointed, but a few continued to negotiate with the guard. A young girl waving a mobile phone asked to see the manager. "My mother wants to talk to you," she said.

Images from Tali Avrahami. Photo: Tali Avrhami Images from Tali Avrahami. Photo: Tali Avrhami


Inside, the lucky 200 women who managed to get a ticket were in for a special treat: a screening of the movie Zechut HaShtika (Hebrew for the right to remain silent) by female Haredi filmmaker Dina Perlstein. The movie, described on the brochure as a "riveting and groundbreaking drama," has been granted rabbinical approval. Shot in Israel and France, it follows the story of a French journalist who arrives in Israel on assignment and builds tight bonds with a family she was sent to cover. That is—with the women of the family, since all the characters in this movie, in fact, all the characters in all the movies made for Haredi audiences, are female.


The frustration recorded outside the makeshift movie theater demonstrates the overwhelming demand for this kind of kosher movie experience. For many ultra-Orthodox women, these films are the only acceptable form of entertainment—with internet, television, and mainstream cinema out of the question. While Haredi men are not permitted to watch any movies, according to their faith, Haredi women and girls, amounting to hundreds of thousands of people in Israel, are free to watch specially-made and rabbinically approved films. These types of special screenings, however, are only held several times a year, mostly on non-Sabbatical holidays. The fact that these events take place in make-do spaces with plastic chairs in lieu of the typical cushioned cinema theater seats does little to dampen the excitement.


Other than the fact that all plots take place in a universe without men, as a genre, Haredi cinema is very realistic. One can find both comedies and dramas, depiction of personal conflicts, and scenes from other people's lives. Some of the films reflect high-quality productions, showing multiple locations. As a whole, they offer Haredi women what art has been offering people for millennia: the opportunity to laugh, cry, get excited, develop intimate connections with fictional characters, and get a fresh perspective on life.


Catering to a limited but devoted audience, Haredi cinema has sprouted several stars. Perlstein is one of the industry's biggest names, with five films under her belt, according to online database IMDb.


On another evening in Hanukkah, in central Israeli town Rehovot, some 250 Haredi moviegoers braved a winter storm to watch another Haredi hit, Lo Lipol 2 (Hebrew for don't fall down 2) from ultra-Orthodox production company Cohen vaHetzi (Hebrew for Cohen and a half). The protagonist of this movie franchise is Nehama, a chess champion and KGB agent, held captive at a soviet prison.


Haredi women are a committed audience, and they react viscerally to the happenings on the screen, calling out in amazement or screaming with fear. "At first, my mother was afraid to come because she heard that girls often shout in these screenings," said a 30-year-old moviegoer who attended the screening with her mother and sister.


The next day, in a community center at neighboring town Rishon Lezion, the 2018 comedy For a Change by Haredi filmmaker Tali Avrahami was screened. At the heart of this movie's plot is an elderly woman that was sent to live in a nursing home. She makes a daring escape and becomes involved in the life of a wealthy family. "Tali Avrahami is a must," said a woman who brought her 11-year-old daughter with her to see the film. "We do not have TV, we do not have a computer, we really look forward to these screenings—that is our culture. It lifts the spirits and later, we talk about this at the synagogue," she said. "Coming here, I know I am going to see a clean film, nothing I will be unhappy with," she said. "I feel secure in these screenings. It is like a breath of fresh air."


Haredi cinema might come across as a fantasy of a feminist utopia. In reality, many ultra-Orthodox women are constrained to the roles of wives, mothers, or students at a religious school for girls, but in the movies they watch, women are doctors, judges, pilots, drivers, spies, and Siberian jail wardens.


Lo Lipol 1, set in 1949 Russia, follows the aforementioned chess prodigy Nehama and her mother, who heads a Jewish underground organization. When Nehama loses her identity following a head injury, she joins the KGB and extradites her mother to the authorities. The ending is happy, relatively speaking. Nehama regains her memory and helps get her mother out of the Soviet Union, but is captured and thrown in jail.


Haredi movies promote values that are compatible with the principles of Orthodox Judaism: respecting one's parents, living morally, and sanctifying life. Some of these movies focus on Jewish identity and the connection to god as central themes. Mazal Sharabi, 64, came to see Lo Lipol 2 with her two grown daughters. "Not just the themes, the plot, the music—it was first class," she said. "I came because my daughters dragged me, but it was beautiful. As a young girl, going to the movies was completely forbidden. these films, made to comply with our lifestyle, came to us late."


Movie director Ariel Cohen, of Cohen vaHetzi productions, told Calcalist that he finds beauty and strength in these movies in which women are the heroes. "It is not enough, of course. Without men, there is no romance, no love, half of life is erased," he said. This is why the movies often opt for drama and a very strong religious message, a Jewish heroic tale, he added. "Because these are movies for women, there is a lot of emphasis on fashion, accessories, makeup, and hair," he said. "these elements get as much attention as the plotline."


Being a wild comedy, Avrahami's latest film, For a Change, is unique in her filmography. Her previous films dealt with Jewish heroism under the Nazi regime (Angels in White, 2012), during the 2008 attack on the Chabad house in Mumbai (Bombay, 2012), and in Tsarist Russia (The Fence, 2011). Other films deal with the KGB, the Spanish Inquisition, and a young woman struggling to find a good match. With this new film, Avrahmi sets out to establish a new genre of Haredi filmmaking, but as packed with punchlines as the movie is, it also hammers in the religious agenda: the importance of the family unit, respecting one's parents, and faith in god.

Ultra-Orthodox women watching a movie screening in Jerusalem. Photo: Liron Bar Ultra-Orthodox women watching a movie screening in Jerusalem. Photo: Liron Bar


"This film is universal," Avrahami told Calcalist in a recent interview. "Yes, there is religious content but there are also general themes, including inter-family relations and old age." Avrahami, 51, lives in southern Israeli town Kiryat Gat and has nine children and eight films under her belt.

"It is a challenge to create a fictional reality in which the lack of men would not be an issue," she said.


Haredi cinema has been around for a decade and a half, and it is evolving on the move. The change is evident in the topics it deals with, in the production quality, and in the boundaries it is willing to cross. Tsila Schneider is a founding mother of the genre. She is 59, a mother of 11, and the wife of a Rabbi who lives in Jerusalem. "I founded this thing, as a genre and as a brand," she recently told Calcalist. Her first films, Fingerprint (2004) and Where Will I Go (2008), reflect an industry in its youth, but they carved out a path for the more mature, better-produced films that came after. Since then, Schneider has evolved and perhaps went on to stretch the boundaries further than her counterparts: her latest film, Babooshka (2015), had male characters, and they appeared in the same scenes as the female characters: a husband and wife, a father and his daughter. The film bombed at the community center box office.


"When people saw the husband and wife sitting together on the sofa, they got up and left the screening. They were really mad at me. But, at least, I opened a window," she said.


"I grew up in Mea She'arim, in a very reserved home," she said. "On the new moon, we were allowed to watch a bit of film: Heidi, The Secret Garden, Pollyanna. When a boy and a girl appeared together on a screen, someone would cover the projector. Mary Poppins was only watched in more modern homes. I always loved it," she said. When she married and had children, her husband did not want their daughters to watch movies, but they rebelled. "So, my husband suggested that I create movies with the right messaging for us. If the world is advancing in the direction of media, we should create a catalog of our own films. A film has power, so why not use it to promote our own content, of Judaism and Torah?"


Haredi cinema started out like regular cinema, albeit a century later. Before there were movies, Haredi girls and women got together for storytelling sessions where a slideshow of still photographs was projected, accompanied by music. When Schneider began making movies, she even included still images, to resemble the familiar entertainment format. The new style spread.


Her audience, Schneider said, is willing to let go a lot of the cinematic experience, but they will not compromise on religious laws and customs. "I never set out to be Spielberg," she said. Still, she struggles with creating film with no men. "It is a joke, because that is not life, and cinema must be authentic," she said. "In every family, the father is always abroad; it is a misrepresentation. This is something that must be fixed. The way I chose to go about it did not work for me, but I believe that if all of us movie makers team up, we can find a solution."


Marlin Venig researches Haredi cinema as a PhD candidate at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and calls Haredi filmmaking undercover cinema. Venig grew up in a secular home and became ultra-Orthodox in her twenties. Now, age 39, she is a mother of seven. "These movies are made by women, for women. Men are not allowed to watch, and secular Jews won't see them either. It is a female empire, and that is its strength."


Still, the power is not absolute. In 2015, Haredi social activist Esti Shoshan made the movie Barren, which deals with the pressure on young religious women to conceive. The main character takes birth control to delay motherhood, a big taboo in the Haredi community. At the end of the film, the protagonist decides to toe the line, but for audiences, that was not enough. The movie was labeled as defiant.


Venig believes Haredi filmmakers do not need to tackle "defiant" topics. The very existence of the medium is enough, she said. In recent years, it has pushed past Haredi literature, and now many young women in the community dream of becoming filmmakers. What's more, the industry is a vehicle for employment for women in a society that does not prioritize financial independence.


Avrahami, on the other hand, said that she does tackle topics considered taboo, but she does so "measurably." Her film Aleh Katan (Hebrew for little leaf), for example, deals with mental illness. "Our audience is delicate. They cannot stand pain, violence," she said. In Angels in White, a film she made about the Holocaust, she treaded lightly, cutting a lot of the more painful scenes. Still, she said, it was not enough—the movie failed at the box office. "It took us a long time to recover," she said. "You live and learn. We study our audience and how to communicate something in a palatable way."


But the real challenge, according to Dina Perlstein, is not at all unique to Haredi cinema: money. "There are no budgets, and we walk a very tight rope," she said. "We take fewer chances; we let go of many of our dreams."


Most films are made for NIS 1 million (approximately $289,000). Some films have a more elaborate production, including shooting abroad. In Ukraine, there is a production company so versed in the laws of Haredi cinema, it understands kosher restrictions and has even mastered wigs, which many Haredi women wear to cover their natural hair.


The way most of these films are made is by filmmakers mortgaging their home to get a loan, or through sponsors," Venig said. A successful film could mean countrywide screenings and hundreds of thousands of tickets sold. New releases are priced accordingly, at NIS 50-NIS 70 (approximately $14.5-$20) per ticket, while tickets for older movies go for around NIS 30 (approximately $8.7). And there are other redeeming qualities. The audience is very loyal and news of newly released films spread by word of mouth, rendering ad budgets nearly unnecessary.


A lot of the budget goes into hiring professional actresses—there are almost no Haredi actresses around, as there are no schools or programs for teaching acting in the ultra-Orthodox community. Generally speaking, Haredi women who want to work in the movie industry are mostly self-taught. Some directed school plays and ceremonies, some led storytelling events, and some have taken private lessons. Six years ago, Jerusalem film school Ma'ala opened a program for Haredi women.


The program was founded by documentary filmmaker Rachel Elitzur, whose 2018 film, Covered Up, was screened in local film festivals and on television. Most students are looking to learn a trade that will allow them to earn income, she told Calcalist. "We do not nurture fantasies of becoming the next Dina Perlstein or Tali Avrahami," she said. "They are the genre's Quentin Tarantino, they did not have formal education and today, there isn't a Haredi woman who does not know their names."


"Haredi cinema is the most expensive film school," Venig said. "Filmmakers learn from one production to the next, at their personal expense, how to work and what works and what doesn't."