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JANE ENKIN PREVIEWS THE WOMEN'S BALCONY AT THE WINNIPEG JEWISH INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL

By Jane Enkin May 17, 2017

The Women’s Balcony

Ismach Hatani

Israel, 2016, Hebrew with English subtitles, Directors: Shlomit Nechama and Emil Ben-Shimon, 118 minutes.

By Jane Enkin

Jane Enkin Music and Story at janeenkinmusic.com

 

The Women’s Balcony is a warm, funny film I highly recommend.

With this film, it does help to know a bit of the plot in advance: In the middle of a joyful bar mitzvah, the women’s section of a small synagogue collapses. The elderly rabbi’s wife is injured, the rabbi himself is too depressed to leave home and the synagogue is too damaged to use.  A few of the men rent a room for prayers but they’re losers when it comes to mustering up a minyan (ten men required for Orthodox prayers,) until a young rabbi passes by.  He’s happy to help, and he brings enough young men with him to make the minyan.

The young rabbi takes on the project of rebuilding the synagogue, but he also takes on the project of “improving” the congregation – pushing stricter observance, such as more stringent tzniut (usually translated as “modesty”) rules for the women.  (Stricter rules about kashrut, that is, permissible foods, enter into the story as well, and a plot point turns on the understanding that a family that does not keep a really strict kosher home all year round will have a stringently kosher kitchen during Passover.) When the synagogue renovation is complete enough for prayers to begin again, the women of the congregation find, to their shock, that boards still hide the ruined women’s balcony, and there is no women’s section in the building at all.

There are lots of plot twists and turns as the congregation, played by a large ensemble of gifted actors, responds to the influence of the intense young rabbi but also feels their roots in their own warm friendships, family ties, and traditions.

The English captions are mostly good, but there are exceptions. To understand the plot, you have to know that when the caption says “Bible” the word the actors are saying is “Torah,” with different meanings at different times in the story – a Torah is the scroll in the synagogue, Torah study encompasses all Jewish religious study, and the term the Torah can mean Jewish law.

This is a fiction film, with a deliciously funny plot, but it provides many of the delights of a documentary, happily exploring a particular sort of Sephardi-Israeli community through celebrations, foods, songs, and also through attitudes toward religion, relationships and what I, with my Ashkenazi background, can only call mentshlikhkayt.

It is so refreshing that the most powerful, sweetest romance (among several in the film) is the one shared by a long-married middle aged couple! The fine script, direction and highly individual acting allow us to get to know all the beautiful, quirky characters, including their status in this tiny fishbowl of a community.

This film is beautifully shot. There’s a bird’s eye view of a group of women making Havdalah, each holding a sprig of myrtle, then embracing as the new week begins. Architectural detail, light, an actor’s glance – all evocatively framed. I enjoyed the very urban Jerusalem setting, with narrow streets, markets overflowing with fruit, and the beautiful old synagogue that is the centre of all the conflict.

And we laughed so much!  In some instances, watching with someone who understands more Hebrew than I do helped, but a lot of the humour comes from the looks the characters give one another – they understand each other so well.

Just as you’d find at the Passover seder in the film, there is some bitterness for these lovely people, but the sweetness shines through.

To buy tickets go to http://www.radyjcc.com/cultural-events/winnipeg-international-jewish-film-festival/

 
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Publisher: Spivak's Jewish Review Ltd.


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