The Women’s Balcony, a new Israeli film, is a movie about conflicting religious groups and their attempts to negotiate a shared understanding—but not the religious groups you might be thinking of. Rather, the film examines the sometimes tense interactions of Israel’s Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox communities, often with humor and compassion.
The film opens on a festive morning as the congregants of a synagogue in the Bukharan neighborhood of Jerusalem gather for a bar mitzvah. The members are Orthodox, but not obsessively so; when a little girl accidentally switches off the synagogue’s coffee maker, one of the women switches it back on (technically forbidden on Shabbat). What would a day of celebration be without coffee?
The genders are separated in the synagogue: men and boys on the ground level, women and girls up at the back of the temple on a balcony. The balcony collapses during the bar mitzvah celebration, throwing the balance of the religious community into chaos.
Enter Rabbi David (Aviv Alush). While the synagogue is out of commission, the men of the temple attempt to have a prayer meeting, which requires a quorum to proceed. They resort to asking passing strangers, all who shrug them off, until Rabbi David walks by. He not only agrees to pray with them, but brings along a crowd of his students to ensure a proper meeting.
David seems extraordinarily willing to step in as substitute rabbi for the synagogue while their much older rabbi is temporarily out of commission. Only used to teaching students, David seems to relish the opportunity to have his own community to lead. But his faith and theirs are at odds. Rabbi David subscribes to a fundamentalist strain of Judaism, whereas the members practice a more moderate version of the Orthodox faith.
Rather than gradually ingratiating himself among the temple regulars, Rabbi David further divides the men and women. While the synagogue is under repairs, he allows the men to worship inside, but forces the women to stay outside in a tarp-covered shack with only a small window view into the temple. To the men, Rabbi David is warm and respectful. He encourages them to buy scarves to cover their wives’ heads. To the women, Rabbi David speaks with a patriarchal fury, castigating them for the balcony’s collapse and suggesting that it came crashing down with the weight of their sins. The statement is akin to suggesting someone with cancer got it because they must be a bad person—only a real jerk would think it.
Rabbi David’s distaste for the women of the synagogue is too much for Ettie (Evelin Hagoel) to take. She rounds up the other women to stand up to David’s toxic misogyny, leaving her husband Zion (Igal Naor) torn between her and the men of the synagogue, who don’t really mind the unequal treatment of their fellow worshippers.
The Women’s Balcony, a modern update of Lysistrata, has a remarkable amount of compassion for its more misguided characters. The men of the synagogue are not just sexist dopes, but instead are victims of a charismatic Mephistopheles. Even Rabbi David is given moments of kindness and empathy, though his adherence to religious dogma prevents him from respecting the women he represents.
Where The Women’s Balcony falters is in the specificity of the story it attempts to tell. Director Emil Ben-Shimon and screenwriter Shlomit Nehama have crafted a story about a synagogue that fails to distinguish and hone in on the most interesting characters. Ettie’s struggle against oppressive and sexist fundamentalism is compelling, but other characters are given short shrift. Tikva, played by Israeli comedian Orna Banai, provides some of the movie’s funniest moments as a woman whose internalized shame causes her to don a veil and adopt a holier-than-thou attitude. But that’s just one of many stories, too many to fit into a ninety-six minute film.
This is the first feature for Ben-Shimon and Nehama, and their approach seems more appropriate for a television show than a movie. A series would have the time to explore all of the ensemble’s stories, but in the present form they’re too compact and fragmented. Filmmakers need to select the most resonant experiences to populate their stories, and Ben-Shimon and Nehama haven’t mastered those skills yet.
The filmmakers also show little interest in the lives and experiences of the growing fundamentalist movement in Jerusalem. Aside from Rabbi David and one of his more empathetic students, the Ultra-Orthodox are barely present, even as their influence hangs over the synagogue. Nehama lived in the same Jerusalem neighborhood and experienced the influx of fundamentalists: “I wanted to tell the story of the moderate people, who are forced to deal with growing religious extremism.” And she does tell that story, but merely kicks at strawmen when it comes to the religious extremists. It’s possible to criticize the misogyny and antiquated views of fundamentalists while giving them a meaningful voice, but the film takes the easy way out, not by demonizing the fundamentalists, but by ignoring them.
The religious conflict at the center of The Women’s Balcony is an important one, and one that rarely enters the consciousness of non-Israelis. It’s a story that deserves a stronger movie, one made by filmmakers with a more focused gaze.