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Frum Female Underground Films

A spate of Orthodox women are turning to filmmaking (some restrictions apply)

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From the trailer of Lara Gedzelman’s film The Chairlady. (Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original stills via Vimeo.)

One afternoon this past winter, I waited at a café in Boro Park for Yuta Silverman, an ambitious young filmmaker who lives in the neighborhood. Although I had watched four of her films in one week, I didn’t know what to expect. But when a beautiful red-haired woman entered with a beaming smile and an open, friendly face, I immediately recognized her as the star of Sheffield’s Manor, a film about a group of girls hiding in a Red-Cross house during the Holocaust that she wrote a few years ago in only three days and produced at almost no cost.

How, I wanted to know, did a religious girl from the Bais Yaakov yeshiva system become a filmmaker? “I woke up one day and told my family ‘I’m going to make a film,’ ” Silverman told me, matter-of-factly. Six years ago, without experience or expertise, she began making cold calls to people in the film industry she had heard of—both Orthodox and secular documentarians. She stumbled upon a small production company called Cicala Filmworks, and when Silverman met the director Stefan Schaefer she knew instantly she wanted to work with him. They hashed out some ideas and came up with a story based on her experience of befriending a Muslim colleague as a teacher at a Brooklyn school. The result was Arranged, a feature film with a frum lead character but intended for a secular audience, and that quickly became a hit on the Jewish film-festival circuit. Although Silverman wasn’t involved in the actual filmmaking aspects—that was left to Schaefer and his crew—she was an integral part of the creative team and through this discovered a love of filmmaking and a desire to create them for her own community.

But if Silverman’s path is unique, she is hardly alone these days. Indeed, Silverman and others like her are taking inspiration from Dina Pearlstein, considered the grande dame of frum filmmakers in Israel, who was one of the first ultra-Orthodox women to venture into this industry and also a rare example of someone who makes money from a small niche market. Pearlstein makes her films in both Hebrew and English versions and shows them all over the world, especially during the intermediate days of the Passover and Sukkot holidays when women-only screenings are popular. She and other religious female filmmakers are discovering what their audiences crave—suspenseful melodrama—and are working within the shifting confines of what religious authorities consider to be appropriate material to make movies for women who may have never seen a movie before.

***

For decades, movie watching for women in Brooklyn’s Boro Park neighborhood was mostly limited to slideshows shown in community halls on holiday breaks in which narrators would speak over still images. The first frum woman to make a feature-length, religiously oriented film was Ronit Polin, who began her career as a playwright and theater director directing high-school musicals attended by over 5,000 women and girls at a time. Her first script, called Hate Not Thy Brother, was set in the Second Temple era and proved such a success that she spent the next 10 years writing and directing plays for Orthodox girls’ yeshiva schools, including Bais Yaakov High School and Yeshiva of Brooklyn, all while working as a teacher and school psychologist in the Bais Yaakov elementary school. Soon after her first play gained immediate popularity, Polin began renting out her scripts to organizations and schools. To date, she has written six original scripts and directed over a dozen plays.

According to Polin, an enthusiastic reddish-blonde woman in her thirties—who spoke to me over tea and cake in her sunlit kitchen overlooking the Q train in Boro Park—this all changed in the fall of 2006, when she wrote a script about a French Jewish girl living in a non-Jewish home during World War II, held captive by a Christian woman who soon marries a Nazi worker. She decided to do something different with it.

“I thought, why put a living room on a stage?” Polin said. “Why not just film in an actual living room?”

Polin jumped at the chance to work on close-up shots, at different locations, and with graduates of her high-school plays who no longer had creative opportunities to perform, because they were religious women. When the organization that had first sponsored the film dropped the project, Polin raised money herself without knowing whether an audience existed. Her target audience was the ultra-Orthodox female crowd who had no other form of entertainment besides girls’ high-school stage productions. The resulting movie, Ink, featured female actresses dressed as Nazi men and broke the conception that the medium of film, associated by many in the community with the secular evils of “Hollywood,” was not kosher.

“It was very revolutionary,” she said. “I couldn’t call it a film. We called it ‘drama on screen.’ In fact, the tagline for the film was ‘Ink Changes Everything!’ ”

Polin never got a rabbi’s approval to make a film, but it turned out her reputation as an estimable teacher known for her “kosher” plays was all she needed. Her premiere screenings at school auditoriums and synagogues in Boro Park, Lakewood, and Monsey for Ink were sold out, with an astounding 350 women in attendance for each showing. The film then began showing worldwide and still continues to do so. Polin won’t release it on DVD so she can control who sees it, and the proceeds go mostly to charity, she said.

Ink broke the flood gates open,” Polin said. “Film became OK and others followed. Filmmakers now walk amongst us. You don’t have to sacrifice art for religion.”

In 2009, Polin made her second film, Diamonds in the Dust, with the help of the Chofetz Chaim Heritage Foundation, an organization devoted to peace between Jews. It distributed the initial release of the film, which was shot partly in Israel, to 70 cities in one week for women-only screenings. The plot, which was based on her first play, was rather unusual—a historical fiction about a family struggling during the era of the Second Temple’s destruction. The message was that strife in the Jewish community causes tragedy. The film remains a popular way to teach Jewish history at Orthodox girls’ schools and at girls’ camps every summer during the “nine days” before Tisha B’av, when Jews mourn the destruction of the Temple.

Polin’s fellow filmmakers also tend to approach filmmaking as a useful medium to convey a moral message. In February I saw Tobi Einhorn’s play And a Time for Peace, a three-hour production at Machon Bais Yaakov High School in Boro Park that drew hundreds of women. Like the other filmmakers, Einhorn had no formal training and began as a teacher at the school before directing plays there for the past 26 years. She told me she first decides on topics she feels are important and then creates stories for them. Silverman says that Einhorn is a “breakthrough artist, [the first] to make plays with real issues, such as going off the religious path or anorexia.”

Einhorn’s feature-length films—Blessing in Disguise, produced five years ago, and the more recent Almost a Family—are based on two of her previous plays and shot in New York. She directs and produces her films and plays with her colleague Chavi Klein. This year’s play, And a Time for Peace, focused on two long-lost cousins who meet on a chance trip to Israel and discover their mothers had not spoken for 17 years. The characters—played by high-school students—were funny, memorable, and real. They struggle to maintain peaceful relationships and emphasize the strong need to maintain peace within the Jewish community.

Einhorn, like all the frum filmmakers I spoke with, was faced with the question of whether to release these films on DVD or show them only at private screenings. Technically the Orthodox rules of modesty dictate that women can sing or dance only for other women. Acting, however, falls within a gray area. Einhorn, who feels strongly that men should not see her female actresses performing, has decided not to release her films on DVD but instead to show them at women-only screenings on intermediate holidays on Passover and Sukkot in Boro Park halls and in other “controlled environments in religious communities.” Silverman shows her films to live audiences but also sells them on DVD, with tags on the cover indicating that they are “for women and girls only.”

Rachel Frankl, another filmmaker from Boro Park, met me at the same café where I met Silverman. Ironically, Frankl got her start sitting in on secular movie sets she happened upon in New York City while studying creative writing and psychology, and in Toronto while accompanying her husband on business trips. She would ask questions to directors, producers, and cinematographers on set who were often happy to mentor a budding frum filmmaker.

“It’s not easy,” Frankl said. “Obviously, the lack of financial backing or any form of grants or available investors are a huge hindrance. It requires a lot of determination, relying on generosity of spirit and time of others, not just finances. It’s a massive job and for the most part a one-woman show. My husband helped with finances, my kids and my friends were on location and helped with transport and encouragement. Above all, though, there’s a driving desire to succeed at doing this, to show that it can be done.”

But Frankl also touches on the fact that showing her film at screenings has so far turned out to be less than productive, financially—when she showed it last Hanukkah, it cost thousands to advertise, rent space, and equipment, and the marketers who arrange screenings can demand upwards of 60 percent of the incoming ticket sales. “It’s just not worth it,” she told me, before explaining that she had therefore decided to focus on DVD sales for her first film, Anonymous Benefactor, released last fall, about a young religious widow raising three daughters in Brooklyn who receives mysterious acts of kindness when she faces financial ruin. The film has sold well, Frankl says, and she receives requests for it from around the world, even as far as Antwerp, Belgium. She’s now about to release a second film, a dance piece, straight to DVD without any public screenings. It will be distributed by Mostly Music, the Brooklyn-based music distributor, whose division Aderet Music is one of the main distribution channels of women’s films and music worldwide.

***

Silverman says that one of her role models is Robin Garbose, an Orthodox director based in Los Angeles who works with Kol Neshama, her performing-arts conservatory for religious girls, with whom she produced two movie musicals. “Robin is like a fire,” she told me. “She knows how to work the camera, she follows the rules of film, she combines the secular feel of film [with religious scripts.]”

Prior to becoming Orthodox 20 years ago, Garbose directed theater and television in New York and Los Angeles: She works with a larger budget, professional adult cast, and a Hollywood crew. She has screened her women’s films A Light for Greytowers and The Heart That Sings to mainstream festivals including the Atlanta and Jerusalem Jewish Film Festivals, in addition to ultra-Orthodox crowds in the United States and Israel. Garbose says women’s films are “a profitable niche market and it’s growing.” When we met in November on one of her trips to New York, she described a memorable scene in Boro Park one intermediate holiday when she screened her film in a lineup of other showings.

“There were Hasidic women saying, ‘I’m going to see this film tonight and that film tomorrow night,’ ” Garbose told me. “They were saying, ‘I feel like I’m on Broadway!’ ”

Still, aside from Garbose, no one is taking films made for the frum community to the outside world. Most religious filmmakers are still struggling to be accepted even within their own communities. When I met Lara Gedzelman for breakfast on Coney Island Avenue in Flatbush before Purim, the actress-turned-director and writer explained the flip side of frum filmmaking. Her first foray into film was collaborating with Silverman on The Chairlady, about a stay-at-home mom who organizes the competitive “Lady’s Auxiliary Tea.” Gedzelman, who lives in Passaic, N.J., had to cut a scene that showed a pregnant woman on bed rest because in certain Hasidic sects pregnancy is never discussed out of respect to women’s modesty.

“Either you make a widely popular film or there’s no room for a niche film in this niche market,” Gedzelman said. The women watching these films, according to Gedzelman, don’t watch secular movies—they are “a subset of a subset” in the Orthodox world. “It would be nice if we can make cinema relevant to us even if we see [secular films],” Gedzelman said. “Sometimes by catering to one group you automatically make it unpalatable to another group within the frum community.” These audiences tend to like unrealistic suspense, which doesn’t go over too well in the more modern communities, for example. “It’s difficult because different people have different sensitivities so it’s hard to make something everyone can enjoy,” Gedzelman explained. “Especially when the different guidelines are somewhat arbitrary.”

Which may be why Gedzelman, Silverman, and Garbose are all working on crossover films that aspire to greater freedom of expression and possibly higher-caliber art. As Silverman put it: “My dream is to make frum films good enough for the secular world.”

***

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julis123 says:

Maybe she should try making an anti-Israel film. It will definitely get reviewed in the NYT and be a big hit at all the international film festivals.

There are some  questions here that just beg to be asked of these film makers – why can’t ultra-Orthodox women (and men)  go to the movies? Why do so many of these movies have Nazis and other anti-Semites in them? Why go along with a rule that says that mentioning pregnancy is immodest (in a society where the women are pregnant much of the time)? What’s so great about people who have never seen movies making them? 

gemel says:

Obviously you do not understand the Halacha, the rules that the Orthodox community lives by. If you educate yourself about that, the answers to your questions will be revealed. 

If I put it in a phrase, serving G-d through following the Torah and commandments is the primary focus of the Orthodox life.

TheHolyBeggar says:

Even the kavanah of “modesty” is not available without strings to a sincere woman. 

I am aware of the “need” to obtain a spiritual leader’s  hecksher to  do this or that. When I feel the impulse, it is usually an innocent but conscious act; I seek a blessing or at minimum present myself out of respect because it impacts a community, and the response is usually a “no”. To press on with a plan anyway without the permission or against a prohibition might release a lashan hara into the community … at best.How long can a creative, thinking woman put up with the iron-fisted authority? When will men be free to walk in the light, when will their holy learning make them whole beings who walk in the world upright for a full lifetime? As the “Light unto the nations”, Jews have proven to be highly successful in creating iconic images and stories that have the potential to realign secular society. I applaud these women’s inspired effort and hope to see these films.

mkublin says:

Lisa, I would like to answer your questions.  I am not a rabbi, but I am an Orthodox writer and producer. 
1. Many Orthodox Jews don’t watch movies because main-stream movies almost always have at least some content they don’t want exposure to, some of which is even forbidden due to modesty standards.  This includes language, clothing, behavior, and situations that secular society considers perfectly acceptable.  If you don’t want to see it, you just don’t buy a ticket, right?
2. Jewish movies are likely to explore themes of oppression and antisemitism as sources of conflict and obstacles to overcome in much the same way that any good movie relies on conflict for a story to come to life.  No conflict; no plot.  Much is written about antisemitism because writers are encouraged to “write what you know.”  Unfortunately, hatred of the Jewish people is still a rampant, global problem.  
3.  Mentioning pregnancy is not universally prohibited, but there are some sensitive to its discussion because of how one gets that way, and so as not to incite jealousy or ill feelings from, say, a couple having trouble conceiving or who has lost a child, G-d forbid.
4. “What’s so great” is that human beings have a natural impulse to create and express themselves.  When your religious beliefs do not allow an “anything goes” approach to the material you can include, or even what audience will see it, those restrictions can become opportunities for amazing creativity and artistic choices.  Like they say, talent always rises to the top.  What’s great is that another voice is being heard.  Another story is being told.  Another point of view enters the democracy of film as commentary and conversation.
Thank you for your questions.  I hope these answers shed a little light on the beauty of Torah values, and that those values do not need to be sacrificed to make art.  Just as Hollywood uses fake blood and stunt-men for the big cowboy shoot-out, to keep anyone from really suffering physically, these filmmakers are using care to keep anyone in their community or their audience from suffering spiritually.

Joseph Nerenberg says:

 Would also be a big hit in Satmar circles!

Joseph Nerenberg says:

 Perhaps you can enlighten us as to why censored books are okay, but not censored movies? What is it about film that is fundamentally different than mags or books?

Also: There are plenty of orthodox people who watch movies so methinks your paintbrush might be a tad too wide.

gemel says:

Am unable to respond to e-mails until at the earliest on Tuesday, May 29th – and possibly not until June 7th.
Be well and joyous.

poppyrose88 says:

Although unintended I’m sure, your reply is redolent of  condescension.   So, might I also respectfully suggest that, as ‘writers are encouraged to ‘write what you know’ perhaps these protected, venerated and talented ultra-orthodox women should consider producing a documentary on the physical and mental abuse in their community or the shameful concealing of paedophillia, or perhaps the sad fact that grown men spit on young girls, or  even that so many of their community brazenly live on welfare.  Perhaps these budding film makers should also desist from mentioning cholent, chicken soup and kreplach in their movies, after all food scarcity is still a rampant  global problem.  Respectfully again, this community would best serve its needs  by educating itself, exposing its youth to the frailties of the world in which they live and equipping them  to cope with life in 2012 rather than lurking in the shadows of their mediaeval and self-destructive ideas.     

Alexis Abrams says:

PoppyRose88 
I personally don’t see what was redolent of condescenscion in anything mkublin wrote in response to a question.  Is it that 
mkublin did not complain that these films don’t address the issues you feel they should address?  

I’m glad you wrote about this in a respectful way. Lots of women love these movies and they are a great outlet for the people who create them.

ThorsProvoni says:

Until one of these filmmakers makes an anti-Zionist film or looks at the long history of Jewish abuse of non-Jews, these movies just look like Jewish naval-gazing or self-indoctrination.

Two good books that could serve as sources for cinema that Jews should watch are:

A Murder in Lemberg by Stanislawski and

Postville: A Clash of Cultures in Heartland America by Bloom

Stanislawski’s book shows the machinations of wealthy Jews to maintain their power base and the willingness of ordinary Jews to commit crimes in the service of wealthy or powerful Jews.

Now that Rubashkin is in jail, it behooves Jews to look carefully at their business practices.

julis123 says:

 Actually I’d say that it behooves you to examine your creepy sicko antisemitism

ThorsProvoni says:

You should perhaps visit a psychiatrist. Your unwillingness to permit facts to interfere with  your worldview indicates a vibrant and robust developing psychosis.

mkublin says:

Dear PoppyRose,
I did not mean to condescend, only to answer the questions from my perspective.  I don’t even have any way of knowing if Lisa’s questions were sincere, so I tread lightly.  Be fair – were your suggestions about food exclusions free from sarcasm?  If so, to answer, cholent and chicken soup are not forbidden, but wearing a bikini is.

You speak of shedding light on abuses in these communities, and I agree with you wholeheartedly that there needs to be vast improvements in education and enlightenment in the areas concerning any types of abuse, victims’ rights, as well as the important fact that victims should not be shamed, and that abusers should be stopped and punished.  G-d gave us the Torah, and the Torah calls for justice.  It’s ideals and rules are our preservation and our future, including the moral laws that are supposed to protect us from physical, mental, emotional, or sexual abuse.  Violations of these laws cannot be ignored.  Abuses must be reported.  Victims need compassion and support. 

Certain Hasidic sects need to broaden their view on this and worry more about individuals than the “reputation” of their community, or any archaic fears of “stigmas” that may result from reporting immoral, criminal acts.

Your comment about a grown man spitting on a girl refers to an incident, and others like it, unfortunately, carried out by a tiny sect of extremists from whom almost all of the Orthodox world has distanced themselves.  Such a sect does not represent Orthodox Jews or their values any more than a street gang in South Central L.A. should be used as the social barometer for “how Americans behave.”  That’s what their behavior has reduced them to: a gang of thugs.

There are many issues facing Jewish communities today, and Jews around the world.  I wasn’t trying take on that whole world.  The article was about films.  If you want to talk about medieval ideas, we should discuss paintings.  (Nor sarcasm – Just a joke.)

Jewish people need to care enough about one another, regardless of affiliation or level of observance, to keep an open dialogue so that together we can tackle these important issues.

mkublin says:

Love your movie idea: The stereotyping!  The sweeping generalizations!  All the makings of a good conspiracy-theory film.   
The make-up department will have to equip everyone with their horns, I suppose.  (Or powder down their real ones?  How far do you take your ignorance?)
Should the director offer any advice to his or her actors other than the note to constantly rub their hands together in the traditional,  greedy Shylock fashion?
Jew Actor: “What’s my motivation?”  
Jew Director: “Money!”

I love that you know what Jews should watch and what Jews should do, and what Jews should look at.  What box cars would you lead us to?

SASGraphicD says:

I do understand Halacha, Torah, Talmud, and the Zohar. However, what I don’t understand is how any community can keep it’s people so isolated from our shrinking global world that they can not use the mind that G-d gave them to make their own decisions without asking a Rebbe (or any other leader) no matter how well educated or spiritual they may claim to be. The truth is that the basic foundation of spirituality … Love thy neighbor as you would yourself … Is being ignored because ultra-Orthadox Jews have no more tolerance for each other’s sects or other sects within Judiasm than the Romans had for Jesus, who was born a Jew, and also studied Torah and probably the Zohar. Mankind used their freedom of choice to interpret G-d’s Light, and mankind including the Ultr-Orthodox have interpreted Torah. An isolated community, no matter how righteous, is still isolated from the rest of G-d’s creations, thus breeding intolerance and lack of understanding. Mankind was given the ability to think and thus create many cures, but the only cure for ignorance is a willingness to see see this tiny planet as G-d’s creation where each individual soul has the right to learn about each other so that tolerance can begin. Only G-d in the end should judge, not man (nor woman).

gemel says:

Am unable to respond to e-mails until at the earliest on Tuesday, May 29th – and possibly not until June 7th.
Be well and joyous.

SASGraphicD says:

I try to always learn as much as I can about the Ultra-Orthodox world. I applaud these woman, but I still find the lack of acceptance of at least allowing the outside world to be viewed by many of these communities to be worrisome. I personally know of a grandparent who can not see his own 13 grandchildren because he did not obtain a religious divorce (ghet) from his daughter’s Orthodox community Rebbe, but rather from The Jewish Theological Seminary (Conservative) so his new wife is not considered to be his wife at all. How about some tolerance between Jewish sects, let alone the rest of the world.

I am old enough to tell you from personal experience that if the Frum community had been more worldly they would have known the Shoah was coming and perhaps left in droves before September 1939.
This isolation is not good for our health or well being. A good reading of  Mein Kampf might have been the forewarning.  
Each little group listens to their rabbi as if the man hears the voice of Hashem.  Far from it.  Most only want control over their bailiwick.  Few are able to enter the other realms and return. 
Jews are supposed to think for themselves. And to be truly religious you have to learn everything you can about human nature.  If all is forbidden to you and you have never seen the outside world you are but a parrot at best rather than a true holy person.

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Frum Female Underground Films

A spate of Orthodox women are turning to filmmaking (some restrictions apply)

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