When Israeli filmmaker Pazit Lichtman, a self-described “village girl from Ashkelon,” a coastal town just north of the Gaza Strip, arrived at the 2008 Tribeca Film Festival with her film Willingly, she realized how far she had come from home. Extracting boxer shorts and aftershave from the festival gift bag, Lichtman was reminded that she is a minority in a male-dominated industry. This was a far cry from her experience at Ma’aleh, Israel’s first Orthodox school of Television, Film and the Arts, where Lichtman trained. Founded in 1989, in Jerusalem, before which there were few film study options outside of Tel Aviv, Ma’aleh has a 70 percent female student body. That female predominance will be well represented at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, opening tomorrow. Alumnae Tsofnat David Levi will screen her short Separation, Inbar Namdar will screen her short A Shabbos Mother, and Keren Hakak will screen her documentary Rosensweig: Born to Dance. (Ma’aleh graduate Chaim Elbaum will also screen his film And Thou Shalt Love).
Ma’aleh’s success in attracting female students stems from its understanding of the complex expectations and responsibilities facing young religious Israelis. Ma’aleh’s gender breakdown was even more disproportionate 20 years ago, when “boys in Israeli yeshiva high schools weren’t encouraged to be creative,” according to Katie Green, director of the school’s International Relations and Special Projects. “While that situation has improved, it is still hard to support a family on a filmmaker’s salary.” Ironically, this traditional attitude has paved the way for religious women to achieve prominence in a profession not typically associated with them.
Studying at Ma’aleh gives religious women a means of commenting on their own backgrounds in a community where women’s forms of expression are more limited. When political events—the disengagement from Gaza, for example—have been in the news, they often become the basis or backdrops of films. Yet as they have receded from the public eye, Ma’aleh’s female students have tended toward personal stories about marriage, adoption and fertility, women’s status in Jewish law, and misogyny.
Meirav Hatav, a 25-year-old graduate from Ashkelon, addressed the objectification of Israeli women in her graduate film, Mika, the story of an illegal Russian immigrant who lives with her baby near Jerusalem’s Machaneh Yehuda market, amid a tangle of men who heckle her. Current student Keren Hakak, a 26-year-old Jerusalemite of Iranian descent who struggled with the pressure to marry young, is now at work on Persian Lemon, about a single 40-year-old new mother wrestling her Sephardic father over issues of independence and modernity. The film mirrors disagreements Hakak has had with her own parents. “They think the sooner the better!” she said, laughing about their hopes for her to marry. “But I really have to feel that it’s right.”
Lichtman, the 27-year-old writer and director of Willingly (2007), divorced a week and a half before her film premiered at the Haifa Film Festival two years ago. She almost dropped out of Ma’aleh in her third year because of marital trouble, but school administrators encouraged her to stay and to channel her pain into something creative. With Willingly, a portrait of a young religious couple terminating their marriage at a rabbinical divorce court, she did just that. To research the rabbinical divorce process, Lichtman sat in on two such proceedings that left her with a new mandate. “Every person in the world needs to see this ceremony, to understand the meaning of an ending. This [divorce] is a dead end, and I’m not coming here until I have no other choice,” she said in an interview.
Willingly traveled to Barcelona and Keren Hakak’s Rosensweig: Born to Dance traveled to Warsaw, both for Jewish film festivals earlier this year. In the fall, Rosensweig and Esther Siton’s I’m Ready will be screened in Israeli film festivals in New York and Miami. As the films of these female directors make their way into the international scene, they’ll change how the Jewish experience is chronicled . “So much of Judaism has a male voice to it,” said 2007 graduate Tehila Kaiser Weisenberg. “Film is a great way for us to get the female voice across.”