If, like me, you are one of those old-fashioned Jews who considers shul a central part of life, the first few minutes of The Women’s Balcony, a tremendously enjoyable Israeli film screening next week at the JCC in Manhattan and starting its theatrical run shortly thereafter, will give you as much of a rush as anything involving Vin Diesel. Here, the fast and the furious aren’t driving but marching down a narrow Jerusalem street, dressed in their finest and carrying refreshments. They’re headed to shul, to a bar mitzvah that’s so joyous you’d be tempted to write a check. As you watch them celebrate, you can’t help but think that here, at last, is religion the way you’d always imagined it should be practiced—together, loudly, and with love.
And then, it all falls apart.
Literally: As the bar mitzvah boy is about to start reading from the Torah, the floor of the balcony housing the synagogue’s women’s section collapses. The accident leaves the elderly rebbetzin in a coma, her husband, the rabbi, in shock, the building in disrepair, and the community in a funk. With nowhere to pray, the synagogue’s congregants, most of them middle-aged owners of small businesses in the shuk nearby, wander around helpless and confused, waiting for a miracle.
It arrives in the handsome form of Rav David. Young, bearded, and wildly charismatic, David learns of the community’s misfortune and immediately volunteers to help. Before too long, he secures the necessary permits and oversees the renovation of the decrepit old shul. And soon enough, he sets out to repair the community’s hearts and minds as well, delivering fiery lectures that call for a far stricter interpretation of Judaism than anything anyone at the happy little shul had ever thought necessary. Little by little, joy gives way to fear, as David installs himself as the community’s new rabbi and insists that its members grow more observant and obedient.
The men, dazzled by the dominant new don, readily agree. The women, ever smarter and more sensible, have their doubts. But when Rabbi David decides that the community’s limited funds should go not to rebuilding the women’s balcony but to investing in a new Torah scroll, the women take charge. Like their ancient Greek sisters hell-bent on ending the Peloponnesian War, they go full Lysistrata and deny their husbands their graces. Of course, the men come around, love proves stronger than law, and the little shul is once again abuzz with happy Jews.
Merely describing the plot, however, does The Women’s Balcony no justice. Despite the movie’s immense popularity in Israel, or maybe because of it, the country’s bien-pensant critics dismissed it as a feel-good folk comedy, the sort of fare that appeals only to the tragically unsophisticated. They were missing the point: Entertaining as the movie may be, it still delivers one of the most profound meditations on religious life ever captured on film. Even more impressively, it does so not through metaphor (see under: Bergman, Ingmar) or, like the latest Scorsese, through meditation, but by letting us in on ordinary lives powered by faith and fellowship. When the bar mitzvah boy at whose ill-fated celebration the accident occurred confesses to his grandmother that he had prayed to God for some divine intervention to save him from the embarrassment of not having learned his Torah portion properly, the wise woman laughs. Played by the stellar Evelin Hagoel, the woman, Etty, sweetly chastises the young boy for thinking that God has time to worry about helping out a mortified adolescent. The Creator, she wisely instructs the guilt-ridden boy, endows us each at our birth with some common sense and an instruction manual, the Torah; it’s up to us to figure the rest of it out.
Theologically, this is a sharp rebuke to Rabbi David’s stringency. Socially, it’s a far healthier approach than the ones taken these days by so many strident social-justice warriors who stand on principle and allow their spiraling rage to drain life of its comforts. When Etty and her friends are approached by professional organizers, who suggest they take their fight public and launch a national media campaign, they refuse. They’re not interested in winning big, symbolic victories; they’re here to make sure that the tradition in which they so wholeheartedly believe continues to afford them the place and the space they need and deserve. Along the way, they teach us that reform is possible even without holy ire, that you can refuse to compromise your principles without becoming a mirthless zealot, and that, no matter what, you should never forget that Judaism regards Ahavat Yisrael, or kinship among Jews, just as highly as it does scholarly excellence or religious observance. When the women finally triumph, then, and their balcony is erected anew, they’ve patched up more than just an old building—they’ve rebuilt their community.
As so many of us are locked in internecine struggles engulfing just about every aspect of Jewish communal life, we should let the women on the balcony lead us back together and back to sanity. This film’s important: Go see it, and then march down the street to a shul or a university or a community center near you and invite some Jew whose opinions you loathe to do the same thing. It may not bring about the Third Temple, but it’s surely more inspired than the usual shouting.
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