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Israeli Film ‘Fill the Void’ is Jane Austen for Jews

New movie offers a glimpse into the insular ultra-Orthodox community

Yair Rosenberg
June 11, 2013
Still from 'Fill the Void.' (Match Factory)
Still from 'Fill the Void.' (Match Factory)

The cloistered confines of Haredi society are no stranger to Israeli television and film, which has long been fascinated by the isolated enclaves of the ultra-Orthodox. But unlike those depictions, Fill the Void is not the product of outsiders looking in, but rather an insider speaking out. After years of crafting films exclusively for female religious audiences, ultra-Orthodox writer and director Rama Burshtein obtained approval from her Hasidic community’s rabbi to make the jump to the mainstream. Fill the Void, Burshtein’s first film for the general public, is the result.

The movie bears many tell-tale signs of this unlikely origin story. All action in the film accords with strict halakhah—male and female performers do not touch, not a single character is dressed immodestly, and no sins are depicted at all. Indeed, by having its actors keep to the conventions of Jewish law, the film repeatedly defies the conventions of its romantic genre. And yet, rather than rejecting this approach, Israeli moviegoers—not a crowd known for its religiosity—rewarded it. Fill the Void took top honors at the Israeli Film Academy’s annual awards, and was the country’s entry into the Best Foreign Language category at this year’s Oscars. (It ultimately did not make the nomination short list.)

The film tells the story of Shira Mendelman (Hadas Yaron), a young Hasidic girl in Tel Aviv, whose older sister suddenly passes away, leaving behind her husband Yochay (Yiftach Klein) and newborn son, Mordechai. So that the family be made whole and the child have a traditional maternal figure, Shira is asked by her parents to marry Yochay and thereby “fill the void.” The film depicts her struggle with this choice, while offering a window into the sheltered world of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox community and its intensely family-centric culture.

Because Burshtein would not countenance portraying any behavior contrary to Haredi religious practice, the film never permits its lead actors to make physical contact, even as they work through their feelings for each other. Lesser performers might have been undone by such a requirement, but Yaron and Klein are up to the task. As Shira and Yochay struggle between attraction, alienation and obligation, both actors often accomplish with a single facial expression what many fail to do with their entire bodies, compellingly conveying internal emotional turmoil without the crutch of touch. The limitations impressed upon their performances heighten the romantic tensions rather than arresting them.

But it’s not only the acting in Fill the Void which benefits from the film’s self-imposed restrictions. The movie’s storyline would not be possible without them. Shira’s struggle between fealty to her family and to her feelings is one that is largely unthinkable in a modern context. Few romantic heroines in today’s cinema would even consider marriage for any reason other than love. Considerations outside the individual’s happiness are dismissed as unjust impositions on personal autonomy—if they exist at all, they exist to be overcome. But it is precisely these impositions which produce the drama which animates Fill the Void.

As in a Jane Austen novel, social mores and communal expectations combine to create the moral dilemma at the heart of Burshtein’s film: should Shira marry Yochay, even if she does not love him, for the sake of healing her broken family? In fact, Haredi society is one of the few settings remaining where such a drama can still transpire. In Austen’s time, powerful yet unspoken social forces shaped the lives of both her contemporaries and her female protagonists, and pressures to marry for reasons beyond personal fulfillment were commonplace. But as modern society strips away the bonds of tradition, community, and financial necessity which previously imposed external obligations on individuals—particularly women—tragedies of manners like Austen’s or Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre have become increasingly difficult to write. The only way to portray a protagonist beset by such outmoded responsibilities is to set the story in the historical past—or in an isolated traditional religious community.

And therein lies the secret to Burshtein’s success: the drama of Fill the Void stems from the very restrictions imposed by its setting. It is the film equivalent of a poem, where the author’s negotiation of her form’s limitations produces the art—a sort of cinematic sonnet.

None of this is to say that the film romanticizes its restrictions. Burshtein humanizes Haredi life, she does not apologize for it. Fill the Void is not a defense of her community, but rather a vivid portrait of the human beings who inhabit it. As such, there is no attempt to soften ultra-Orthodoxy out of deference to the sensibilities of non-Haredi viewers. Shira’s world is unreservedly patriarchal—her future is discussed by others behind closed doors, her final decision whether to marry Yochay is subject to approval by her community’s rabbi, and the women of her household tend to recede into the kitchen, or sit by quietly while men sing at the Shabbat table.

At the same time, Shira’s life is suffused with the sense of pointed purpose that comes with belonging to a community and family bound by holy obligation. In one scene representative of this spirit, her father (Chayim Sharir) and brother (Ido Samuel) diligently study Talmud on Purim night, while the pounding music of a nearby club can be heard through their apartment’s walls. And while Shira cannot sing publicly due to the halakhic rule of kol isha, she finds ways to express her feelings through teaching and playing religious music throughout the film.

Burshtein makes no attempt to justify or critique any of these behaviors, a rarity for cultural portrayals of deeply religious communities, which tend to stand in judgment over the world of their protagonists. Fill the Void presents Haredi life as it is, rather than dictating what it ought to be. Instead of pitting viewers against the insular ultra-Orthodox community, the film draws them into it, inviting them to identify with its inhabitants. The austere is made accessible, and the restrictive is made meaningful. Viewers will not walk away from Fill the Void in agreement with the world it represents, but they will depart with a greater understanding of its contours. As Assaf Amir, the film’s producer and a professed atheist put it in a Q&A session at the Venice Film Festival, “I understand this is not my world—I thought that they have a right to have their voice be heard.”

The cultural and commercial triumph of Burshtein and Fill the Void, then, tells us two things. First, that Israeli viewers—both secular and religious—appreciate portrayals of religious people that are fueled by empathy rather than ideology. And second, that the next Jane Austens of contemporary culture may turn out to be Haredi.

Yair Rosenberg is a senior writer at Tablet. Subscribe to his newsletter, listen to his music, and follow him on Twitter and Facebook.