Tuesday, December 17, 2019
This ultra-Orthodox Israeli Woman, Who Stars in a Documentary on Her Sect, Wants Women to Learn the Torah
One Saturday a few weeks ago, after the end of Shabbat, an audience of almost a thousand women gathered in the synagogue of the Belz Hasidic sect in Jerusalem for a long, intensive evening. The organizers had been worried that the event would not be well attended. A similar event held two weeks earlier in the Belz community in Ashdod had drawn a packed house, but those in the know say that Jerusalem women are somewhat – how to put it? – guarded. The hand motion accompanying the tilting of the nose heavenward said it all. Condescending or not, the women of the Jerusalem branch of the Belz community leaped at the chance to watch on a big screen, in public, an episode from a new documentary series about the sect, "Kingdoms." There wasn't an empty seat in the hall.
This may sound like no big deal, but it was an exceptional event of historic dimensions. The television series is about the Belz Hasidic dynasty, and the only participants are Hasidim who talk about the community. However, its creator, veteran filmmaker Uri Rosenwaks, is secular, and the series is being broadcast on state television, the Kan 11 channel. From the sect's perspective, those two facts alone are sufficient to keep Haredim – ultra-Orthodox Jews – from viewing it, certainly not declaratively, still less in public.
But because the filmmaker received the blessing of the Belzer Admor, leader of the sect, and because senior figures from the community took part in it and attested that never before has such an attentive stage been given to their story, a public screening was organized. It was for women, though not only for reasons of separating the sexes. The fact is that men are more strictly enjoined than women not to watch films.
There are three episodes in the series, and in each of them Rosenwaks takes an extremely delicate approach, some would say exaggeratedly so, toward the subjects of the film. The episode screened at the Jerusalem event was the first – it was chosen because it is considered less critical – and it was wrapped in three educational talks. Toward the last of the talks, the community's female superstar, the Admor's wife, the Belzer Rabbanit, entered the hall. Her presence was the final seal on the sect's grand legitimization of Rosenwaks' series, and he, in response, was effusive about how moved he was.
In contrast to the other women of the sect, who cover their heads with wigs over a short haircut, the whole under a hat, to indicate that they are married, the rabbanit does not wear a wig, but a high turban to cover her head. The women rose, thrilled to see her, and flocked around to kiss her hand. One woman urged me to approach her and receive a blessing. "Say 'shavua tov'" – a good week – she said, and pushed me gently toward the guest's seat, in the first row. As I was the only woman in the hall without a wig, the rabbanit undoubtedly noticed that I was a bit out of place, but she was still generous and kissed my hand. If there was a blessing, it was uttered inwardly.
The episode that was screened deals with the history of all the Hasidic sects, but focuses primarily on Belz. It recounts how the previous admor was smuggled from Europe to Palestine during World War II, how the Hasidic sects became almost completely extinct, and depicts their wondrous revival in the Holy Land. From 50 Hasidim who barely survived the Holocaust, the Belz sect today numbers tens of thousands. The viewers were thrilled at the episode and afterward wanted to know if similar events would be organized to view the other sections. Rosenwaks is convinced that those in charge are apprehensive that the other two episodes are not fitting material for the community's women, so it's unlikely they will allow this.
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