Balcony avows a woman’s place is in the shul
Movie Review By Michael Fox, Special To The Dayton Jewish Observer
Set within a congregation of observant Jews in a quiet neighborhood in Jerusalem’s Old City, The Women’s Balcony begins with a Bar Mitzvah and ends with a wedding.
But there’s plenty of trouble between the celebrations, triggered by a structural collapse just before the Haftorah reading that shutters the shul and threatens the foundation of the affable community.
Things fall apart and, happily, fall back together stronger than ever in this skillfully constructed, crowd-pleasing saga of reasonableness fending off extremism, and humanism triumphing over ideology.
Emil Ben Shimon’s spirited film, from Shlomit Nehama’s warm, wise screenplay, pays unusual homage to the autonomy and power of women in Jewish religious patriarchies. The Women’s Balcony both honors and pokes fun at traditional roles and relationships, but it is unambiguous in its critique of an adherence to scripture that overrules fundamental values of compassion and understanding.
The Women’s Balcony screens May 16 and 18 with the Dayton JCC Film Fest.
With their aged spiritual leader sidelined by shock and grief — the rabbi’s wife was injured when the balcony gave way and the rabbi remains riveted to her bedside — the small congregation struggles to navigate the way forward.
The status quo is further disrupted by a haredi man who chances to walk by one morning when the men are struggling to make a minyan (prayer quorum). In a calculated twist of fate, this helpful fellow turns out to be a rabbi, notes the congregation’s leadership void, and shrewdly moves to fill it.
Smartly, The Women’s Balcony doesn’t position Rabbi David (Aviv Alush) as a total opportunist and villain. Sure, his sermons are more conservative than his adopted flock is used to hearing, and his attitude that a women’s place is in the home is contrary to the ethos that defines and binds this congregation. But everyone interprets the Torah a little differently, don’t they?
Rabbi David issues instructions for dressing modestly in public, an affront to some of the women, while others are fine with the new discipline. This fissure between longtime friends adds a dramatic subplot; its strongest aspect is that it allows us to observe the lives of religious women when the men aren’t around.
The prevailing dynamic between husbands and wives is also challenged by Rabbi David’s teachings, of course. Zion (Igal Naor) and Ettie (Evelin Hagoel), middle-aged and deeply in love, are the main couple we get to know in The Women’s Balcony, and the accretion of details depicting their steady, solid relationship imbues the film with texture and heart.
The movie’s attention to Ettie and Zion (and their fellow congregants, to a lesser degree) subtly reminds us that the real problem with authoritarian philosophies and dogmatic policies is the way they impact individuals on an everyday level.
Meanwhile, the community is grateful for Rabbi David’s energy and plans to repair and renovate the synagogue. Every successive pronouncement and act, however, excludes the women from the decision process and pushes them to the margins of their own shul.
Rabbi David is indifferent to the idea that he has planted the seeds of a resistance, and he underestimates the women’s resolve — and their ability to strategize.
The Women’s Balcony deepens as it goes, smoothly combining a humanistic worldview with a timely political undercurrent. It delivers witty, intelligent and emotionally satisfying entertainment.
The JCC Film Fest presents The Women’s Balcony at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, May 16 at Little Art Theatre, 247 Xenia Ave., Yellow Springs; and at 7:15 p.m. on Thursday, May 18 at The Neon, 130 E. 5th St., Dayton. Tickets are available at the door, at jewishdayton.org, at the Boonshoft CJCE, 525 Versailles Dr., Centerville, or by calling Karen Steiger at 610-1555.