five women stand in a synagogue staring up
Women gaze up at their synagogue's collapsed woman's balcony in a scene from “The Women’s Balcony.” (Photo/Menemsha Films)

Culture clash: Israeli comedy about Orthodox and Sephardi Jews a hit overseas

It’s safe to call the Israeli film “The Women’s Balcony” the opposite of a Hollywood blockbuster.

The movie, directed by Emil Ben-Shimon, is a sensitive, slice-of-life story that focuses on the rift caused in a Modern Orthodox community in Jerusalem when a Hasidic rabbi offers to fill in for the congregation’s leader, who is traumatized when his wife is hurt in an accident. When the new rabbi urges the men in the congregation to embrace a more strictly religious lifestyle, they buy in and ask their wives to dress more modestly and adhere more closely to the words of the Torah.

But the men’s wives rebel after initially being conflicted by the changes.

The production is unassuming: There is no fancy camerawork, no huge twist, no laugh-out-loud moments, no sex and no violence.

Yet the movie — which opened the East Bay International Jewish Film Festival in March and screened as part of S.F. Jewish Film Festival’s Winterfest — is a breakout hit in its native country and also succeeding overseas.

In Israel, it sold more tickets than any other Hebrew-language film last fall and into this year. In a country of some 7 million people, selling 100,000 tickets puts a film in the blockbuster category. As of March, “The Women’s Balcony” had sold 400,000.

The film has enjoyed a wide release and positive reviews in Spain, and will be distributed to theaters in Turkey and across Latin America. Menemsha Films, its distributor, expects it to rake in over $1 million in box office sales in New York City once it opens on Friday, May 26. After New York, the film will be shown in the top 25 other markets across the U.S.

Its success in Israel — where there’s a public debate about how much influence the stringently Orthodox Chief Rabbinate should have over myriad aspects of life, from marriage to public transportation — is a bit of a no-brainer. But its international success has less obvious roots. After all, even Jews could have trouble keeping up with the religious references (a minyan, or group of 10, is needed for Orthodox prayer; a mikvah is a ritual bath) and questions (is it ever acceptable to use a non-Jew to perform certain during Shabbat?).

First-time screenwriter Shlomit Nehama said she’s been astonished by the success outside Israel.

“I was sure this was a very local story that no one who doesn’t understand the local culture would identify with,” she wrote in an email translated from Hebrew.

a group of smiling people stroll down a street together, clearly part of the same community -- in front, a man chases after soda bottles quickly rolling away from him
The collapse of a balcony and the arrival of a new rabbi shake things up in “The Women’s Balcony.” (Photo/Memensha Films)

“The Women’s Balcony” is a religious, feminist parable — albeit a nuanced one. The story is set in motion when the women’s balcony of the shul collapses during a bar mitzvah ceremony. The men of the congregation, entranced by the Hasidic rabbi’s passionate sermons, initially acquiesce to his wishes to use the money raised to fix the damage to buy a new (and presumably holier) Torah scroll. The rabbi also arranges for construction of a more separate and restrictive women’s section — an enclosed box where the balcony used to be.

The women in the film, led by the formidable Ettie (Evelin Hagoel), don’t take the new rabbi’s meddling lightly. In order to get the kind of women’s section they want, some threaten to leave their husbands.

This isn’t a paean to egalitarianism, since the women’s section is not abolished. The women are just fighting to keep the status quo.

The story is inspired by Nehama’s childhood in Jerusalem. She grew up in a similar community but left as more Hasidic families moved into her neighborhood. She is no longer religious — mainly because of what she calls “religious mediators” who attempt to frighten people in the name of religion — but respects the concept of a women’s balcony.

“I see the concept of a women’s balcony as a very charming thing,” Nehama said. “The women looking at the men from above the heads of the men. Like in the gallery of a very respected theater.”

Perhaps that gentle attitude toward the traditions of a religious community — rather than dogma from the right or left — speaks to the film’s unlikely success outside of Israel’s Modern Orthodox community.

Jerusalem Post movie critic Hannah Brown called the story a “throwback to a kinder, gentler time, when communities were closer.”

“When there is an event to be celebrated — a bar mitzvah, a holiday or a wedding — the entire group heads out to the synagogue, located in one of Jerusalem’s older neighborhoods,” Brown wrote. “There are none of those garish event halls that people tend to use these days, and the women prepare the food themselves; no one goes into debt paying for huge catered meals.”

Los Angeles Times film critic Kenneth Turan believes that people crave cultural specificity from foreign films.

“It sounds paradoxical, but it’s often true that the more culturally precise a foreign language film is, the more universal its appeal becomes,” he wrote in his March review of the movie.

Ultimately, the secret to the success of “The Women’s Balcony” may be that the filmmakers don’t attempt to include any outside or political debates about religiosity. The well-crafted result — a confident, true-to-life portrait of a small community in all of its complexity — is a valuable outlier in a world in which religious practice is increasingly polarized.

Gabe Friedman

Gabe Friedman is deputy managing editor at the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.