The Women’s Balcony (film & discussion)

Saratoga Jewish Community Arts, in cooperation with Temple Sinai and with the generous grant support of the Jewish Federation of Northeastern New York and Price Chopper, presents the screening of The Women’s Balcony on Sunday, January 6, at 7 p.m., at Temple Sinai in Saratoga Springs.

While the film is billed as a feel-good comedy of communal spirit, there are much weightier issues at play. This isn’t merely a farcical war between a synagogue’s female congregation and a new rabbi placing their demands behind his own. It is also a keenly intuitive account of fundamentalist extremism in a forum we aren’t used to seeing.  Too often we take this concept and project it upon terrorists killing in God’s name, but evidence of it also exists closer to home.  No religion is immune to having its “rules” bent for specific purposes. Zealotry is cultivated only when the devout forget their humanity to seek God-like authority for themselves.

Screenwriter Nehama, who grew up in an Orthodox Jerusalem community has set her goal for The Women’s Balcony, “…to tell the story of a moderate people who are forced to deal with growing religious extremism.” The director, Emil Ben-Shimon, in his first feature film recognizes in his work that the fanatics of this earth are not live-and-let-live people.

Into the well-worn and comfortable lives of an orthodox community enters a handsome and charismatic Ultra-Orthodox Rabbi David. He recognizes that this is a congregation in distress after an accident in which the balcony collapses during Sabbath services. It is a message from God.

All of the women in the congregation are devout, but none of them wear head-coverings. As his first effort to change the culture, the new Rabbi urges the men to make their women wear head scarves. The men, falling under the Rabbi’s sway, meekly bring home scarves to their baffled and irritated wives as the Rabbi continues his pronouncements.

Rabbi David is the villainous wolf in sheep’s clothing, but he isn’t malicious. Yes, David is a con man spouting an uncompromising view of the Torah, but he does so with the conviction to save this community’s soul.  The writer, Nehama, ensures her rabbi acknowledges the anger on behalf of the women is justified and his role in being the “bad guy” is to “steel his heart” and provide the women with what God wants above their own personal desires. This is key to who he is and the film’s message, not because it allows us to provide him empathy, but because it shows just how easy it is to blindly accept bigotry in the name of grander ambitions. God’s supposed will proves David’s personal desire.

The film makes some extremely sharp points about fanaticism, sexism masked as holiness, and tolerance among the faithful. While an eccentric portrait of an already devout community suddenly under pressure from a super Orthodox rabbi to observe their faith in a more rigid way, the mood is that of a gentle and affectionate comedy.

“At one time or another we all must reconcile our idealism with morality,” says Phyllis Wang, Coordinator of Jewish Community Arts. “We must look past literal meanings to encompass subjective ones able to characterize a broader span of the surrounding world. It’s the notion of being tolerant rather than intolerant; of letting someone practice their faith how they wish since it should be noted that they’re practicing at all.”   In this is God’s greatest test: seeing whether we’ll go against His “will” to do what is right.

The Women’s Balcony will be screened on Sunday, January 6, at 7 p.m., at Temple Sinai, 509 Broadway, Saratoga Springs. Panel discussion and dessert reception to follow. $5.00 donation is requested. For reservations and information, please call 518-584-8730, option 2.