There’s more to The Women’s Balcony than the American marketing machine has thus far presented. Billed as a feel good comedy of communal spirit — and correctly so — 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’s also a keenly intuitive account of fundamentalist extremism in a forum we aren’t used to seeing. Too often Hollywood takes this concept and projects 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.
That’s hyperbolic insofar as my goal to describe this film’s success, but I believe it’s what resonates most from the light-hearted yet complicated plot presented. Screenwriter Shlomit Nehama explains how inspiration stemmed from seeing the community she adored in youth presently stifled by a wave of religious extremism more interested in scripture’s words than interpretations of them. Watching the young neighborhood boy she places onscreen to visit Zion’s (Igal Naor) shop daily as a reprieve from his parents embodies this idea perfectly. This is the dynamic we all hope and strive for — a safe community where “strangers” are nonexistent because we engage with all. As soon as Zion’s moderate faith and lifestyle is weighed against the boy’s orthodoxy, however, he not only becomes “stranger” but “enemy” too.
The same happens to all that worship inside the synagogue at the center of the film, one that has recently come to disrepair. What was a pristine establishment with a recently broken window is now covered in dust and rubble as the balcony serving as the women’s section came crashing down. It was an accident that occurred to good people; a tragedy everyone hoped would be solved from a distance. But when one man takes a closer look, this accident takes on the shape of punishment instead. Rabbi David (Avraham Aviv Alush) posits that the balcony falling wasn’t a coincidence. Maybe it was God’s will. Maybe this was God telling the women to cover their heads, be more modest, and pray that his love can be restored.
You can imagine what these people who hold God close in their own way would say to such blatant fearmongering, right? Don’t be so sure. While some like Etti (an impassioned Evelin Hagoel) and Margalit (Einat Saruf) take it as a personal slight and attempt to oppress, others aren’t so quick to stand their ground. This is a synagogue after all—a holy place populated by those with great respect for their rabbi (an older gentleman who sees his mind disintegrating faster than it already was due to the accident putting his wife in a coma and sanctuary in ruins). So when Rabbi David enters the equation as a friendly face willing and able to set things right and jumpstart renovations, the men (including Etti’s husband Zion) must take heed.
It isn’t just the men, though. Some women find themselves ravaged by guilt and inspired by David’s stern yet stirring sermonizing to “fall in line.” A rift is formed wherein their very way of life is called into question. Should they be okay with the rules they’ve always lived by as far as God granting life and brains to use as we so please? Or should they retreat from individuality to embrace practices so long kept at arm’s length because this holy man deems it so? Friendships are tested along with marriages as the time for easy answers disappears. Only when David’s piety starts to come into focus as patriarchal in nature do the many lines drawn merge into one separating men from women, control from equality.
But even that division only touches upon the surface. Allusions to a Lysistrata-esque ultimatum (see Spike Lee’s musical Chi-raq as another example) may be at the backbone of its feminist goals, but these women aren’t the only ones fighting to be heard. Nehama and director Emil Ben-Shimon do a wonderful job ensuring their plot holds double meaning. The women are fighting against Rabbi David’s extremism’s inherent sexism, but this community of Jewish believers is also fighting against his faction’s usurpation of their beliefs to manufacture superiority and power. And while the film very precisely draws one side as open and the other not — see the Montague/Capulet forbidden love budding between Effi’s niece Yaffa (Yafit Asulin) and David’s protégé — it doesn’t deal in two-dimensional concepts of good and evil.
David is the villainous wolf in sheep’s clothing, but he isn’t malicious. Alush plays the character with a deft understanding of his motivations. Yes he’s a con man spouting an uncompromising view of the Torah, but he does so with the conviction to save this community’s soul. Nehama ensures her rabbi acknowledges the anger on behalf of the women is justified and his role in being the “bad guy” to “steel his heart” and provide them what God wants above their 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 grander ambitions. God’s supposed will proves David’s personal desire.
As such, hypocrisy runs rampant through all factions whether the women (Etti’s fight to be heard countered by Orna Banai‘s Tikva and her willingness to become what the rabbi wants), men (Zion, Itzik Cohen‘s Aaron, and Herzl Tobey‘s Nissan waffling between respect for this rabbi’s position and that of their wives), or Rabbi David himself (a scene where he argues against bureaucratic readings of the Torah a brilliant encapsulation of what truly drives his actions). This hypocrisy provides the numerous conflict points as well as a wealth of humor mostly residing in the community’s attempts to use quotes against the rabbi’s authority despite them not quite remembering any correctly. That’s the sort of pure heart residing at the film’s core — one that entertains while forcing our gaze inwards.
What The Women’s Balcony provides is a universal theme. At one time or another we all must reconcile our idealism with morality. We must look past literal meanings to embrace subjective ones able to encompass a broader swath 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 they’re practicing at all. It’s why we can look upon Rabbi David’s determination and that of Etti so differently. He comes from a place of enforcement while she seeks acceptance. Let him win once and you condone his superiority. His victory means her voice risks becoming erased forever. God’s greatest test: seeing whether we’ll go against His “will” to do what’s right.
The Women’s Balcony opens in New York City on May 26th at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas and Quad Cinema.