Orthodox wars in The Women’s Balcony

B Comedy/drama
Written by Shlomit Nehama
Directed by Emil Ben-Shimon

A section of a synagogue collapses, and a war breaks out amongst Orthodox Jews over just how Orthodox they will be. Not surprisingly, it becomes a war of the sexes in this light comedy.

I don’t know how well non-Jews will understand The Women’s Balcony. Judaism is a religion of countless interpretations and levels of practice. Even among the Orthodox, one group will be far more observant than another. And the more rightward they lean, the more fanatical and misogynistic they become. This is particularly strong in Jerusalem, where The Women’s Balcony is set. (I should mention that I’m a religious Jew, but far from Orthodox.)

The story begins at a Saturday morning bar mitzvah, when the women’s balcony collapses. In Orthodox synagogues, men and women never sit together in prayer. How the genders are separated can tell you plenty about a congregation’s level of observance. The fact that the women could look down and watch the men in prayer tells you that the synagogue is relatively openminded.

The accident changes everything. The building is unusable. The rabbi’s wife, severely injured, lies in a coma. The aging rabbi is in shock, and barely notices the world around him.

But a young, ambitious, ultra-Orthodox rabbi sees this accident as a sign from God – a chance to take these insufficiently religious Jews into his very strict fold. He doesn’t bring them into his own, much larger congregation. Instead he sets out to remake the ruined synagogue in his own image. He makes a new women’s section, completely walled off from the men (one woman calls it an outhouse). He convinces many of the men that their wives should cover their heads in public. His strict rules ruin a Passover Seder.

And the women revolt. They raise money for a new balcony, but the rabbi uses the money elsewhere. They protest outside the young rabbi’s synagogue. Some of them leave their husbands.

And as the fight increases, friendships and families come apart. One old man has a close, uncle-like friendship with a young ultra-Orthodox boy. But as the conflict heats up, the boy’s parents won’t let him visit this insufficiently observant Jew. There’s also, of course, a romantic subplot that straddles both congregations and weaves into the conflict in a pleasant but predictable way.

The Women’s Balcony has a great villain in the young rabbi (Aviv Alush). He’s handsome, charismatic, and knows every rule. He speaks well, and finds logical arguments for every step he wants to make. But with each of those steps, he becomes more deceitful and repellent.

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Atheist activists who want to see a religious leader as a villain will be disappointed. The Women’s Balcony shows the warmth and support that religion can provide. But in a light and entertaining way, it attacks some of religious fundamentalism’s worst extremes.