CAPSULE: A new comedy-drama from Israel is set in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in Jerusalem, and it pits the patriarchal, male-dominated traditions against rising female empowerment. The Rabbi very much represents the old traditional flavor of Judaism but a new Rabbi in town represents change to the community for better or for worse. Perhaps. Emil Ben-Shimon directs a screenplay by Shlomit Nehanna. Rating: +1 (-4 to +4) or 6/10
Among Orthodox Jews the synagogue is properly segregated. Men pray on the main floor, but they are separated from women who have their own women-only seating area. In THE WOMEN'S BALCONY the women have, well, a women's balcony. This arrangement is how it has been done for many, many years. The women's balcony is more than just a place to sit for the women of the congregation. It is a place where women can be with women and where they can feel comfortable and socialize. The balcony is a symbol of their identity.
In a small Jerusalem community during a rambunctious bar mitzvah the balcony partially collapses, putting the rabbi's wife in a coma and ruining the synagogue's only Torah. Repairing the damage will be an expensive task requiring re-building and permits. The men arranging the reconstruction are short on money and to save money they decide to rebuild the synagogue without the expensive balcony, leaving no place for the women to sit during religious services. The women are told they can pray in the outer lobby. The controversy threatens to take from them something more than just a place to sit during religious services.
The males of the congregation have gotten lazy. What the rabbi says they automatically accept with an "Amen." They will continue with a tradition without having to think about whether it makes sense or not. The women of the congregation, who have always been treated as second class, want to renegotiate the contract. They do not delegate their conscience to a man or a book.
The old rabbi feels loyalty only to a long tradition and to boot he has been little unstrung by missing his still-hospitalized wife. He sees nothing wrong a synagogue without a place for women. If it is a choice of not replacing the Torah or not having a section for women to sit, the synagogue must have the Torah. The male members of the congregation will not stand up to the rabbi. But the women have their own ideas of how the dilemma should be resolved.
The film is in Hebrew with subtitles of varying quality. Some viewers not familiar with Orthodox beliefs and who do not know Hebrew may have some problems with subtitles that are obscured by background. In one sequence at a political demonstration there are protest banners in Hebrew and there are no subtitles to tell the reader what is being said. Non-Orthodox viewers may find it puzzling that the controversy is not settled by allowing integrated seating. It may or may not be clear to the humanist viewer that this is a very strict Orthodox community so integrated seating is not an option.
THE WOMEN'S BALCONY is a film that sets up a controversy and then would benefit from presenting both sides of the argument evenhandedly. I think that the right side wins, but not all viewers might agree. I rate THE WOMAN'S BALCONY at +1 on the -4 to +4 scale or 6/10. Its release date is May 26.
Film Credits: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt5974460/combined
What others are saying: https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/the_womens_balcony
Mark R. Leeper Copyright 2017 Mark R. Leeper