Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Unpublished Reviews: Kadosh

[In observance of International Women's Day, now celebrating its centenary, some fleeting remarks about a film first seen by me on the Independent Film Channel in 2006 that seriously explores the lives of women in an ultra-conservative Jewish community.]

Culture lag being what it is here in the Sticks,* I just got around to seeing an Israeli film called Kadosh (1999). I was attracted to it because I read a review by a Jewish critic who wondered if the film might be incomprehensible to non-Jews. Always scoffing at such warnings, and abiding by the precept that "nothing human is alien to me", I watched it.

Set in a quarter of Jerusalem inhabited by the Hassidim - ultra-conservative Jews - it's about two women, sisters, who resist age-old traditions that seem designed to make them unhappy. The older sister has been married for ten years and has never been pregnant. Since "a barren woman is no woman at all" according to her rabbi, the husband, who loves her, dissolves the marriage contract and marries another woman.

The younger sister is in love with a very Un-Orthodox man who wears modern clothes and sings in a rock band. She is married, however, to a man of her family's choosing - an especially devout man who performs his husbandly duties as quickly and pleasurelessly as possible. Leaving the younger sister asking the inevitable "Is that all there is?"

The Israeli filmmaker Amos Gitai confronts obstacles that are very nearly self-defeating: in showing us how the Hassidim live in all their strict orthodoxy, he inevitably makes identification with the characters tougher than it already is. The Hassidim do things like hurl stones at Jewish women who wear short-sleeved blouses in the street. The sisters in the film suffer as a direct consequence of their social status - which will never change to accomodate their feelings. Even when the childless woman learns from a gynocologist (female of course) that it is her husband who is infertile, she tells no one. Her barrenness is actually blamed on some ritualistic uncleanliness utterly beyond her control.

The only saving grace of the film is the filmmaker's clear allegiance to the women and to their suffering. But the film stops short of an indictment of the Hassidism. In the comparable film Osama (2003), the Afghani filmmaker Siddiq Barmak was clearly condemning the Taliban's barbaric treatment of women, and the film was a harrowing picture of what women endured under their rule.

The Hassidim are somewhat like the Amish among Christians - utterly traditional, rigidly custom-bound people who reject certain aspects of modern life, if not modern life altogether (one of the male characters in Kadosh drives around Jerusalem exhorting Jews on a loudspeaker to attend prayers). The Amish, however, don't throw stones at less orthodox Christians for not keeping the Sabbath holy by driving farther than the Bible allows or watching movies in which other people ignore the Sabbath altogether.

Showing us glimpses into the lives of different cultures is always eye-opening. In some cases, however, one is glad to be able to close one's eyes again.

13 December 2006

* I was living in Anchorage when I wrote this.

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