Orthodox Jews as a source of artistic inspiration pose a challenge – for a start who are we? We look like the majority of other Jews, except for small differences in our dress and religious practice. Jews in film have been typically represented as an ethnic rather than a religious group, bound together by common neuroses and hangups. It’s been a source of entertainment from Woody Allen to Jackie Mason and the recent Amazon Prime broadcast – The Marvelous Mrs Maisel.
Growing up I’m sure I wasn’t the only orthodox Jew who squirmed at the often simplistic portrayal of religious practice on screen. We orthodox Jews knew this because unlike the Charedim and secular Jews, we were both religious and permitted to go to the cinema. I remember being frustrated by the portrayal of Josh, an aggressive narrow minded bal t’shuvah in the Mike Leigh play Two Thousand Years. My annoyance wasn’t that the portrayal was racist, it just seemed like a lazy stereotype. Similarly, I won’t forget my discomfort at the audiences’ reaction when I saw Amos Gitai’s film ‘Kadosh’. It opened with the protagonist putting on his teffilin and starting to pray. “Blessed are you, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who has not made me a woman.” How the liberal Hampstead audience scoffed, those Jews with their stupid primitive practices. There was no context, religion interpreted merely on face value.
Thankfully cinema is changing. In a trend that I think is positive, Charedim are making films about their own communities. ‘Ushpizin’, ‘Fill the Void’ and my favourite all ‘My Father My Lord’ about a Charedi couple who take their child to the beach for a holiday. The child tragically drowns while the father is saying mincha. The couple’s marriage is tested to breaking point as he finds refuge in prayer while his wife is left to grieve alone. It’s a beautiful subtle film that neither attacks the Charedi Community nor is uncritical, it simply observes. More recently there’s been ‘Menashe’ about a Charedi widower who, against pressure from his community, decides to raise his child alone.
But still no portrayal of orthodox Jews and I’m not talking about TV shows like ‘Srugim’, but rather an authentic and sophisticated portrayal of its’ culture and way of life. Some might say that as a community we don’t make for good narrative material but I’d disagree. If conflict is at the heart of storytelling than what better than the struggles to balance a commitment to ancient values while living in a society that often challenges them. The modern orthodox experience fuses together the world today that audiences are familiar with and the religious world in a way that can make for engaging stories.
With diversity and inclusion being all the rage, it’s time for orthodox Jews to have their say. I’m neither a writer, film maker nor a producer but as a starter for ten I propose a number of elevator pitches for good stories to tell about our community. If anyone wants to take them up, feel free.
- A staging of Romeo and Juliet on the borders of Hendon and Finchley: The house of Goldstein attend Limmud every year and keep by the eruv, the house of Halpern consider both of these violations of Jewish law. Their children fall in love with devastating consequences.
- Broygus: A 10-part HBO commissioned TV series about infighting within a shteibl as they struggle to fire the Rabbi and find a new one.
- Does she wear trousers? A movie about a boy from Hendon falling in love with a girl from Golders Green, but the family object because sometimes she’s seen not wearing skirts.
- Will my boss let me home for Shabbat? A grime spoken word performance delivered by a young Jewish man about the trials and tribulations of working in a fast-paced city law farm.
- The school place: A documentary following the anxieties of ten orthodox Jewish families as they try and get their children into the right school
- Jew do’d out: A book of poems written by single orthodox Jews about their frustration in the search for the right one.
- Shana Aleph: A high-octane thriller about a wealthy family from New York who send their son to Gush for a year only to discover that he’d rather spend his year off as a drugs runner in Columbia.
- Nowhere to take my clients: A hard hitting non-fiction expose about the lack of Kosher restaurants within inner London explaining why so few of them exist and exploring why the ones that do go out of business so quickly
- My name is Esther: A fascinating documentary about Esther Goldstein who for the last twenty years has been holding secret women’s Minyanim in the basements of different United Synagogues.
- The big fat herring whisky drinking contest: Ten cantankerous badly behaved old Jewish men are abducted and helicoptered to a mysterious destination where, blindfolded over a Shabbat, they are forced to sample a range of whiskeys and herrings. They must name them all. The reward – a year of chollent and calf’s foot jelly supplied by the caterer Reich’s.
- 18 minutes. During this small window of time before Shabbat, contestants compete against each other to program increasingly complex time switches as they get ready. They must also fill vast urns of water to the top without spilling anything and figure out how to identify and tape down lights in various fridges. The winning contestant has all their cooking and Shabbat needs taken care of for the next year by a professional domestic needs and catering business.