Fill the Void

Israeli and Haredi director, Rama Burshtein’s award winning debut film, Fill the Void, which finally came to my upstate New York community this summer, is a fine example of how the best art shows us the universal through the particular. If Fill the Void exemplifies what we can look forward to from her, I say b’hatzlakha rabbah, the best of luck to her for her future success. The film’s plot revolves around Shira, an eighteen year old Hasidic woman who faces the dilemma of whether or not to marry her much older brother in law, following the tragic death of her pregnant sister whose first child is born as she dies. Shira is approached by her parents and her brother in law with a marriage proposal that will avoid his marrying a Dutch woman and moving his family to Holland. Should she refuse this extraordinary request and wait for “the match made in heaven” with a younger man with whom she would be matched? What are her obligations and rights in the context of her family, the gender hierarchies and the traditions of her ultra-Orthodox community?

Fill The Void is graced with spare but outstanding acting, and Burshtein offers us a sympathetic yet mostly un-romanticized peek into the generally insular Haredi world. She is decidedly unapologetic about the culture of arranged marriages and the non-egalitarian hierarchies separating men from women in Haredi communities, which many of us find highly problematic. However, one of the film’s strengths is its ability to help the viewer transcend these particulars of Haredi life and culture, so that we recognize what Shira’s experience represents for all human beings. For instance, we get a taste, howbeit briefly and subtly, of the romantic desire and love that exist between Shira’s sister and brother in law. Further, the emotional devastation following her death and its long term impact on each family member will resonate powerfully with anyone who has ever been bereaved, suffered any kind of tragedy, or supported a bereaved person. Finally, we can easily ache in sympathy with Shira’s mother as she contemplates a new wave of loss should her son in law and grandson move far from their extended family. I also found
the film to be a refreshing counter balance to stereotypical views of the Haredi community that I have cultivated over many decades. The cultural context of Shira’s pain and difficult choices may be radically different from how I live, but the emotional and moral gravity of her dilemmas are the stuff of all human beings’ lives.

Another important feature of this film is its insightful portrayal of the role of Jewish ritual and community in shepherding us through the nightmare of grief, especially when loss is followed immediately by a joyous occasion. The scenes of Shira’s family in their crowded Tel Aviv apartment during shivah (the mourning period) are constructed to leave the viewer feeling almost crushed, so heavy is their sadness. Yet these scenes are followed with nearly ruthless immediacy by the scene of Shira’s nephew’s brit milah (ritual circumcision). Those of us familiar with Jewish tradition grasp the full impact of the drama, because we know that this baby’s brit is taking place, as it must, on the eighth day of his life, exactly one day after shivah for his mother’s death has ended. Yet even someone uninformed about Jewish ritual can appreciate the anguish and chaos bubbling just beneath this rigorously ordered procession of religious ceremony. A child is born as his mother dies. His family members plough through hell, barely breathing, only to temporarily force their suffering away from the center of their awareness so that they can celebrate his life and entrance into Judaism with their community. Tying this horrible sequence of events together are normative religious practices and prayers that lend transcendent meaning to these people’s experiences of random, rotten luck. More importantly, that same community is bound by compassion and deep faith. These values give it the strength to fulfill its obligation to carry this boy and his family as they try to celebrate with shattered hearts.

I recently attended the wedding of a member of my community who had lost a parent just a couple of months earlier. As we danced, sang and ate to honor the bride and groom, I was once again impressed by how wisely Judaism helps us all to make this awful transition mei-eivel l’simcha, from mourning to gladness. It does not tell us to opt for mourning over gladness nor does it ask us to pretend away pain prematurely. It helps us to begin healing by making us hold both in our hands in acknowledgment of how awful life can sometimes be. Yet it then makes the people with whom we live place their hands under ours so that when the weight of both becomes unbearable, we bear the weight together. Standing with one another at the precipices of inevitable life transitions, we are blessed to possess these sacred tools of ritual, community and faith in God. They help us to fill that void of loneliness and fragility with which we are sometimes left in the wake of reality.

About the Author
Dan Ornstein is rabbi at Congregation Ohav Shalom and a writer living in Albany, NY. He is the author of the forthcoming book, Cain v. Abel: A Jewish Courtroom Drama, which will be published by the Jewish Publication Society in April 2020.