Herbert J. Cohen

Kosher Movies: Herself

I do not know much about spousal abuse, but I gained a better understanding of it after watching Herself, the story of a young mother, Sandra, who flees her tyrannical husband and overcomes the challenges of a dysfunctional housing system that originally was created to help families in crisis. Motivating her are her two daughters, Molly and Emma, for whom she labors long and hard to provide a loving and stable home life.

The film opens when husband Gary returns home and, in a fit of rage, savagely beats up Sandra. One of her daughters, Emma, witnesses the carnage from a distance and it greatly unsettles her, changing the dynamic between father and daughter from then on. Tension and fear pervade her mind whenever she thinks about her father.

To survive, Sandra leaves the house and seeks temporary shelter that the government provides. Sandra’s marriage has become terrifying and she knows that fleeing marriage means fleeing security, but her safety and the safety of her children are paramount.

Her desire to take care of her daughters inspires her every action. She has to work two jobs merely to keep things together; and it is a heavy burden, with her employers often criticizing her for coming late. Fortunately, on one propitious day, she sees an ad to build your own house for only 30,000 Euros, and this changes the trajectory of her life.

Determined to find a better life for herself and her children, she seeks out people who can help her self-build her home. The key person she discovers is Aido, a retired building contractor who, although initially reluctant, agrees to manage her project. From that point on, Sandra seeks friends and acquaintances to help with the construction, which primarily takes place on weekends when people have time to volunteer. All this is done in the threatening shadow of Gary, her ex-husband, who wants full custody of the kids, and in the face of a bureaucracy that often unintentionally puts up roadblocks to family unification.

Rabbi Abraham Twerski, M.D., a family therapist of renown, writes about domestic violence in the Jewish home. He laments the fact it is largely unrecognized in the Jewish community even though it does exist: “The idea of shondeh (disgrace) functions in the same manner as fear. To recognize that there is spouse abuse is to admit that there is a shondeh. As a result, women who are abused continue to suffer because they are unwilling to admit that they are being abused. Unfortunately, they also expose their children to the deleterious effects of growing up in a home where there is abuse.”

Moreover, Twerski observes that rabbis many times refuse to accept the reality of domestic abuse in Jewish homes. As a result, women know that confiding in a rabbi may not remedy their problem because the rabbi may suspect them of not telling the truth or of being a little crazy. Furthermore, parents of spouses who are being abused may encourage their daughters to stick with their abusive husbands because they feel the children need a father and a good provider. In reality, however, Rabbi Twerski feels that preserving the status quo will in most cases lead to more abuse, both physical and verbal.

Countless excuses are given for maintaining the status quo, which is not really a status quo at all, because abuse is usually progressive. The key to solving the problem is not to tolerate it. This is what Sandra does in Herself. She refuses to subordinate herself to her abusive husband. Ultimately, she finds a way to build an independent life for her and her children. Her community of friends enables her to make this happen.

About the Author
Originally from Mt. Vernon, New York, Herbert J. Cohen served in the pulpit rabbinate in Atlanta at the beginning of his career. After six years, he moved into the educational rabbinate and served for 23 years as Principal of Yeshiva High School of Atlanta. In 2010, he and his wife came on aliyah to Israel. His latest book, published by Urim Publishers, is "Kosher Movies: A Film Critic Discovers Life Lessons at the Cinema." He may be reached at
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