‘I’m an Icon in the Haredi World’

Marlyn Vinig, lecturer and cinema researcher, says ultra-Orthodox films are a genre in their own right, made by and intended for women.

Ayelett Shani
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Marlyn Vinig.Credit: Gali Eytan
Ayelett Shani

What exactly do you do, and how do you describe yourself?

I do many things. God game me tools to be active on several fronts. I’m a ba’alat tshuva [a “returnee” to Orthodox observance], a member of the Belz Hasidic sect, mother of seven, a lecturer at a religious college and an ultra-Orthodox seminary for women, a researcher of Haredi cinema at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a film critic.

Haredi cinema is essentially made by women and aimed at women?

Yes. I was fascinated by it's “sterile” treatment of women, the way cinema develops from a feminine world. When I told my university lecturer that I wanted to explore Haredi cinema, his reaction was, “Is there such a thing?” It took me a long time to persuade him. Gradually my thesis took shape, and in the end I published it as a book. My aim was to categorize ultra-Orthodox cinema as a genre in its own right. Just as there are Symbolists, there are also “Haredists,” for whom the boundaries are set by halakha [religious law].

You examine this genre from the singular viewpoint of a woman who became religiously observant after having been exposed to secular cinema. That’s a complex situation.

In the Haredi world, creative activity is not considered an end in itself.

Marlyn Vinig.Credit: Gali Eytan

It has to be functional?

Yes. When women began to make a living from it, they could cite that very fact as justification. They could say: “Look, it’s a livelihood.” Above and beyond that, you have to declare that your desire is to educate, to transmit some sort of religious message, to have a didactic aim. That can be difficult, especially if your plot doesn’t serve that goal.

Would you say it’s “propaganda” cinema?

I don’t like the word “propaganda,” because a Haredi woman harbors no hidden artistic yearnings. And the budgetary issue also needs to be considered.

You mean because women finance the films themselves, organize screenings and sell tickets?

Exactly. You have to recoup the investment, and part of the budget pie is to sell the film for screenings at religious women’s seminaries. To get a film with no educational and moral message screened there is almost impossible. That’s why the films are directed toward [women] – you won’t see men or secular people in them. The locations will be relevant to the Haredi world, the characters will be representative. There are no anti-heroines.

The world of passions is considered highly dubious. The chief protagonist of these films is God, around whom many yearnings swirl. Of course, you will also not see emotional intimacy or anything erotic – these are very nave films. It’s a world forged through the gaze of women who were educated within it. It’s their language and their life, and the dilemmas and conflicts are part of that picture.

What sort of dilemmas and conflicts?

It depends. In one film, for example, the major conflict is that the house is about to be confiscated while the father is abroad.

So we’ve also covered the issue of the male who must not be in the frame.

Yes. The couple will speak on the phone, let’s say, and during the conversation the camera will focus on the Jewish bookshelf. The young daughter in that film wants to transfer from the most prestigious seminary to one that’s less well regarded, and there’s an older sister who becomes a teacher in a seminary, and wants to succeed there. It’s a very typical plot. There are also a great many Holocaust stories, questions relating to Judaism. And by the way, the production level is very high. The films are shot abroad and look like they came out of Hollywood.

‘Escape from reality’

To what extent do these dilemmas and conflicts represent reality?

Haredi films don’t yet represent reality. If anything, they represent an escape from reality.

In what sense?

When I first started to watch Haredi films, I didn’t understand why the kitchens in the films are always so luxurious, whereas in reality Haredi women have these tiny, rundown kitchens. Finally I realized that it’s a type of escape and allows the women to see the kitchen and imagine it as theirs ... There are also films that make the viewers cry bitterly or scream in fright.

Are there Haredi horror movies?

Of course. For example, in Dina Perlstein’s film “Thin Ice,” there’s a scene in which the heroine wanders about in a convent, in total darkness, holding a lantern and looking for hints of her Jewishness. Suddenly someone pops out from behind her, and the audience screams.

What you’re describing is cinema whose aim is to entertain, maybe to allow a certain release of feelings. The more complex issues are simply not represented.

True. There have been films that tried to deal with, let’s say, a crisis of faith, but which of course ended with a growth in faith. They are not as popular. Young viewers are kept away from them. Haredi cinema is still in a process.

Do you think that at the end of it, we’ll see Haredi films that express doubt, that will say something about human existence?

Definitely not. Haredi cinema has a right to exist as long as it remains within the bounds of the genre. Rama Burshtein tried to make a Haredi movie [“Fill the Void,” 2012], but when she discovered that it was hard for her to stay within the limits of the genre, she had it distributed among the general public. The genre has its place and its right to exist as long as it serves the Haredi public the way that public wants. The proof lies in the blossoming of Haredi cinema abroad, where Haredi communities are more open and also more exposed to Hollywood movies. In the end, Haredi cinema gives ultra-Orthodox women a lot more to identity with than Hollywood cinema does, and the genre also has validity and power in communities that are open to additional influences.

Let’s talk a little about your life story.

I am married to a Belz Hasid. I’ve absorbed the sect’s influence through my husband  and my children, whoare being educated in its schools, and through the rebbetzen, the wife of the Admor, the head of the community.

Your husband is also newly penitent.

Yes, but he is devoting his soul to the study of Torah and is my support in the Haredi world ... I get into all kinds of situations that a regular Haredi woman doesn’t get into.

Such as?

I established the first course for theater studies for the Haredi public. It generated a great deal of opposition. I also set up an association of Haredi stage and screen artists, and they almost put up wall posters in the street against me. When I entered the Haredi world, “cinema” was considered a dirty word, and the theater was like idol worship. I came from a completely different world. I did military service on the staff of Bamahaneh [the army’s weekly magazine], I went to the Nissan Nativ acting school, I worked for Channel 2 News – and then I became religiously observant.

Why?

It’s hard to explain. I always felt close to God, even though I had a completely secular education. My husband and I were a couple in high school. To his parents’ chagrin, he didn’t do army service but went to San Francisco to study dance. When he returned to Israel and we were reunited, after three years of being apart, we decided to become religious together, very gradually. It was natural for us. We just flowed with it and were receptive.

When you embark on the path, it takes time to stabilize your identity in the Haredi world. It doesn’t happen overnight. I remember, for example, the first time I went in to meet the Admor of Belz. I wore some kind of huge and ridiculous head covering. And I asked him a great many questions.

Such as what?

About feminism and theater.

What did he answer?

He said, “Adraba” [roughly, “So much the better”]. I didn’t quite know what to do with that comment, so I decided to go for film theory, so as not to mingle in the external world. I obtained an undergraduate degree and two teaching certificates; I taught and I had children. I was protected. Within the Haredi world. I did not enter into a confrontation with my past and did not breach boundaries. And then my book, “Orthodox Cinema,” came out under the imprint of Resling, a secular publishing house, and suddenly I was exposed again to a world from which I had been completely cut off for all these years, and things started to happen.

I presented a copy to Limor Livnat [then minister of culture], and two weeks later her spokesman called to say she wanted to appoint me to the Israel Film Council. I’d hardly managed to absorb what was happening, and there I was, a member of the council. Pretentious as it may sound, I think that the Belz sect has never seen a phenomenon like me.

How are you treated in the community?

Marlyn Vinig is an icon in the Haredi world. Less so in the secular world, but in the Haredi world, when you say my name, people know right off who I am. When I go to my daughters’ school, the children start whispering.

Those are the more pleasant sides, but there must be less pleasant ones.

And they came to the fore suddenly, as a resounding slap, when I ran for the Jerusalem Municipal Council, on the ticket of a movement called Hitorerut [Awakening], as a Haredi representative. It was the most difficult period of my life. There were threats to my life. It reached a point where they threatened to remove my children from their schools.

How did that make you feel? You describe your interaction with the Haredi world as a kind of idyll – becoming religious, part of that world, while continuing to pursue your interests – and suddenly this happens.

We were simply in a state of shock. From the thuggery. From the fact that people we esteemed so much suddenly turned their backs on us.

In the end, you dropped out of the campaign. Was your faith in the Haredi world shaken?

I was tremendously disappointed. Suddenly, we discovered a side we just hadn’t known. I was overwrought and frightened. Your initial feeling is that you want to pack your bags and escape. But that wasn’t the first time I was threatened. After a certain comment I made, a student in the college [where I teach] told me she had been in a shop and saw a woman photocopying a file of documents labeled “Marlyn Vinig.” I have no doubt I am being watched.

By whom?

By the most extreme people in the Eda Haredit [a hardline Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox faction]. I am a red flag to many people, including the Culture Ministry’s adviser on Haredi affairs, because I don’t bend where one is supposed to bend. I’m very forceful when I want to be.

Where is one supposed to bend?

If you want to make a place for yourself in the Haredi world, you need to be subordinate to the ruling group. You need to know the codes, and codes don’t speak to me. There is Torah, and that is what interests me.

What codes do you mean?

For example, that a woman like me, who teaches in the college, is not expected to write erotic poetry.

Do you write erotic poetry?

Certainly.

Awesome.

One of my poems was published on a popular website and was passed around in the Haredi world in the underground. It also made its way abroad; I was contacted by the community in the United States. And then one of the mothers complained to the principal of the seminary: How can a woman who writes poetry like that be a teacher in the Beit Yaakov network? I was summoned for a hearing. I told them, “I am an artist, I write poetry, I don’t bring that poetry into the classroom where I teach.”

The way you tell it, it sounds like you do things deliberately to anger people, whether consciously or not.

That’s what people think about me, but I don’t.

Isn’t it clear to you that the community will not welcome a Haredi woman who writes erotic poetry?

I am showing everyone that you can give expression to your world of feelings. You don’t have to hide them.

But there is a duality here. You weren’t born into this world, you chose it, you wanted it. Now that you’re in it, you are saying, “I have my own way and I don’t care.”

To be a Haredi means being hared [fearful] of the world of the Lord. People in the Haredi world take that out of context.

Then why do you feel a need to be part of this community? You can leave and live as you wish.

There is another “core” in our story: the deep ties to Belz. My husband’s grandfather was a Belz Hasid until the age of 15. He upheld the phrase, “Whoever is born a Belz Hasid will die a Belz Hasid,” by returning to religion when he was 80. My children have been educated the Belz way; they are full-fledged Hasidim. This is my reality today, and I use the fact that I am a penitent. Many people are ashamed of becoming observant, and they obscure their identity.

What do you mean when you say you “use” this?

I am a penitent who came to religion, and as such the Admor can make rulings related to me that he would not make for a person born into Belz, and as a penitent it is my full right to make use of the mechanisms that served me previously.

What does it feel like when you have to ask the Admor for his approval?

I usually send my husband; I am in less contact [with the Admor].

I meant, how does it feel when you have to get approval from a person and not from God.

I don’t ask for approval, I take action. What I ask for, if anything, is a blessing.

And if you don’t get it?

Then I think again.

But you feel within you that you need this blessing?

I know that I need the backing of the Torah world, because it is very difficult to bring about changes in the Haredi world. The great leaders of Judaism are emissaries in this sense – not that they tell you what to do. I have contributed a great deal to the Haredi world, derived from an inner truth. I do not apologize for what I am, I have not shaved my head, I have not locked myself in the house.

Do you think you could make do solely with the Haredi world? ... If you were to be told that the only way to live in it is to accept all the conventions, could you be content with a life like that?

I think that’s simply not me. I am not one who can live a lie. My inner words come from literature, cinema and theater. To erase that is to erase myself. So, no, I would not be capable of that.

You said in the past that a Haredi woman is like a Palestinian woman.

Israeli society views the Haredi world stereotypically, as a machine for having children. I think that I have shattered those stereotypes for many people. One can be the mother of seven and also do research, create and develop. I am now working on a book and on a TV series. I feel that I have not yet made the breakthrough, that I have not yet left an imprint on Israeli culture.

Do you want to leave an imprint?

It is my obligation. God gave me so many tools and gifts. If I do not make use of them, I will feel that I did not fulfill my part in this world.

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