The ultra-Orthodox Filmmaker Who Filled the Hollywood Void

'You want the free spirit all the time', filmmaker Rama Burshetein tells Haaretz. 'At 25, my free spirit involved eating shrimp. Having sex. Now I know that the only free spirit is the connection with Hashem.’

Ayelett Shani
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Ayelett Shani

At 45, filmmaker Rama Burshtein has fulfilled the dream of many. Her debut feature, ‘Fill the Void,’ was highly acclaimed at the Venice Film Festival, snagged seven Israeli Oscars and is the country’s candidate for the Academy Award as best foreign film. What makes her story so special? She grew up secular and became ultra-Orthodox 20 years ago.

There is something I have to ask: Did your husband see the movie?

Yes.

And your children?

No.

How was the movie received in your community? Will people see it?

It was received very favorably. Most people saw it; some didn’t. It’s a problem, even at the level of how beautiful Hadas Yaron [the lead actress in the film] is. A genuinely religious man feels that his loyalty to his wife must be absolute. You don’t play with that.

Why is looking at an actress in a movie “playing with that”?

From his point of view, there is a girl in the movie whom he thinks is beautiful. He hasn’t looked at women for years; it excites him. It does something to him. But he doesn’t play with it; he has a wife to whom he is truly, but truly, committed. Maybe from the outside it looks like something unimportant, but it is actually something very genuine. What does he need it for? He is struggling already. Every dos [slang for religious Jew] is involved in a constant struggle with a thousand things, day by day, minute by minute.

Why didn’t your children see the movie?

My children will not see it because it would awaken them prematurely. In any event, they will awaken by themselves when the time comes and struggle ... We will not thrust anything like this into their heads by force. And they don’t want to see it. You know, my son came to the studio to record some sounds and songs, and he stood there with his back to the screen. He didn’t look around. That came from him, certainly not from me. I didn’t tell him not to look.

But your husband chose to see the movie.

Yes, but there was a discussion about that.

And from your point of view, his approval was the most important thing.

I will explain this in the strongest way possible: We were in Venice [Film Festival], we got up in the morning and then the whole hullabaloo started. A press conference, photos − and then going to change clothes for the premiere. A red carpet with hundreds of people around, and people are shouting for me to look at them: “Rama, left! Rama, right!” Then the premiere. Ten minutes of applause and cheering. You feel like dying already. You say, let it end, because you don’t have a way to take it all in. Then we have 45 minutes before going to eat at the only kosher place around. We go back to the hotel, my husband and I, for three-quarters of an hour, and I say to him, “Tell me, do you understand what I did so that you will love me?”

You did all that just so he would love you?

Obviously.

Do you do everything only so that he will love you?

Of course. To feel that the whole world loves you and loves the movie is one thing. But if the person by my side will not love me after I did all that − it would hit me in my most vulnerable spot.

Explain.

I could feel that I am cut off from him, and don’t really want his love. I mean, who is he, anyway? But if you follow that black and scary tunnel inward, you realize that this is the only thing you want. That if [he] will not love me after this movie, all is lost. I have no other way to bring [him] all the bells and whistles so [he] will love me madly. And amid all those insane moments, that is all I saw. Intensely.

You mean, what he was feeling and thinking.

All the time. What he’s going through in all of this.

That’s extreme.

It’s the same with everyone. I am not special. Only honest about it. I don’t think that’s what drives most people, certainly not after 17 years of marriage and four children.

Only because they have already lost the fear.

The fear of not being loved is by then so great that you cut yourself off. But if you decide not to be cut off, that is where you end up ... I have nothing of my own. Without him I have nothing. For real. With my abilities I am supposedly talented, supposedly a powerhouse. But it is nothing, it is only about him. Without him there is nothing. And it’s not that I go around lovey-dovey all day. I fight not to cut myself off, not to think that I am something special. A daily battle.

Very moving. What was his response?

He was mindful of me, embraced me. And you know something? I cried so much at that moment.

Was it more intense than being on the stage?

A million times more. And you ask yourself: How can it be that it’s more powerful? It’s amazing the way everything is just a cover for something else extremely deep. Small. Simple.

Can thrills that you experience elsewhere be compared to the ones you experienced in the past three months? The Israeli best-film prize, the best actress award in Venice, the possibility of an Oscar nomination?

The only thrill that truly exists in my world is the connection with Hashem [God].

But what about your husband?

That is the connection with Hashem.

That is the conduit?

That is the most essential connection with Hashem. Me and my husband − our relationship. As though King Solomon rose and told us: “This is it.”

The Jewish home.

Yes. The relations, the diminution, proportions − the simple truth, in contrast to all the disguises and the landscape and backdrops. Saying things like these to my husband is like touching Hashem, touching some truth, which for me is the only place where pleasure exists. Every other pleasure is transient. This is the only pleasure, and when I experience it, believe me, there is nothing that compares to it.

So, you convert the search for something you don’t know into a search for the true thing; the desire for thrills into a thrill that is true.

It is the one and only. You become addicted to this thrill of the truth. When I stood there in Venice and people applauded, do you think that something within me was truly moved? Absolutely not.

When I see people in situations like that, it always looks to me like an out-of-body experience.

Totally. What was my actual thrill there? I sweated like a pig and had wild hot flashes.

Death in Venice.

All I did the whole time was wipe above my upper lip. It was very hard. I saw Hashem there, too. I looked for him, amid the sweating. I said, “Look, Hashem, why I am sweating like this?”

A world that feels

Do you stand 100 percent behind the film? That what you put on the screen is exactly as you saw it? That you weren’t trying to curry favor among a secular audience?

I am not a person who makes adjustments. Something strange happened with this movie. Some people think it is completely uncritical, while others ask: “How can she live in the Haredi [ultra-Orthodox] world if she is so critical?”

It’s hard to figure out your attitude. Do you show or tell?

It’s because of the complexity of it all. I do more showing, I think. This movie was made from my blood.

Does it prettify the ultra-Orthodox world?

No, it just lets it be human. Alive. Feeling. That’s what’s important for me. For all of you to know that it’s a world that feels. It might look like a world in which you must be without feeling, where feeling must be stifled because there is no place for it. But it is not like that. If there were any agenda beyond the story, that is it.

Why did you make the film?

After I became religious I entered a deep silence. Not because I forced myself to do this; I just didn’t have anything to say. I was so enthralled by the Torah that I told myself: Everything else is pale and unformed by comparison.

Like being in love, when everything else looks dreary.

Absolutely. Then my daughters asked me to see a certain film − I would rather not say which one − because they couldn’t figure out what it was saying about being religious. I watched it and cried.

Why did you cry?

From pain.

From pain or anger?

From anger, from pain. It offers an interpretation of us, the Haredim, but the interpretation is completely external. It is odd and unfaithful, it is incorrect. At the factual level. Then I realized that we, the Haredi public, have no cultural voice. Maybe it was time to utter a little chirp amid the din. I started to think about it, but I waited, because I didn’t yet have anything to say. One day, at a Haredi wedding, a beautiful girl of 18 who had just become engaged came over to our table, and a woman congratulated her rather sadly. I asked what the story was and she said she was going to marry her sister’s widower. Boom. In a split second.

You realized this was what you wanted to make a movie about.

I was obsessed. How do you make a transition like that in the home? It means coping with a whole sea of things. You know, we believe in the resurrection of the dead: What exactly would happen if the sister were to awaken!? I started to look into the subject, and, by the end, it seemed to me the most natural thing in the world.

Really?

I interviewed 17 women who went through that experience. Think of a young girl whose older sister − who is stunning, because the big sister is always stunning − brings home the stunning brother-in-law, who is always also stunning. From the start there is secret admiration. And with us, the whole social aspect is played out in the house. It’s where everything happens.

You have put your finger on a subconscious response: the young girl’s enchantment with the older sister’s husband. It’s the first male role model to which she is exposed.

You must not call it by its name; dealing with it is forbidden, it is taboo. Someone new enters the family; a young woman is not used to men coming into the house. There is something [inside] which, even if it does not really yearn for this specific man, yearns for one like him.

Note from the rabbi

Let’s talk about the challenges you faced making the film. To begin with, how do you get authorization for a project like this?

I went to the rabbi with an idea and contradicted myself even while talking to him. I said I wanted to [do this] but didn’t know if I had it in me, and that I wanted to deal with relationships.

That is a requirement. And it is also the problem.

The question is how deeply you go into it; where you will protect modesty, behave as required, follow the custom. Jewish religious law has no rules about filmmaking.

And throughout you are in motion.

Absolutely. But it is very preliminary motion, so it’s like drying up a swamp. But the rabbi, who is never anything but wise, said: “Let’s start.” And we started. And I would come back and say: “Let’s drop it, I can’t take it, it’s bad for me.”

And he told you not to drop it.

Quite a few times.

How deeply was he involved? Did he actually see the script and approve it?

Not only did he not see the script...

He did not see the movie, either.

Obviously. He “appointed” my husband to read and decide that it was all right; he personally had no wish to read it. A while ago he did want to read the script, because many people are calling him [about the film]. He wanted to understand exactly what it was about. He read two pages and said: “It’s not for me.” He closed it and put it aside.

Were you insulted?

Not at all. He very much lives all this. He just doesn’t want to be in front. Even now I am asking you to not mention his name. He wouldn’t like that.

Why do you think he decided, very unconventionally, to let you make the movie?

I don’t know.

Were you surprised?

I was. That was also a process. We kept on discussing it. There is something a bit incomprehensible about this zaddik.

Maybe it has to do with your status as aba’alat teshuva − a newly penitent woman?

My rabbi is not a penitent, and he is very meticulous. Definitely not permissive. His family has been in Jerusalem for 14 generations and he certainly does not think in terms of “let’s get along really well with the world.” The more of azaddik you are, the greater and broader your vision is. Maybe he saw something, some truth. Actually, there is no justification for it. He said: “I know you are a pious woman.” He gave me authorization in writing.

Like a note from the doctor?

Absolutely. Think about the fact that all the extras are Haredim. Not one would have come to the set if there were not a rabbi behind the project. He gave me a letter stating that he attests to my being a pious woman and that he gives the project his blessing.

Very moving. On the set you worked with men − the cinematographer, the producer − in very close conditions, intimate even. What was that like?

It wasn’t easy.

Explain.

I was allowed to make this film because of my passion. But passion is mercurial, elusive; it can trickle down in all directions. I am overflowing, so it really trickles down.

How does it work, even at the practical level, being alone with a man?

There are religious precepts which one does not violate. For example, there might be a situation in which I meet with the producer, Assaf [Amir], and no one else is there. That’s a problem. We hired a female editor. It is impossible to sit for hours, days, months in the editing room with a man. When I worked with the male actors, too, I always had a woman with me. Besides, Hashem did me a great mercy and “inflated” me by an extra 30 kilograms.

What nonsense!

Far from it. He gave me this defense, which I am slowly shedding. I have already lost 10 kilos. What I am actually trying to say is: Don’t put me to the test. My greatest fear is that I will not resist temptation. Temptation means simply to desire something else, outside my home. That is a temptation which I beg not to be confronted with ... [There’s a feeling of] please do not put me to the test, I will certainly fall.

It’s a feeling of helplessness.

Complete helplessness in everything. That’s why we take “safety precautions,” long before things get to that point. One of them involves my appearance. Think what it would be like if everyone on the street starts up with you, and you have to deal with that all the time.

‘Seekers by nature’

You are still a beautiful woman.

There is a difference between a beautiful woman and a woman for whom “plans are being made.” You need protection.

You feel your girth protects you?

Yes.

Then why are you losing weight?

Because I know the fat is there because I am a liar, and I am now trying to get in touch with my particular place of truth, so I am starting to lose weight. Obesity is a lie of some sort.

Because food is a substitute.

Because you drown frustration in food. But if you dive deeper, inside, there is a bigger lie.

What lie?

That no one can truly love you.

But you have true love, and it is a central element of your life.

And I am working on it in the face of my disbelief, in the face of my deep sense that he will never truly love me.

Why did you become religiously observant?

Some people are seekers by nature; searching is built into their psyche.

Most of them never find what they are looking for.

Those who truly search – who cannot rest because they know that there is something that is hidden – find it. And I was one of them.

What did you look for − and find − before that?

Meaning. Religion was absolutely not an option for me back then. It was black and smelly. It wasn’t fun. I was drawn to Buddhism and all kinds of other things; they were very meaningful on my path. They opened up a world of different concepts for me. But they did not meet my most basic need.

To dissipate the loneliness?

Yes. I actually began my search because of loneliness. When you are alone, you are wanting − you simply live a life of “how do I fill it up?” You try all kinds of things.

But nothing works.

Nothing. But with the Torah there was a moment when all of a sudden I understood fullness. To be immersed in the Torah, which for me means a connection with the Creator, is to renounce that loneliness. And I was willing to pay any price to renounce the loneliness. Any price.

Did you always feel lonely?

For sure. I was surrounded by people, but I am talking about something far deeper. I think this is the experience of most people.

It’s human nature. It’s the root of almost every type of sorrow you see, both in art and in real life.

True. So the question is whether you accept it − and I am not an accepting type − or you go on searching. And when you find it, you say: Why go on looking elsewhere now? Twenty years have passed since then, and I do not feel loneliness.

You exchanged loneliness for devotion. But it’s still a very extreme choice, and one that entails a tremendous renunciation.

Look at my life. Does it look as if I have renounced something?

But let’s say I had asked you the same question five years ago.

It would be the same. What did I renounce? I established a household, which is genuinely meaningful. I wanted that. It was very difficult for me; I believe in difficulty. I don’t believe in rest. That’s an American deception that drives us crazy.

What was most difficult on this path?

The children. Four. One after the other. Having them and raising them for the first 10 years was very difficult. It was like placing myself on the altar, day after day.

Renouncing yourself.

Exactly. But actually, what does it mean to renounce oneself? You just discover yourself from a new place. I went for it, with my ability to be flexible, or alternatively my intolerable inflexibility. We started to work. My ambition is not to be a success in the sense of being thought of as a career woman who pushes ahead. I want truth and depth, and I experienced prodigious depth in the years when I was not making films.

Tell me how you became religiously observant.

After graduating from the Sam Spiegel School of Film and Television, I went with a few friends to a film festival in Munich. It was my first visit to Germany. From the moment I arrived, I suddenly experienced Judaism that had no apparent source within me. It was like a nightmare. I couldn’t bear to hear the language there; I wanted to ask everyone who looked older than 70 what he had actually done between 1939 and 1945.

I returned to Israel in a type of depression. I didn’t understand what I had gone through. Too large an opening had been created for me to be able to continue my life as before. And then a girlfriend, who had started to become religious at the age of 16, invited me to a Shabbat meal in the home of a Haredi family. I didn’t see the light when I got there, but there was a 6-year-old boy who, during a meal of two and a half hours, jumped on the sofa while his father asked him questions about the weekly Torah portion. I looked at that boy and said to myself: There is some sort of crazy vitality here. Then he started to sing and had an amazing voice.

On the stairs going out, after taking off the skirt [I had worn for the occasion], my friend gave me a pamphlet and said, “Read it.” I don’t like telling this, because it doesn’t come across in words. But the next morning I got up, lit a cigarette, made the morning coffee and started to read. Instantly I was struck by a kind of insight. I had always seen the world as being formed from masses of dots; my whole life I had asked what the black dots were that filled the air. And suddenly, as I am reading, I simply understand that it is the presence of Hashem. That is all I needed to understand that, lo and behold, I had arrived. That same week I attended a lesson given by the man who wrote the pamphlet. And that was it. I observed the next Shabbat. There was nowhere else to go afterward.

Were you afraid?

No, I am not a person who is afraid.

Maybe you were not afraid because you didn’t grasp the implications.

I did not understand what I was doing − obviously not.

And now, looking back, do you understand?

There were moments during the process when I told myself that I could have taken it more slowly. But that would be to lie to myself, because that is not the reality.

How did your family take it?

My mother, of blessed memory, was not living in Israel at the time. My father always respected me. My sister became religious immediately after me, and my mother came back to Israel and also became religiously observant. My father, to this day, is not religious, but he is wild about [our] family unit.

How do you understand the fact that your sister and mother also became religious?

They were exposed to it through me. My penitence opened the gate.

Life of commitment

You grew up in an unconventional home.

Yes. I grew up in Kfar Sava. My father is a sailor. My mother is an American Jew, four generations in the United States. We lived a lot on the sea. We traveled a great deal with Dad. We were exposed to music, culture, art. My mother was a singer, a painter and an actress.

It’s fun to grow up in a home like that, where everything is open.

Everything may be open, but the home fell apart. My parents got divorced. I had a terrific childhood, but I guess it wasn’t enough for me.

Do you feel you have arrived at the place where you should be?

Totally.

Your film is about relationships in the Haredi world. How do you see the
difference between relationships in your world and the secular world?

There is no difference, no essential difference; only at the level of coping.

Establishing a home and raising a family with someone you don’t know − you have no idea who he is.

It’s like that everywhere.

But in secular life you can go along with it a little before deciding.

The real question is whether you build the home on a basis of commitment. I would maintain, from experience, that commitment is a gift. Without commitment I’m not sure whether I would have survived in relationships. It’s a superb solution for people like me − who are volatile, who turn on and shut off like some ...

Shabbat clock.

Indeed. Commitment obliged me not to be a slave to an emotional roller coaster. But what happens still has to happen, for example when you see someone in a pub and say “Wow!” I didn’t get married like in a movie, but it wasn’t far from that. The first time I met my husband, after having observed him quite a bit before that, I thought he was the most beautiful thing in the world. I was already 27, no longer a kid, with a whole previous life, and I said to myself: This is it. And I have been married for 17 years.

Happily?

With what is called fullness. “Happiness” is one of those concepts which, I say to myself, will be my part in the world to come, with Hashem’s help. But [it’s been a marriage based on] work, closeness, building things − and a strong feeling ... that truth lies in the decision made at the moment of commitment.

Lovely. Tell me the story of how you met.

I saw him and passed out.

A few people told me that your husband is a very handsome man.

I would never have stood under a wedding canopy without butterflies in my stomach. It just would not have happened. Some girls say, “He will be a terrific father for my children,” and that is enough for them. For me it has to be the whole package, and the fact that he is good-looking contributed. He was also amazing, you know, a character.

Did you covet him from afar?

Very much, and I waited for the matchmaking. I am prideful. I would never tell someone that I want [him]. I waited a very long time. For half a year, Shabbat after Shabbat, I looked at him. And then someone made the match. A month and a half later we were under the canopy. You can count on one hand the number of sentences we exchanged before that.

Tell me about your first meeting.

Try to think about it not in terms of whether I came to see if he could be my friend but my husband. Go to a pub, look at some man, and say: “I am here to see if he is [going to be] my husband.” It’s really powerful. Every word spoken is meaningful, every movement is meaningful. I was very, very focused. And in a state of great turmoil. At the same time, I simply knew this was it.

Weren’t you afraid he wouldn’t want to?

I was afraid of everything. But I knew this was it. And I just kept trying to see if it would really happen or not. It was a very powerful feeling. The kind of love people write about. It doesn’t always happen like that, but with me anything less than that would not have worked.

And after the wedding?

Afterward, we suddenly woke up to the understanding that this isn’t “Let’s go home after the pub.” It’s for life. I am in a house with a closet containing clothes that aren’t mine. Who in the world is this guy? There are new rules for looking at things you have always looked at differently. It’s jolting and confusing and complex.

A bit like the process of becoming religious.

It’s exactly the same thing. Everyone who becomes religiously observant has a moment of backsliding. Not because he did something or understood something, but because a divine decision was made that the time has come to pick you up as though with tweezers, and to throw you for a loop. I am a total person. I also became religious at the speed of light. One Shabbat I was secular; the next Shabbat I was religious, and I didn’t get into very many discussions in the week in between, either.

Is there anything from your previous life that you miss?

I conduct a dialogue with my previous life all the time, inwardly. It will be there until the day I die.

What is it that you miss?

The abandon. You miss that. Doing what I want, when I want. But that, too, is a longing through which you enter another tunnel and examine exactly what you miss. But it was not actually that, because if that were the real thing, I would have stayed there.

Still, what do you miss?

I dialogue with everything. I’m in a restaurant in Toronto, say, and I get a paper bag with my kosher salad. All around, people are eating [nonkosher] seafood. I am the daughter of a sailor, and unfortunately this body of mine contains all the forbidden foods from every corner of the world. I see the seafood, it’s tasty and it’s within reach. You have this moment when you say: Why can’t I enjoy a taste of shrimp for a minute? And then the dialogue begins.

What do you ask yourself about what you miss?

It’s always a longing for a condition in which there are no limits. The Lord is eternal, every absence of limits is to connect with Hashem. You want the free spirit all the time. At the age of 25, my free spirit involved eating shrimp. It was having sex with the whole world. Now I know that the only free spirit is the connection with Hashem. So, despite all my longing I try to go deeper.

‘Life without brakes’

You abandoned one world for another with completely different ideologies and values. Where do you feel you really belong?

To the Haredim. There is not a cell within me that wants to violate a commandment of Hashem.

Having come from the other side, you view things through a divided prism. How does the baggage of secularism, which you still carry with you, affect the way you look at things?

For example, a gulf separates me from a woman who was born religious and becomes a mother. She married at 18. She and her children constitute something like a preschool; there is something very amazing and very true and very right about that. She moved from her father’s authority to her husband’s authority. She did not have an apartment in between and she did not have a life. She went straight into motherhood. That’s how she was brought up. She knows that life’s deepest meaning lies in the continuity and eternality and the coming generations. She is oriented toward that. I am not in that place.

Would you like to be like them?

That’s like asking if I would want my whole life to have been different − which I would not want. What you said about being divided boils down to something inside that is a part of yourself, which you are simply unwilling to forgo. That is what constantly divides me the most. I get up in the morning and say: I am not giving this part to the children and I am not giving this part to the Lord and I am not giving this part to my husband. I am not giving anything. I don’t want to. I am not sure whether to call that side secular. It’s how I was before.

What will happen if you stumble?

I do stumble. Morning and evening. When a person is teeming and filled with desires, like me, it spills out everywhere ... I once lived a life without brakes. That is my biggest plus over people who are born religious. I simply know, because I was there. I could have stayed there. I don’t feel like I’m divided; I feel vital. That electricity comes from restraint. We all like that, right? We just don’t know how to stick ourselves into the framework of true restraint.

One can enjoy abstinence, craving. That’s a trip in itself.

Yes, it’s sexy, amazing, hot. A craving is only for something that is missing. When I crave, and it doesn’t matter for what, I feel light, I run forward, in love − Wonder Woman. When I crave something, I do everything to attain it. That is a tremendous force in the world. Judaism does not forgo it, but understands its power and meaning in the world.

You are not allowed even to pass a child from hand to hand. [Jewish religious law forbids physical contact between husband and wife during the wife’s menstrual period and for a week afterward.]

Well, we know how everything can fall apart in one second. You develop a life without desire in the home − certainly when the years pass and there are children. But Judaism does not allow that. It says: “We will create a reality for you in which desire exists.” Two weeks yes, two weeks no. I am not inventing anything. It is all in the writings.

You read the Song of Songs, which is the most sacred, and everything there is wild desire. What am I supposed to glean from that? That Hashem wants a world that is not desire? The opposite: He wants only desire, not abandon that leaves you hurt and wounded. You are asked to live the desire, to contain it without the possibility of satisfying it. Just to let it be. This is what all the heroes of our people taught me.

Take Joseph, for example. He was incredibly beautiful. Potiphar’s wife, the most beautiful woman in the world, was mad about him.

The Midrash relates that she became ill because he did not want her, and then she invites all her girlfriends, the daughters of kings, to an event and distributes apples to all of them. As they are peeling the apples with knives, she asks Joseph to come in, and they all slash their wrists.

Why?

Because of his beauty. All my abilities of restraint when it comes to sexuality derive from his experience. Its influence is still felt. All my ability to contain something without realizing it comes from him, from that devastating Joseph.

‘Wild about movies and Hashem’

Have you been exposed to the cinema since becoming religious? Do you see movies?

Obviously, but with a divided heart. I tell myself I am like a physician: I am dealing with something I need to know about and must keep up with ... But that’s an excuse. I am wild about movies and I am wild about Hashem. How does it go together?

How?

I am not actually able to make a total separation. I love the cinema but I don’t, because I love Hashem. On the other hand, I view movies differently now from the way I used to. It involves inner processes.

It’s as though viewing a movie induces me to touch some inner part of myself, but there is a contradiction...

Let’s talk about avoda begashmiyut ‏(“worship in corporeality”), about the presence of this principle in your life.

Well, everything in the world has two sides. And they are incredibly alike. The aspect of impurity and the aspect of holiness − they look exactly the same. It’s scary. The thinnest of thin lines separates them, okay? Now, with that find the deepest and truest place.

You mean in everything, including the everyday, and in what is forbidden.

We say that the bedroom, for example, is the holy of holies. The Holy of Holies was the most sacred place, where the high priest entered only once a year, on Yom Kippur, and if even one impure thought came to him there, he would simply die on the spot. My bed with my husband is identical to that. It is the holy of holies. It’s as though you say, Okay, let’s connect it, let’s find that connection. The holy of holies is sex; that is what I am told. That is the sort of connection we find − do you understand what I am getting at?

Yes.

It has rules, procedures. We will not go into details − modesty forbids − but...

Secular people have a lot of preconceptions about sex among the ultra orthodox.

It’s nonsense. Unequivocally. Completely groundless, totally retarded. It’s unbelievable that they also sell it in movies.

Personal diminution

As a strong, smart woman, aren’t you infuriated by thoughts like: Why is my husband going to study now while I am stuck here with the dishes?

The question is how important and central you want to be in everyone’s life. But if I think in terms of that, I really will have a very hard time with the dishes. An essential part of my devotion consists of diminution, in the deepest sense: Understanding that you are not the center of the world. I would never achieve that flexibility and that understanding were it not for being with the dishes. I love that, not because it is easy, but because it is true for me. Aside from the fact that it’s nice to be king of the world, it does not move you ahead by an iota, does nothing for your soul. You do not achieve flexibility, do not develop or discover new things about yourself. But if you are minded toward discovering and being and finding, even winning a prize in Venice is not meaningful.

How do you mean?

It is a backdrop. There is a kitchen-with-dishes backdrop and there is a Venice backdrop. I suffered there the whole time from hot flashes and sweating like a pig under the pressure of that reality. Whereas with the dishes I can reach very deep places.

Such as?

I ask myself: Who are you? What is your story? What do you want? When you ask, “Why do I have to do the dishes, it’s hard for me,” what do you mean? That you want what? To devour the world and have everyone tell you from morning to evening that you are the smartest, the most amazing, and that it does not become you to touch the dishes because you are the Queen of England? You don’t reach such extremes if you don’t do a pile of dishes. To say “Who are you? You slab of flesh, who are you?” is to undergo a self-diminution, and I find it more intense and more pleasurable than any success. But there is a difference between humility − whether it is natural or the result of inner work − and the place where I have far fewer privileges from the outset. Believe me, you don’t want a way of life like a man with Torah; it’s a lot harder than my life.

Really? You think so?

I know so. Let’s see, you wake up every day at 6 A.M., 365 days a year, without exception, into a reality in which you have to find yourself inwardly [i.e., yeshiva study]. It’s not dumb prayer, it’s doing devotion from the moment you open your eyes. You have no air. There are no compromises. I would not survive it and I would not want it. They live a very hard life. Not everyone succeeds at it, and it’s very rough if you do not succeed. If a woman wants to study, and I say this from knowledge, she can sit and study.

The Talmud says women are fickle and frivolous.

I know a woman who has 14 children and there is no one more learned than her. She has full knowledge of all the religious sources. It interested her, she was determined, she sat and she did it.

I am being cautious, because I don’t want to fall into the stance of the sneering secular person. I am aware that there are enormous complexities in that world. But look, you enjoy a certain privilege as a penitent who is also married to a penitent and lives in Tel Aviv. I don’t know whether your life is comparable to that of a woman who lives in Mea She’arim, the quintessential Jerusalem ultra-Orthodox neighborhood.

No, it is not – in part because this will not interest her from the outset. I am an odd bird, period. I was an odd bird as a secular woman and again now, as a “dos woman.”

Why did you stay in Tel Aviv? Isn’t it harder?

It’s easier, and I will tell you why. Not every filmmaker has to make films for secular viewers about Haredim, and not everyone has to live in Tel Aviv.

Certainly not someone who became religious.

I like awareness, and Tel Aviv makes me very aware. For example, I take my children to the park, and encounter a secular mother and her children. Walking on the street, I see a cafe. These are options, and I have to choose my place. I love that necessity of having to decide one way or the other. It’s good for me, it’s alive for me. To live in Bnei Brak, say, or in Jerusalem is like saying everything is fine, there is nothing to fear. But I always feel a storm churning within me, so why should I pretend everything is fine?

Karin Bar
Filmmaker Rama Burshtein.Credit: Yanai Yechiel
On the set of 'Fill the Void'.Credit: Vered Adir.
A scene from "Fill the Void".Credit: Vered Adir

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