Rabbi Mordechai Vardi thought he already knew quite a bit about Orthodox LGBT people when he decided to direct the film “Marry Me However,” a documentary on one of the burning issues in recent years in the religious-Zionist community: gays and lesbians who want to marry a member of the opposite sex to maintain an Orthodox way of life.
After meetings with his students in the Netanya and Ma’alot yeshivas, he began to research the issue. When he told his family about the film, he was surprised to hear that his own daughters had had experience with boyfriends enduring such dilemmas.
“One of my daughters went out with a young man who told her he was attracted to men, but they wanted to get married. They got along well, and she agreed. She didn’t want to abandon him because of this. She didn’t come to me, she didn’t tell me,” Vardi says.
“In retrospect, she told me she thought things would work out after the wedding. In the end, the relationship fell apart. She married someone else and the first young man came out and left Orthodoxy.
“My other daughter was going out with someone, and six months after they broke up he asked her to try again. She told him she was about to get engaged, and a while later she saw that he had come out. They met by chance when we were making a film together at the Pride Parade in Jerusalem, and there, they also achieved closure.”
Vardi, one of the most prominent religious-Zionist filmmakers, who headed the screenwriting department at Jerusalem’s Ma’aleh School of Television, Film and the Arts for 20 years, came to “Marry Me However” knowing he was entering a minefield. (The Hebrew-language film, available with English subtitles, is being shown in Israel this Saturday night on the Hot cable television provider’s Channel 8.)
On the one hand, many rabbis in the religious-Zionist milieu, – for example, Rabbi Yuval Cherlow – have made clear that LGBT people can maintain an Orthodox lifestyle without losing the support of the Orthodox community. On the other hand, Rabbi Yigal Levinstein of the Eli premilitary program will be remembered forever for his comment that homosexuality is a “sexual deviation.” As he put it: “They took a tragedy of men and women and turned it into an ideology.”
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In “Marry Me However,” there is no ideology but rather a look at Orthodox and ex-Orthodox LGBT people who, on the advice of their rabbis, married a person of the opposite sex and paid a high price for it. The film opens with the wedding of Yarden, a young man wearing a large knitted kippa, and Rotem, 17.
“The day I got married I was already thinking about when I would get divorced,” Yarden says at the beginning of the film. Yarden and Rotem brought a child into the world, but Rotem slowly became a shadow of herself. They eventually broke up but maintained a warm relationship, even if the wound they suffered hasn't yet healed.
The story of the other participants in the film is also heartrending. A gay man who said having sex with his wife was like rape. A woman who tells how she gave birth to six children only to discover that her gay husband was treating her like a baby factory.
Naama Arbel, 36, ended a lesbian relationship because she couldn’t bear the shame and married a man on the advice of rabbis. Nicole Gal, a former Chabad adherent, who left her husband after many years, says it was hard for her to go home after immersing in the ritual bath because she knew what awaited her.
A gay elite squad
The big discovery of the film is the tragedy of women who married gay men, Vardi says. Even when they knew the man was attracted to men, they believed the union could succeed.
“When a gay man marries, he really thinks it will work. He believes in it, otherwise he wouldn’t enter a nightmare of a life. He’ll usually tell his wife something like ‘my performance won’t be amazing, but it’s not for our whole life. We have friendship, we’re good together, we have a common language.’ And she says, ‘all right.’
“They persuade themselves that if you count how many hours a person has in life having sex, you discover that it’s not the most important thing. So they get married and realize that homosexuality isn't a story below the waist, it’s a matter of emotions. They lack the basis of the magnet of simple intimacy, of the relationship and the love. After all, it’s not just sexual contact; this is something very hard for homophobes to understand.”
What made you realize that LGBT is an identity, not just a sexual orientation?
“The people in my film really wanted to be okay with Judaism, faith and Orthodox society – and they got married. That’s the most extreme act possible. You accept responsibility for a woman, for children, dive into the water and pray that there won’t be any rocks. And there were rocks.
“When I met these people they told me that if they could be straight, they’d be happy. They wanted to maintain the family and way of life they had, but it didn’t work. And so the moment a person not only says he wants to keep the Torah but does harsh things to maintain it, I understood how deep this identity, homosexuality, runs.”
According to Vardi, he first met a gay person in the ‘80s, a scholar of Judaism who told him his secret. “He’s a person I admire to this day as a righteous and God-fearing person of the highest level. When he told me I was in shock, because people didn’t talk about it in those days. He never came out and he didn’t do anything, and as a result he paid a heavy price, including hospitalization,” Vardi says.
“I then realized that a gay person isn’t a negative figure. He would always tell me that no one understands him except Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav and Rabbi Tzadok Hakohen [two great thinkers of previous centuries]. He also always said there was only one woman he was attracted to: Barbra Streisand.”
There’s no doubt he’s gay.
Because she’s a total gay icon.
“Well, I didn’t know that. And I’m fairly sure he didn’t know.”
I spoke with Vardi on a lawn near his home in Rosh Tzurim, an Orthodox kibbutz in Gush Etzion in the West Bank, where he’s the community rabbi. There, beautiful curving terraces fill the eye, a pastoral landscape over the 1967 border.
I told him that “Marry Me However” touched me because like some of his heroes, I was also an Orthodox gay man, almost 20 years ago. In total contrast to the film, I came out and became secular. The film and its heroes perhaps show what would have happened if I had made a different choice.
Here lies the internal contradiction in “Marry Me However.” On the one hand, it offers a humanistic look at its heroes. Vardi doesn’t judge Orthodox LGBT people; not for a moment does he point a finger at them because of their extraordinary choice: maintaining an Orthodox lifestyle, which includes a ban on homosexuality, a ban that the rabbis, even the liberal ones, haven’t managed to break.
On the other hand, the film presents a discussion, difficult to watch, on whether there is a distinct LGBT identity. For example, Rabbi Baruch Efrati, chairman of the rabbinical association Derech Emunah, claims in the film that he doesn’t recognize the terms “gay” or “lesbian.” Another rabbi used the expression “opposite orientation,” which relates to functioning, because “gay” connotes a whole identity.
Can you understand LGBT people’s choice to remain Orthodox despite the clear prohibition in Jewish law?
“I can understand both sides. I have a student who told me: ‘I had to choose between religion and sanity, and I chose sanity.’ That is, to remain Orthodox and gay was for him a conflict he couldn’t survive. It was as if he came to apologize for taking off his kippa.
“Still, I understand those whose religious feelings and faith are so strong they won’t give them up even if they’re gay. They’re people of faith. Their relationship to God is a living relationship. Their religious experience is a very deep one, but now they have to deal with their decision.
“An ultra-Orthodox young man who saw the film said: “I know that God made me gay and I’m gay through and through. I know that God told me ‘I have enough straight people, I want a gay elite squad.’”
What a statement.
“Yes, I certainly can understand someone who thinks that this fell on him as a mission.”
That certainly is a problematic concept, to see a gay identity as something that fell on someone. That sounds a little like the mortifications that Hasidic believers would undertake to cleanse themselves from sin.
“I’m not sure that it’s exactly mortification. An Orthodox gay man once told me he thinks that maybe God wanted him to be like Jephthah’s daughter, who was locked up all her life in isolation. He told me that maybe God wanted him to live in splendid isolation and then he’d arrive in heaven after 120 years and God would give him a hug and say, ‘Wow, you did it.’
“The Orthodox community doesn’t really accept gay people. If a gay couple wanted to live here in Rosh Tzurim, I’m not sure this would be accepted in a small community of 200 families.”
In Fellini’s footsteps
Vardi was born in 1958 in Romania’s Transylvania region to Holocaust survivors; his mother survived Auschwitz. When he was 3, the family came to Israel and moved to Netanya. He studied at the city’s Bnei Akiva Yeshiva and went on to Kerem B’Yavneh Yeshiva in the south.
He did his military service in the Armored Corps, combined with yeshiva studies. When he was released he became a founder of Ateret Kohanim Yeshiva in the Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem. Later he served as the community rabbi in Mitzpeh Netofa in the Galilee and the rabbi of the yeshiva in the western Upper Galilee city of Ma’alot.
For 21 years he has been the rabbi of Kibbutz Rosh Tzurim, where the people have learned to live with the fact that he isn’t exactly a mainstream rabbi.
Vardi entered the world of film because of a midlife crisis, he says laughing. After he taught creative writing at the Ma’alot yeshiva, he was asked to join the Ma’aleh film school, an Orthodox school. He went to the film library to see how much the field spoke to him, and after watching Fellini’s “8 1/2,” he was hooked.
“This is a film that spoke my language ... I realized that he was dealing with the human spirit and soul, and not to make things pleasant. I realized that there’s a philosophy of cinema.”
Later, Vardi earned a master’s in cinema at Tel Aviv University and has since directed a number of documentaries, all dealing with “the other.” His film “Reflected Light” tells the story of newly Orthodox people rejected by the veterans. In “Mom is Not Crazy,” an Orthodox woman, a kibbutz member, suffers psychiatric problems.
In “The Field,” he followed a joint initiative by settlers and Palestinians for reconciliation and coexistence in Gush Etzion during the “knife intifada” five years ago. But it seems that Vardi realizes that his current film is particularly a Molotov cocktail.
“I knew that I was getting on a battlefield, but I think that this is the issue in art. Art that doesn’t take risks isn’t serious,” he says.
“Why do I make a movie? As Rabbi Nachman says, ‘People tell stories to fall asleep, and I tell stories to wake people up.’ When I direct, I use the method of the Shin Bet security service – shake people. I want to make a movie that will shake me, shake the viewers. It will help us expand our view of the world and consciousness.
“For me, a film that doesn’t expand consciousness is escapism. I want to direct films about people whose voices have been silenced, about people on the margins who teach about generality.”
Vardi says he held a Zoom screening of “Marry Me However” during Sukkot for the settlement of Efrat, with 120 participants. After the screening, Rabbi Benny Lau, a senior religious Zionist, published a document calling for permission for LGBT people to establish same-sex families, and called on Orthodox communities to accept them.
What do you think about rabbis who recommend “conversion therapy” to teenage boys and girls?
“I’m not a professional, and conversion therapy is a professional matter for psychologists. Either it works or it doesn’t. So I keep to the opinion of Rabbi Tuvia Peri, who says that gay and lesbian Orthodox people have been coming to him for 30 years now and he never heard of anyone whose sexual orientation anyone could change.”
The film deals mainly with the religious-Zionist community, but it also touches on the ultra-Orthodox, where the situation is even more extreme.
“Among the ultra-Orthodox it’s simple. They don’t talk about it. Maybe a husband will tell his wife, but if he asks his rabbi, the rabbi will send him to a certain psychologist and the psychologist will tell him, ‘it will be all right and don’t tell.’
“There’s a couple in the film from the ultra-Orthodox world. The woman told me that under her wedding canopy five people stood around her, all of whom knew that her husband was gay and she didn’t know. Three rabbis stood under the wedding canopy and told the husband not to tell her.
“When she found out, she already had six children with him, and the man told me: ‘For me, a woman is like a cow.’ Immediately after she got divorced she removed her head covering, found a man and had an affair. Without a wedding or anything. That’s what gave her back her confidence.”
Religious Zionism is more divided now than ever. Naftali Bennett released a film in support of LGBT people, which he has since distanced himself from. Meanwhile, his fellow Yamina party member Bezalel Smotrich once helped organized a march in which the organizers said, “At least the animals committed no sin.” In your opinion and experience, which path will religious Zionism choose?
“I don’t know how to prophesy, but there’s no doubt that the religious-Zionist community is torn. There’s no agreed-on leadership. There is pulling in both directions: the ultra-Orthodox nationalist yeshivas as opposed to Tzohar [liberal Orthodox] rabbis.
“It’s clear that a young man who studied at a certain yeshiva won’t marry a young woman from a certain religious girls’ school. In the film, I was able to bring together rabbis from both wings, so for me it’s a joy that the gay people at least united us.”
But the debate between the two wings has been a tough one and mainly emphasizes the contrasts.
“True. The LGBT issue is like a sharp knife that slices the Orthodox public in two, but it’s a symptom of a community that’s seeking its way. On the one hand, the religious Zionist-community is connected to the Israeli way of life in every way. On the other, this community is worried about the next generation, hoping their children won’t leave Orthodoxy. The question is, what’s the price of openness?”
Does your identity as a settler clash with humanistic values?
“There’s no clash. I really think that as a settler, we have a real possibility of sitting with the Palestinians and talking. The solution has to be one that everyone agrees on.”
Don’t you think that the settlements are an obstacle to peace?
“I think that the settlers are the spearhead of a future agreement. We live with them here together and we live with them in good interaction. In the end we’ll find a way to live together, the moment we leave aside the concept of war or expulsion. We’re mixed here, within the Green Line and beyond it. Mixed. We just have to find the way to talk.”