Defying a Conspiracy of Silence About Pedophilia

'Conventional Sins' tells the story of a religious man who was the victim of sexual abuse throughout his childhood growing up in an extreme Hasidic sect in Bnei Brak

A scene from "Yedid Nefesh".
Yes Docu

After the premiere of “Conventional Sins,” (“Yedid Nefesh”) at the last Jerusalem Film Festival, several ultra-Orthodox viewers approached the two directors, Anat Zuria and her daughter, Shira Winther, and offered their heartfelt thanks. A few even admitted that they were personally familiar with the subject of the documentary film – pedophilia in ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) society and the conspiracy of silence that surrounds it.

The film, which won the festival’s documentary film award, focuses on Meir Bar, the son of a revered rabbinic leader of an extreme Hasidic sect in Bnei Brak. The sect shunned Bar after he testified testified to police against a network of Haredi pedophiles. The whole case was hushed up. Throughout the film, broadcast this week on Yes Docu, Bar copes with a series of sexual assaults by a number of men, some of whom abused him for years while others attacked him at random.

The first scene takes him back to the classroom where he studied as a child, in which the palms of his hands would often bleed after being whipped by his homeroom rebbe, something routine in that Hasidic group aimed at forcing the youngsters to memorize holy texts. Another scene takes Bar and a pedophile to the beach where many of the assaults took place, while another scene portrays a particularly terrifying immersion in a mikveh (ritual bath).

Directors Anat Zuria (right) and her daughter, Shira Winther
Emil Salman

Zuria, a veteran, acclaimed director, had previously created a documentary trilogy that examined parts of the lives of Haredi women. The first film, “Purity,” (Tehora), from 2002, dealt with the laws of family purity (nidda), which require married women to avoid physical contact with their husbands for around two weeks every month; “Sentenced to Marriage,” (“Mekudeshet”), the second film (2004), follows the plight of three young women struggling to get divorces from their husbands; and the third, “Black Bus” (“Soreret”), from 2009, examined gender segregation in Haredi society. Now, for the first time, she has entered a world made up totally of men and boys.

“’Yedid Nefesh’ raises some important gender issues,” says Zuria. “The Haredi world maintains a very rare model of paternal rule, as if we are still in 18th century England. Rabbis control the entire system that determines behavior in this world. The men are the ones who understand halakhah [Jewish law] and know it fluently.”

According to Zuria, boys in Haredi society are sucked at a very young age into an educational system controlled solely by men, where the mothers have no influence. “The Haredi educational system has no parent committees or guidance counselors or any kind of supervision,” she says. “From my perspective, dealing with this patriarchy stemmed from a desire to see what happens in a world in which women are not involved. When you so blatantly exclude the women and mothers, this is one of the results.”

Zuria, who grew up religious but abandoned observance, spent a decade collecting testimonies about the sexual abuse of boys and teenagers from different Haredi streams. She met Bar, who describes himself as religious and is married with two children, during the filming of ”Soreret,” when he appeared in one of the scenes. They immediately clicked and remained friends. As the relationship deepened, Bar revealed more and more details about his past as an abuse victim, and told her how he would be passed from one pedophile to another.

After eight months of more intense research, preparation for filming began. Bar was involved in the casting of the three actors who portray him during different stages in his life in the filmed reenactments. Two of them, Meir Appel and Aharele Treitel, grew up Haredi and draw on the instances of sexual abuse they experienced as children.

Despite the difficult content, the violence described in the film is actually subtly portrayed. There are no tearful confessions about the act itself or the harsh effects on the protagonist’s life; these are replaced by revealing dialogues between Bar and the three actors. Instead of a demonic portrayal of the pedophile that characterizes most films dealing with this subject, Zuria and Winther preferred to focus on the conspiracy of silence in the Haredi community, made possible in part by the absence of Haredi women from the space in which their children are being raised.

“Meir, the film’s central character, says that even if he had had an option to speak to his mother, he had no clue how to do this,” says Zuria. “He didn’t have access to her because there was no common language with which she could understand his world.”

She recalls one of the testimonies she heard during the research. “There was a boy of 10 who was trapped by a pedophile for a year or two. At a certain point it came out but the mother didn’t do anything about it because her husband didn’t let her.” Winther adds, “From the moment you are a boy of 13 you can no longer stand with your mother alone in the kitchen and tell her what’s going on with you. There’s no place for that.”

Sexuality in the Haredi world often receives tabloid treatment in the Israeli media. Zuria says the two sought to avoid a sensationalist approach to such a loaded subject. “We are very interested in the human situation of our characters and believe that the beauty of film is when the viewer doesn’t just sit on the couch to enjoy, but searches for hints. We assume our view is intelligent, which is why there was no need to push all the truth into his face. Filling in the blanks is an important process of watching, which is why we will give our audience the minimum they need to understand what’s happening, and the rest of the information they can supply by themselves.”

Winther notes Bar had full control over what details would be revealed in the film and which would remain on the cutting-room floor. “We could have made a totally different film from the material we had, but it was very important to us to make a film that was full of empathy,” she says.

In one of the high points of the film, Appel, who plays Bar at age 21, describes how widespread pedophilia is in the environment in which he grew up, to the extent that it’s accepted with almost complete indifference. This banality of evil is also expressed in the cinematic choices made by Zuria and Winther, who don’t reveal to viewers what happened to the sadistic pedophile who abused Bar for years.

“It was very important to us not to create sweet closure in the film, as if the problem was solved and that’s it. As if Meir now lives in peace, because he doesn’t,” says Zuria. Adds Winther, “We are always apologizing to our audience because the film doesn’t supply any relief. It’s a tough film about a tough reality.”

The film also deals with the heavy price paid by a lack of parental authority, an issue that takes on new meaning given that the film was made by a mother and daughter.

“We always laughed about how our relationship was quite tough and difficult and needed therapy,” Zuria says. “When Shira was small, she was very rebellious and I was a bit impatient. It took time until I developed and her rebelliousness matured in different directions. From my perspective this is a wonderful partnership and it was lots of fun, at the level of chemistry as well.”

Winther backs this assessment. “Most people think we’ve always been good friends but that’s not accurate," he says. "We’ve worked hard to get to this situation.”

Both hope that Haredim will see the movie. “From my experience with this community, there’s an enormous chance,” says Zuria. “After the premiere at the Jerusalem Film Festival, a Haredi mother who was formerly secular told me that her children had also been abused and she had to fight this in her own family and she was paying a heavy price for it. It’s a very interesting and intelligent community and I admire it. The men especially; I see they are very witty and have a lot of humor and cynicism and sarcasm. Aside from that, they are enormously interested in how they are represented outside. For example, someone videoed “Soreret” in the theater and within a day or two it had some 100,000 views on YouTube. There’s a greater chance that a Haredi audience will see the film than viewers in Ramat Aviv.”

She believes the pedophilia problem will stop the minute that mothers get their power back. “After all, you can’t continue to just abandon children," she says. "I’m going to say something a little more anarchist: I don’t necessarily want to rely on the state mechanisms. If there will arise a more effective mechanism for dealing with abuse and violence, that would be great. If the Haredi community could prove that it has an alternative mechanism for dealing with this problem, it would be excellent. Maybe we could even learn from it. But that’s not the situation. All the research we did showed the opposite.”

Winther adds: “We also like to create a situation in which going to the police would be more worthwhile. After all, Meir, the main character, went to the police and to this day he hasn’t received any compensation. There’s a lot of work to be done in treating and rehabilitating victims. The main pedophile who assaulted Meir was caught once by the [Haredi] modesty patrol, which got him by the balls and threatened him. So for a week he didn’t come to the mikveh, and after a week he was back at the mikveh, and everything repeated itself.”