Growing Up Hoffman: Women of the Wall Founder Exposed in Daughter's Documentary

Tanya Hoffman's new film sheds light both on a personal conflict with her mother Anat - who is leading the battle to allow women to pray at the Western Wall - and on the public controversy over control of the sacred site.

Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
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Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz

It can’t be easy growing up in the shadow of one of the most admired and at the same time most reviled women in the Jewish world.

Just ask Tanya Hoffman. Or better yet, take note of the title of her upcoming film on being Anat Hoffman’s daughter: “How I Stopped Hating Women of the Wall and Started Talking to My Mother.”

For the past quarter of a century, Tanya’s mother has been at the forefront of the battle to grant women the right to pray as they see fit at the Western Wall, one of Judaism’s holiest sites. In practice, Anat Hoffman has been fighting to allow women to engage in rituals deemed forbidden and even repugnant by the ultra-Orthodox, such as wearing prayer shawls and phylacteries. Some have labeled her a shameless provocateur, while others hail her as a modern-day, Israeli-born Rosa Parks. Whatever the case may be, in recent years, Women of the Wall – a movement founded by her and like-minded women, and comprising barely a few dozen hard-core activists – has become a cause célèbre for Jews around the world.

And that may very well explain why Tanya’s first film, though still a work-in-progress, appears to be arousing interest. The fledgling filmmaker was among a select group of a dozen or so students invited to speak about their work and make a pitch for funding at next month’s Docaviv, Israel’s premier documentary film festival.

Due for release over the summer, the movie shines a light on a very personal mother-daughter conflict, as the larger public controversy over control of the sacred site in Jerusalem’s Old City plays out in the background.

Tanya, 26, doesn’t hide the fact that she’s had a complicated relationship with Anat, who is also executive director of the Israel Religious Action Center, the legal and advocacy arm of the Reform Movement in Israel.

“My teenage years were atrocious because we never got along,” she volunteers, sitting in a Tel Aviv cafe. “We’re very different. My mom’s like a bulldozer. She’s got a huge mouth, she’s super opinionated, she doesn’t care what people think about her, and she fears nothing. I’m the complete opposite.”

About four years ago, when she began her studies at the Minshar Film School in Tel Aviv, Tanya began following her mother around with a camera. “I’m always looking for interesting subjects, and you can’t say my mom’s not interesting,” explains the fiery redhead who, with her fair complexion, bears an undeniable resemblance to her famous mother.

It turned out that the distance created by the ongoing presence of the camera helped alleviate some of the tension between mother and daughter.

“It changed our dynamic by leveling out the playing field,” recalls Tanya, who speaks perfect English after growing up with an American-born father (now divorced from her mother). “For once, my mother was really talking to me.”

‘None of us got it’

At first, Tanya was filming with no real purpose. What prompted her to turn all the footage she’d shot into a documentary was an almost-random comment her mother made in a newspaper interview not long ago. When the high-profile leader of Women of the Wall was asked whether she gets any support for her struggles at home, she bluntly replied: “None at all.”

“At first, I was really pissed when she said that,” recalls Tanya, who is Anat’s middle child and only daughter. “Of course, none of us ever joined her at the Women of the Wall services. None of us really got it. We were, like, why are you doing this? So I decided to start going out with her to the Kotel each month to film what was going on there, and then I began posting my footage on social media sites. That became my way of showing support.”

During monthly filming excursions to the Western Wall, Tanya noticed her mother and other core activists in the group being approached time and again by individuals interested in producing a film about them. “That got me to thinking, ‘Why should they do a film? I should be the one doing a film,’” recounts the young Hoffman.

It happens that she was not to be around in late 2012 when her mother was detained at the Wall for defying police orders to remove her prayer shawl and not to recite prayers out loud. Tanya was at the scene several months later, however, when thousands of ultra-Orthodox men and women demonstrated against Women of the Wall, some even resorting to violence. It was an experience that continues to traumatize her.

“My mother is very recognizable,” notes Tanya. “Everyone knows who she is there. I’m there crying and hysterical, and she’s just walking around so blasé and not afraid of anything. The next month I was terrified that somebody was going to shoot her. I just had never seen hatred like that anywhere before.”

To be sure, Anat Hoffman’s daughter had made many previous trips to the Western Wall: As a young child, growing up in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Baka, she would often be dragged along with her mother to attend Women of the Wall services held to mark Rosh Chodesh (the first day of a new Hebrew month).

“I just hated going,” she confesses. “I have this really vivid memory of me as a 5-year-old there, and this very old woman spitting at us and cursing us. I was so pissed at my mom. I couldn’t understand why she needed to do this. I figured that if she was making this old woman so angry, she must be doing something bad.”

Anat Hoffman may have turned her off to the Wall back then, but she definitely gets credit for turning her daughter on to film. “We weren’t allowed to watch Disney films in our home,” says Tanya. “My mother thought there was a bad message in them for women. I wasn’t allowed to play with Barbie dolls either. But from a very young age, she exposed us to really good movies, and that’s how I learned to appreciate film.”

Has spending all those hours at the Western Wall tempted the young filmmaker to put down her camera and join along in the prayers? “No,” she responds. “I think that would be very hypocritical of me. I do pray in shul, but I can’t see myself praying with them there, even though I know my mom would absolutely die if I joined in.”

When asked to present an excerpt of her work-in-progress at school, Tanya recounts, there was one particular clip that shocked her classmates. “There’s a scene where my younger brother asks my mother what would she choose if she had to choose between her family and Women of the Wall. My mother’s response was that [although] everyone says that being a mother is all you need in life, but it’s not true. In fact, it’s a big lie. My classmates were astounded because that’s not something most people would say.”

Anat’s definitely not a conventional Jewish mother, says her daughter. But after spending many long hours shadowing the woman who has overshadowed her for so long, Tanya adds, “that’s not necessarily a bad thing.”

Tanya Hoffman. 'I have this really vivid memory of me as a 5-year-old [at the Wall], and this very old woman spitting at us and cursing us.'Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Tanya Hoffman as a child with Anat. Not a typical Jewish mother.Credit: courtesy

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