Filmmaking, feminism and life as an Orthodox lesbian
By Akin Ajayi, The Forward - March 2009
During a recent interview with the Forward, the Jerusalem-born director and activist Avigail Sperber described her new film, "Halakeh," as a "small story... through which one can understand the place of a woman in Jewish religious culture."
Starring the Israeli actors Ohad Knoller and Hani Furstenberg, "Halakeh" documents the emotional journey of a young observant couple, as they travel to Mount Meron to participate in the halakeh ceremony - the shearing of a male child’s hair on the Lag B’Omer following his third birthday.
The film dissects the couple’s relationship, which is placed under strain by the differing interpretations the couple make of their religious faith. Sperber, an observant Jew, is also a feminist campaigner and the founder of Bat Kol, an organization that offers support services to observant lesbians who wish to fulfill both their religious and sexual identities.
Recently, she sat down in New York with Akin Ajayi of The Forward to discuss "Halakeh," filmmaking and observant life, and the place of lesbians within the Orthodox community.
Tell me a little about "Halakeh," and what attracted you to the subject matter.
Two things attracted me to the film. The first... was the opportunity to explore the place of the woman in observant life.
There are several points of transition in Jewish religious culture - the brit, the halakeh, the bar mitzvah - with no role for women: They are excluded.
It is the same at the synagogue, where we do not participate but are merely onlookers. I hoped that with this small story, one might begin to appreciate, through the character of the wife, the place of women in Jewish religious culture.
I was also interested in exploring the concept of spiritual awakening, and how people often ignore the relationship between people at the expense of the relationship between the [newly religious] and God. In the film, the husband [newly steeped in the Bratslav Chasidic tradition] puts his relationship with God first, before his relationship with his wife. I think he gets this wrong, I think that he forgets that in the Jewish religion, the most important relationship is the interaction between people.
Given the subject matter and the setting, was the film difficult to shoot?
There were challenges, because we filmed a fiction within documentary ? settings. The yeshiva featured is a real one.
We filmed Ohad davening, participating in morning prayers, but we obviously couldn’t say "OK, cut" and start again. It was the same at Mount Meron. It seemed straightforward when we scouted for locations, but on the day of filming itself there were half a million people there... It was crazy! That said, this was the first day of filming, a month before the main shoot, and it was very inspiring for all of us, especially the non-religious members of cast and crew. It was important to see how much the halakeh, the ceremony around which our fiction was based, meant to the participants.