THE WOMEN’S BALCONY – movie review

  • THE WOMEN’S BALCONY (Ismach Hatani)

    Menemsha Films
    Reviewed by: Harvey Karten, CompuServe Film d-based on Rotten Tomatoes
    Grade: B
    Director:  Emil Ben-Shimon
    Written by: Shlomit Nehama
    Cast: Orna Banai, Itzik Cohen, Einat Sarouf, Igal Naor, Evelin Hagoel, Aviv Alush
    Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 5/3/17
    Opens: May 26 at New York’s Quad Cinema and Lincoln Plaza

    When a non-Jewish friend asked me about the differences between Orthodox, Conservative and Reform Judaism, I quoted shtick from David Minkoff’s 2015 book “Oy!”

    In an Orthodox wedding, the bride’s mother is pregnant.
    In a Conservative wedding, the bride is pregnant.
    In a Reform wedding, the rabbi is pregnant.

    Yes, Jews, like those of other religions, have group differences in their beliefs.  What’s more, even Orthodox Jews are divided regarding the strictness of their ideas, and what’s more Haredi Jews are split according to sects, namely Lubavitchers who believe in spreading the word to Jews who are not Haredi, and Satmar Haredim who do not.  Take the idea of a woman’s place:  should women have equal rights, sitting side by side in synagogues with men, or should they take the seats in the balconies of the shuls?  But one thing is clear enough in Emil Ben-Shimon’s comedy, “The Women’s Balcony,” and that is that while there are slight divisions within the womenfolk in a community in and about Jerusalem’s mea shearim district, none of the females even raised the issue that women should sit anywhere for services but in a balcony.

    “The Women’s Balcony” is happily not like those endless sitcoms and afternoon TV shows that require a laugh a minute.  The overall idea is humorous but the subject is religio-political, and with some seriousness.  The plot kicks off when during a Bar Mitzvah celebration, the balcony on the modest synagogue collapses, seriously injuring the wife of Rabbi Menashe (Abraham Celektar).  As a result the rabbi himself has a psychotic break from reality, at which point there emerges a young, handsome, charismatic fellow, Rabbi David (Aviv Alush), who takes over temporarily from the ailing Menashe.

    The women of the congregation collect money to pay a contractor to renovate the shul, especially the balcony as they are now forced to stand behind a gate which they call “an outhouse.” The ultra-conservative temporary rabbi wants the money to go for Torah scrolls.  He tells the men that women are the superior sex, that they each have the Bible inside of them and are exempt from even appearing at services.  (This turns out to be yet another excuse to force women to the sidelines.)

    The most amusing scene occurs when the women seek a bid from the contractor, serving as a virtual primer on negotiating and bargaining.  The women, like the heroines of Aristophanes’ comedy “Lysistrata,” desert their men, marching outside the synagogue.  And who knows?  Maybe the Greeks got the idea from the Hebrews, whose civilization is about a millennium older.  In a form of deus ex machina, a young, courting couple who later end the movie at a joyous marriage celebration, try to save the day for the women and to wrest control of the synagogue from the power of the young fanatical leader.

    Getting back to the original premise of this review, except for one of two women who begin wrapping their heads in symbols of their more extreme religiosity, the rank and file of this community are certainly Orthodox, but they are more relaxed than the temporarily rabbi.  They may even chat during services, but they are all good people, right down to the small boy who feels so much a part of the community that he regularly seeks the attentions of the older people.

    The women include a number of comedians, particularly Orna Banay as Tikva, whose own charisma effectively challenges that of the new rabbi.  The community appear to be Sephardic, possibly Jews originally from Morocco.  While “The Women’s Balcony” is considered Israel’s number one movie recently, I preferred the more focused ultra-Orthodox-centered Israeli film “The Wedding Plan,” reviewed as well in this forum.

    Unrated.  96 minutes.  © Harvey Karten, Member,

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