Jane Austen in Tel Aviv

I just saw a fine Israeli movie, Fill the Void, that could have been written by Jane Austen–if she’d spent some time in an ultra-orthodox Hasidic community in Tel Aviv. The director, Rama Burshtein, is an insider in this community–and she specifically said she had Jane Austen in mind when working on this movie.

"Fill the Void" poster, from Ebert review cited below

“Fill the Void” poster, from Ebert review cited below

The men wear prayer shawls, various Old-World-looking hats, and ringleted forelocks.  The women wear modest but attractive outfits, with a lot of fussy detail. The women clearly take great care with their appearance. Turbans cover their hair once they are married.  Only the single women are bareheaded. The sexes are informally separated during gatherings at homes or in the synagogue–the women sit in the next room, but everyone can see and speak with everyone else if they try.

Movie still, Karin Bar, Creative Commons Share Alike 3.0

Movie still, Karin Bar, Creative Commons Share Alike 3.0

As in an Austen novel, the purpose of a woman’s life is to marry.  Here, the point is not so much to marry a rich man–it seems that in this group, an adequate income is assumed.  (The rabbi distributes money on request during a holiday celebration. Is this communal money, or is it the private money of the rabbi? I couldn’t tell, but the rabbi’s wife clearly knows all about whatever finances are involved). The point here is to marry within the group, and to marry someone compatible. Compatibility is very hard to gauge, though, when there is no dating as we know it.

There is a very constrained code of behavior, as in an Austen novel. I’m thinking of Elizabeth Bennet’s horror, in Pride and Prejudice, when oafish Mr. Collins walks right up to Mr. Darcy and begins babbling about a mutual acquaintance, WITHOUT A FORMAL INTRODUCTION.  In the Israeli movie, single men and women are strictly shielded.  In the opening scene, a mother and daughter stalk a prospective bridegroom in a grocery store, just to get a glimpse of him from a distance. As in an Austen novel, the women never question their place in this social system.  They just accept it as their reality.  However, just as in Austen novel, the women have their ways of influencing the men who are nominally in charge.

It goes without saying that to everyone in this community, this way of life, though constrained, is precious. In the sorrowful history of the last century, countless communities like this one disappeared forever.

The plot is simple:  an 18-year-old girl is giddy with the prospect of marriage to the young man glimpsed in the grocery store.  But her family hesitates because a tragedy intervenes, and the young man’s family withdraws the offer.  The tragedy is that the girl’s pregnant sister dies suddenly in childbirth, leaving a tiny son and a grieving widower who, everyone agrees, must marry again.  There is an offer from a woman in another Hasidic community in Belgium.  The girl’s mother can’t bear to part with her first and only grandchild.  So she puts pressure on the widower, some years older, to marry her 18-year-old daughter.  She puts even stronger pressure on her daughter, even though her husband, the rabbi, does not think the match appropriate.

Movie Still, Karin Bar, Creative Commons Share Alike 3.0

Movie Still, Karin Bar, Creative Commons Share Alike 3.0

The way the dilemma works out is fascinating and touching.  A senior rabbi, meeting with the couple, asks, “How does the girl feel about the match?”  The girl replies, “It is not about feelings.  It is the right thing to do.”  He smiles gently and says, “It is ONLY about feelings.”  I can see the appeal of this way of doing things.  The elders are wise and loving.  They have seen a lot of life, and they truly have the best interests of the young people at heart–mixed, of course, with their own very human needs.

The rituals depicted are ancient, mysterious (at least to me) and moving.  We see a mourning group sitting shiva, a Purim holiday celebration, Sabbath meals, formal community gatherings, a circumcision, a betrothal, and a wedding.

One big difference between this world and Jane Austen’s world is that here, there seems to be no dissembling or hiding of one’s true feelings.  The emotions of the community members are palpable, whether in joy or in sorrow.  In this insular community, I suppose no secrets can be kept for long.  And anyway honesty is clearly a core value. At times of high emotion, the people have a habit of rocking back and forth in their seats–so they really wear their hearts on their sleeves.

But as in an Austen novel, a person’s fate turns on a look, a gesture, a few quiet words spoken, a note quickly written and read just in time by the right person.  As in an Austen novel, a woman’s fate depends on her luck in marriage. I have not been to Tel Aviv, and if I go I will probably not see the inside of a Hasidic community.  Many cultures have contributed to the Europe we know today. I very much enjoyed this intimate and detailed look into a culture that somehow feels both alien and familiar.

The film has won numerous awards.  The ending is ambiguous; one hopes these characters have made choices that will make them happy.

The late Roger Ebert had a very sensitive review of the movie.  It is at http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/fill-the-void-2013. The Variety review, which mentions the Jane Austen connection, is at http://variety.com/2012/film/reviews/fill-the-void-1117948164/.

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