(TORONTO, ON) – The Congregation Against An Upstart Rabbi. Women’s Balcony is an interesting look at how a congregation in an Israeli synagogue holds firm against an upstart young Orthodox Rabbi.
The film begins in a joyous mood as a young man is ready to become a man at his bar mitzvah. The happy throng heads to synagogue down the crowded streets of Jerusalem. It is beginning to look like a real heavy duty celebration.
The Rabbi is an elderly and somewhat cantankerous man apparently very forgetful with a wandering mind.
The bar mitzvah takes a turn for the worse as the women’s balcony collapses during the ceremony, seriously injuring the Rabbi’s wife. The synagogue is closed for repairs and the congregation is in chaos with no fixed place to pray compounded by a Rabbi who seems to be in an advanced state of dementia.
With no Rabbi to lead the congregation a young Orthodox Rabbi appears, gradually taking control of the men and some of the women in the congregation. The upstart Rabbi takes control of the renovations and the women’s balcony is transformed into somewhat of a cell for prisoners.
He also has a strict view of a women’s role in society, which equates with relegating them to second class citizenship.
Is the new Rabbi trying to take control of the congregation for his own sense of power or is he a truly Orthodox Rabbi with less than the liberal views the existing congregation is familiar with?
The turning point in answering the question would seem to be when funds the funds the women in the congregation raised for reconstruction are diverted by fraudulently converting the reconstruction cheque so that the Rabbi controls the funds.
When confronted by an Orthodox follower, the Rabbi hides behind the power of God to justify the criminal act. As an aside, this particular follower has fallen for a member of the congregation the Rabbi is trying to take over.
The women of the congregation eventually picket the synagogue, protesting the disappearance of the women’s balcony. They pressure their husbands to the point that the upstart Rabbi loses any respect he had and is deserted by his temporary congregation.
The men come to a collective decision that the upstart Rabbi has done enough to destroy the morale of the congregation and ask him to leave before he destroys their religious community.
The Rabbi goes down in defeat, worsened by his defecting follower who, objecting to his fraudulent cheque endorsement, marries the other member of the congregation.
Happiness and joy returns to the congregation and the synagogue with the marriage ceremony. It’s cemented by the closing score, heavily influenced by Greek an Arabic music.
A gem of a film showing that Israeli society is not homogenous. It is as fragile and as diverse as most communities are.
Israelis are human beings, just like you and me.
(Women’s Balcony, director Emil Ben Shimon, Israel, 2016, Hebrew with English subtitles. One hour and 38 minutes, part of The Toronto Jewish Film Festival, May 9 at Ted Rogers Hot Docs Cinema 6:15pm)