Sunday, August 31, 2008


“Praying in Her Own Voice” deals with the question of women’s place in Israel’s society
Bijan Tehrani


Filmmaker, college professor, wife and mother, Yael Katzir was born in Tel Aviv in 1942. Studied at Hebrew University, Jerusalem and at UCLA, Los Angeles, CA received her Doctoral Degree in History. She completed a Masters at Boston University MFA in Broadcasting and Film.(Cum Laude)

Director of Beit Berl College: Communal Cable Television Center Broadcasting regularly on Israel Cable TV Channel 98, country wide.
Prof. of film and history at the Art School. Independent Documentary filmmaker director and producer; she is also a published author.Her Award winning films are: Company Jasmine, Shivah for My Mother, A place for everyone. A glimpse of Paradise and Praying in her own voice.

Bijan Tehrani: Your film, “Praying in Her Own Voice”, deals with a subject that holds a great deal of importance, which some viewers may not grasp. Please tell us a little about the importance of this subject.
Yael Katzir: “Praying in Her Own Voice” is a film that deals with the very important question of women’s place in Israel’s society. It takes a look at a very courageous group that is paving the road for other women. The group is called Women of the Wall. They are a very heterogeneous group that includes Orthodox women, conservative women, Reform women and women who do not belong to any specific Synagogue. They come on every first day of the Jewish month at seven o’clock in the morning to pray in front of the Wailing Wall, the most sacred place for Jews in the world. They wish to pray according to the Jewish law. In the women’s section, when they are wrapped in the prayer shawl , they want to read from the Torah, and to pray and praise the Lord in song This is something that really threatens and raises havoc for the ultra orthodox Jews, who are afraid that if women take part, and are not chained down at the back of the synagogue, something will happen to Jerusalem. In the 21st century, when women are lawyers, neurosurgeons, and Prime Ministers, it is not clear why there must be a divorce between their roles in the temporal world and their duties in the spiritual realm. The struggle is very long. I have interviewed some Rabbis with authority, both in the US and Israel, and they all say that there isn’t any restriction for women reading from the Torah. Women are released from some things that were difficult for them to enact in ancient times but those things are not forbidden. Thus, if they want to read, they should be allowed to. There is another issue, and that is dealing with the voice of the women. There is a sentence in the Torahreferring to how the voice of women is tempting sexually, but many say that when it comes to prayer, everyone should pray. All the restrictions that are being put on women are because the men are afraid that they would be aroused sexually— so what?

BT: This film deals with a question of faith, but also even more so with women's rights. This is about fighting for your rights.
YK: Exactly, fighting for civil rights.

BT: How has the Israeli government reacted to this situation?
YK: The status of women in Israel is still at the back of the bus. While there is some progress, it takes place very slowly. When the issue of the rights of the Women of the Wall to pray according to their custom came by appeal to the Israeli Supreme Court, the decision was for the women, they should be allowed to pray. But then there was strong pressure from the religious political circles of the Government that reached the Supreme Court, and they have re-opened the case.. They have not gone back on their principle decision that women have the right to pray at the Wall according to their custom, but they have assigned for them a place at the archeological dig of the Wall 12 meters below the Prayer area and thus gave the women a place which no one hears or sees. This is very annoying, because all the civil rights and feminist rights organizations did not come out to support the women’s group. I have to say that the group of the Women of the Wall is very determined and strong, and they continue to fight for their rights, and I believe that in the end people will join them. As with the suffragists in England, their struggle took time. Those who are exiled or excluded from praying according to their own custom are not only the Women of the Wall , but also the religious Reform Conservative Communities, who compose the majority of the Jewish people in the World. .

BT: How difficult was the making of this film?
YK: Theses things are hard to measure. It was a big challenge; I received very little financial support but I had my ex students as my team. And the most important part was that I brought it to the finish line with the help of my son Dan Katzir and Ravit Markus who helped me to get to money in the crucial final stage. I myself am a secular Jew, and I met the Women of Wall? when I was with my students one day in the Old City, in a very odd situation. I saw a group of old women praying in the ruins of a German Christian church. I thought, are they crazy? I started to research, and understood that while the case was in court, they could open the door and look at the women’s section, but only in these ruins. They wanted to be present, and to be an example for other women. The film premiered at a big documentary film festival in Tel Aviv, and then word started to get around, but the Israel television is still not accepting it, because they don’t want to confront the religious people.

BT: How many times has the film been screened in Israel, and how has it been received?
YK: It did a round of all the cinemateques, and was screened two or three times in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and Haifa and Rosh Pina. It is being screened at many universities as well, and some of the reformed synagogues, but there it is like preaching to the converted. We had a very good screening at the San Francisco film festival, and will also have one in Berkley. The film has also been around the world. It won a merit award in India. It was in Spain, at the Palm Beach International Film Festival, and the Israel Film Festival in Los Angeles last month. It attracted a full house in Los Angeles.

BT: Where do you think this struggle will go from here? Will it be a success for Women of the Wall??
YK: In the long run, I think it will be a success. Today the ultra-orthodox are going to try to pass a law in the Knesset(Israel House of Parliament) , proposing that the female members of Parliament (thirty percent of members of Parliament) will not be allowed to sing the national anthem in the house of Parliament!!!. So the film becomes even more relevant. I think that more exposure and publicity will help the cause. I worked on this for three or four years, and didn’t get paid, and I didn’t care because I care about the cause. This is something that has insulted me as a human being living in the 21st century. I have a PhD in History, and to think that the Jews, who were so clever in survival forms and always find solutions to situations, are fundamentalists and ready to resemble the Iranians?

BT: What are your future films?
YK: I have 2 projects. One deals with the influence of Berlin on Tel Aviv. This is going to be for the centennial celebration of Tel Aviv. I have another project that I hope to finish, but it depends on the finances. It is a diary of a violin builder during the second Lebanon War. It will carry the message that in spite of everything, he is going to continue to build violins during wartime.

I would like to add: that I have never had questions about my Jewish identity. But in the process of doing this film, my sense of Jewish identity really strengthened, because I felt that no one will take my Judaism away from me, even when they try to call me Goya, Arafat, and Amalek, what the Ultra Orthodox called us. The film ends with a song that I have written that include these lyrics; “In my voice, in your voice, in a woman’s voice, I lay another prayer. Not with silent mouthing words, my voice is crying to heaven. Out of Zion a Torah will come, and I too will have a place in the universe. In my voice, in every woman’s voice, there is a prayer. The music is very beautiful

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Famed critic George Robinson on Yiddish Theater Film.

George Robinson, is a top NY film critic for the NY Jewish Week.

When he wanted to review our film we were both delighted and scared. He's a tough reviewer and yet also one that's very respected by the film lovers community both in NY and across the US.

So we were very fortunate that he liked the film and also gave it a wonderful review that helped get the word out about the film in NYC.

This week, when the film returned to NY to a theater in Queens, he mentioned it in his blog.

Here's the full article in his blog. Yiddish Theater is mentioned at the second paragraph. I put the first paragraph with commentary about Woody Allen's new film so that those few who don't know who George Robinson is will get a sense of his honesty and his no BS attitude towards films and filmmakers.
Here's the G Robinson's blog of Tues. Aug 19 2008:

"Tuesday, August 19, 2008
Back With a Vengeance (?)

By George Robnison"

Okay, I'm not going to make any absurd promises about keeping up with this thing -- as you well know, those are futile. But I will make something more of an effort. Lots of goodies to offer you in this posting, at any rate.

First, my review of the new Woody Allen, for Jewish Week. The film is dire and in some ways, although it is better than Cassandra's Dream, it is successful in the most uninteresting manner, a clumsy recycling of old themes, characters, attitudes.

Second, allow me to direct your attention to a review by the estimable Donald Richie of a new English version of a key Japanese monograph on Kenji Mizoguchi, of whom we have spoken in the past.

One of the nicer surprises of last winter, a documentary about a dying Yiddish theater (is there any other kind?), has resurfaced in Queens. Yiddish Theater: A Love Story, directed by Dan Katzir, is playing at the North Shore Towers Cinema (270-10 Grand Central Pkwy., Floral Park). For information, phone 718-229-7702. My review of the film can be found here...."


Here's the link to George Robinson's blog:

Here's the full review of our film that appeared in the NY Jewish Week:


Spaisman’s Struggle
Israeli documentary chronicles the Yiddish theater star fighting to keep a new company alive
by George Robinson
Special To The Jewish Week

There is nothing in the arts as evanescent as live theater. After the curtain goes down it vanishes, to borrow a metaphor from Dashiell Hammett, “like a fist when you open your hand.” And all you are left with is memories.

How much more poignant, then, is the plight of those men and women who struggle to keep the Yiddish theater alive, for they are not only bucking the essential nature of their medium, they are also, it would seem, swimming against the strong current of history itself. If she were still alive, you could ask Zypora Spaisman, one of the pillars of the Folksbiene Theater and the founder of the regrettably short-lived Yiddish Public Theater. Or, almost as good, you can see Dan

Katzir’s new film about her last struggling company, “Yiddish Theater: A Love Story,” which opens next week at the Pioneer Theater.

Although she was well into her 80s when she died in 2002, and she had logged nearly a half-century on the Yiddish stage, Spaisman was a latecomer to the theater. A Jewish-Polish midwife who had survived the Shoah and had decided to pursue her acting dream, she came to the States in the 1954. By then, the Yiddish-language theater that had ruled the Lower East Side and what is now called the East Village, had dwindled from over a dozen professional companies in the 1910s to just the one struggling straggler, the Folksbiene, which Spaisman had joined in 1956. In the ‘90s an internecine dispute led to Spaisman’s departure from the Folksbiene, ostensibly into retirement. But as the film makes abundantly clear, Zypora Spaisman was not one to go quietly into the night. “Retire is a death sentence,” she tells the filmmaker.

Katzir’s documentary traces the eight days of Chanukah 2000, when her new company was battling both an unfashionable location and the worst blizzard in New York in years, playing before tiny houses despite truly excellent reviews of its production of “Green Fields.” He says at the film’s outset, “As an Israeli I should learn about my culture,” quite a change of tune from the old Zionist loathing of Yiddish. Purely by chance, Katzir had a home video camera with him when he saw the show and became acquainted with Spaisman. So at the drop of a hat, he found himself making a new film without any of the usual technical comforts of home. (Not that you can tell — among other virtues, “Yiddish Theater” is a good-looking film.)

As you can see from her first appearance on screen, Spaisman is the kind of person that entrances everyone around her, a warm but not effusive presence, with a diva’s command of the scene and a wry sense of humor. Katzir intertwines her story with that of the company’s fight for survival and the larger picture of the decay of what had been a powerful Yiddish cultural scene. The film benefits greatly from comments by Dov Katz, a prominent historian of Yiddish, and from the fleeting presence of the great Yiddish crooner Seymour Rexite, who does not suffer fools gladly and makes no secret of it. The members of the Yiddish Public Theater are also a strikingly variegated lot, from Roni Neuman, the Israeli ingénue who learned her lines phonetically, to Felix Fibich, a dancer and actor who is as spry at 85 as most of us were at 25.

“Yiddish Theater: A Love Story” is just funny and spikey enough never to allow the audience to wallow in cheap sentiment (unlike some of the worst but most successful Yiddish plays). Spaisman seems to hold her Israeli interlocutor at just enough distance that the film can never become a soggy valentine to her indomitable spirit. Instead, it is a bittersweet, funny and charming tribute to a theatrical tradition that may be on the ropes but isn’t quite down for a 10-count yet

Thursday, August 14, 2008


Our film opens this weekend in Queens NY. Here's one of the reviews we got there:

Yiddish language makes a comeback

Wednesday, August 13, 2008 9:40 PM EDT

When I.B. Singer said, “Yiddish is the most alive dead language,” perhaps he was predicting the release of Dan Katzir’s documentary film, “Yiddish Theater: A Love Story,” which will open at the North Shore Towers in Queens on Friday, August 15.

The documentary was one of’s Top 10 Documentaries of 2007 and was hailed at film festivals everywhere from San Francisco to Tel Aviv.

Zypora Spaisman, 84, is the actress and Holocaust survivor who runs Folksbiene, the oldest running Yiddish theater in America. Katzir tells the story of her fight to keep an old art form alive, as well as her struggle to reclaim the stage from a youth-obsessed public.

A major point of concentration in the film is the star’s work on her theater troupe’s revival of Peretz Hirschbein’s Yiddish play, “Green Fields” (“Grine Felder”) in 2000, which was critically acclaimed at the time of its debut.
Although the film is set in one of New York’s coldest winters, its personalities are warm, energetic and fun loving, and humor drives the action throughout. Even when Spaisman has to raise enough funds to keep her last show going and possibly transfer it to Broadway, there is witty commentary to be heard.

Born in Lublin, Poland in 1916, Spaisman immigrated to the United States in the 1950s and became an actress. She has passionately kept both the Yiddish language and the Folksbiene Yiddish Theater alive in New York for 42 years, though she retired at 84, when she started a new production with Yiddish Public Theater.

Other Yiddish theater legends featured in the documentary include Shifra Lerer, Felix Fibich and Seymour Rechzeit, not to mention the 2nd Avenue Deli, with its Yiddish walk of fame.

To find out more about the film, visit

Sunday, August 10, 2008


For all those who missed Luke Ford's previous review of our film, here's a new one.
Seems like this film has touched Luke Ford- a colorful character that's not easily touched by any film, no matter the subject matter.
This new write up was fascinating for me, one of the filmmakers to read. I also found it to be a huge compliment that he's decided to revisit the film.
For those who don't know Luke Ford and won't take the time to check his blogs, let me just say that he's a very popular blogger with a few blogs on different and very diverse subject matters.

His own website LUKEFORD.NET covers the Religious Jewish world BUT from a hip and happening point of view.
He's extremely critical, always controversial, totally unpredictable, and always and I do mean always sees things totally in a different way than anyone else which gives his writing a very personal and unique point of view. Some love Luke Ford's writings. Some hate him- but everyone gives him credit for seeing things in his own way and always keeping it interesting to read.
Here's the latest review about our film on his blog. It's really a trip to read. Luke wasn't in love with my previous film. I'm delighted that this one gave him so much more to contemplate about:

July 27, 2008
A Spiritual Artist Examines ‘Praying In Her Own Voice’

Rabbi Sharon Brous of Ikar begins the movie: "I’ve traveled all over the world and I’ve prayed with talit and tefillin in trains in Japan in airplanes going to Prague and to France and the only place I’m actually scared to put a talit over my head to pray lest I get hit over the head with a chair or have feces thrown at me is at the kotel, the Western Wall in Jerusalem."

Rabbi Denise L. Eger of the gay-friendly Reform temple Kol-Ami on Sunset Blvd: "The women of the wall are the prophetesses of our time because they are challenging injustice in sacred space. There isn’t anything more prophetic than that."

Rabbi Laura Geller: "This movement began because Jewish women want a relationship to God and a relationship to Jewish tradition."

The women of the wall make a powerful case for equal access to the Western Wall to pray in the way they seem fit, only their case comes from feminism and other secular notions, and not from Judaism.

When I watch this movie, I feel like I’m watching Martin Luther King marching in Selma, Alabama.

Unless you are rooted in tradition, these women seem like civil rights activists.

I’ve watched this movie three times and I’m looking forward to seeing it again, to watching it with people from all perspectives.

This is totally a movie to catch a wife with, even if she’s a lesbian who wants to wear tefillin and blow a shofar.

I feel like you can tell what every character is going to say simply by looking at how they dress. The traditionalists vs. the moderns. It goes down the line. The Reform and Conservative Jews look like moderns and take modern positions. The traditional Orthodox women carefully cover their hair while the women of the wall tend to be more free with theirs.

The Women of the Wall says: "We stand far from the Wall so as not to offend anyone."

I like that. It’s just the thing you say when you know you don’t have much power and that you could get into big trouble. I’ve said the same thing myself many times. "Just let me stay. I’ll be real quiet. I’ll just sit over here. I won’t disturb anyone."

A leader of the Women of the Wall says: "I don’t know why we’re such a big threat. Why are women raising their voice in prayer supposedly undermining the Jewish tradition?"

Tens of thousands of Jewish women raise their voices in prayer at the kotel without disturbance. The problem is that this group deliberately violates the norms of a sacred space by taking on practices traditionally reserved for men. If I went to a NOW convention wearing a right-to-life t-shirt, I couldn’t expect a friendly reaction.

A Modern Orthodox girl is asked if she wants to pray like a man.

She responds: "A Jew doesn’t do what he wants or feels like doing. The Torah says what’s forbidden or allowed, what we must do."

"If my husband says something, he knows what’s best for me because he studies Torah."

Q: "You don’t know what’s best for you?"

A: "No."

Rabbi Daniel Sperber at Bar Ilan says: "Nothing prohibits women from reading the Torah. Anyone may be one of the seven customarily called to the Torah. Namely, anyone may read from the Torah on Shabbat, the seven sections, including women and children."

This is not the normative Orthodox view.

Rabbi Samuel Rabinovitch, the rabbi of the Western Wall, says the normative Jewish position: "People can’t just do what is right in their own eyes."

The late Shinui politician Tommy Lapid weighs in on the side of the Women of the Wall as does Shulamit Aloni. So when the anti-religious are choosing the side of the Women of the Wall, it makes you wonder how normatively religious these Women of the Wall are?

Rabbi Andrew Sacks of the Conservative movement says the Orthodox have driven away "most Jews who want to pray differently."

If he means that most Jews in Israel want to pray differently from the Orthodox, then he’s saying something absurd. The people who the overwhelming amount of formal davening in Israel and around the world are the Orthodox. They are the ones who show up to shul every day to daven and learn Torah.

The Reform and Conservative movements in Israel have never gained much of a following in Israel.

Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef says, according to a newspaper: "Bury the Refom women wrapped in prayer shawls."

Anat Hoffman, a founder of Women of the Wall and a leader of Israel’s Reform movement, says: "We want to show other women and girls that women can read Torah."

Well, when Anat and company do that by the Wall, the other women beat them up. It doesn’t seem they wanted to be educated in modern ways.

Anat: "There is no reason that this group, observing Jewish law, can’t be in the women’s section at the Kotel."

Well, few Orthodox rabbis would say this group’s aims are in line with Jewish law, which mandates separate roles for men and women.

Rabbi Samuel Rabinovitch: "It is inconceivable that everyone should do as they see fit."

Haviva Ner-David is throughout this documentary. She’s presented as "Dr. Haviva Ner-David, Post-denominational Rabbi, Women of the Wall, Orthodox."

Here’s Steven I. Weiss’s interaction with her from May 2006:

Haviva Ner-David Thinks She Got Semicha

I got a voicemail from R’ Aryeh Strikovsky this week wanting to follow-up on our conversation last week about Haviva Ner-David’s certification [1,2]. Maybe he’ll have something vastly different to say this time around, but it was pretty surprising to receive this letter from Ner-David this morning:

Subject: Thanks a lot!!!
Steve, I don’t know what your agenda is, but I smell something fishy. Why did you want to prove on your blog that what I got from Rav Aryeh Strikovsky is not smicha? You asked me to forward you the smicha document, and yet, you did not put it in on your blog, at least not that I could see. Is that because it would show that it is indeed smicha? What are you trying to prove? Are you some right-wing reactionary? Do you have something against the idea of women rabbis? I’m trying to understand what makes you tick. I am not sure what Rabbi Strikovsky actually told you, but I am sure you must have misquoted him or misunderstood him. Either that, or you scared him away from saying the truth. He signed the document I sent you. His only reservation was about giving me the title of Rav because he felt the Orthodox world was not ready for that yet. But the more people like you hound him, the more he will feel threatened and scared and reluctant to admit the truth.
So what is your agenda exactly? Why didn’t you include the document or at least quote from it?
I know I learned one thing from this, which his not to trust people who pose as reporters, I should have checked your credentials before being helpful.
I try to live by the ideal of dan lekaf zechut, but it is getting harder and harder these days.
Haviva Ner-David

My response:

Haviva -
I did post the document, and I quoted R’ Strikovsky precisely on what he told me — and it was he who called me, gave me the quotes, and ended the conversation; I’m not being selective. He did leave a message on my answering machine asking to do some follow-up, which I will do.
I have no agenda as to whether or not you’ve been given semicha; I don’t know you and don’t know much about you (though your letter certainly reveals a tendency toward paranoia, overstatement and hyperactivity). I was simply seeking the truth, and the quotes I got from Strikovsky are not only real and complete — they echo his statements to the Jerusalem Post that what he gave you was not semicha. Indeed, I find it pretty curious that you’d be so angry at what the rabbi said; this would seem to indicate the two of you are not exactly on the same page.
I certainly did not “hound him.” I left a message for him, he called me back, and I quoted him on what he said. It’s not my job to put your words in his mouth, just to quote him accurately.
As to my credentials, I don’t know what you checked up on, but here’s my standard bio:

Steven I. Weiss is an award-winning religion journalist in New York City who has written for such publications as New York Magazine, the Wall Street Journal, and Radar. He is currently the New York correspondent for the London Jewish Chronicle, and is a former staff writer at the Forward.

keep it good,
Steven I. Weiss

Haviva says about the Women of the Wall: "It is in accordance with Jewish law."

"We have to be confident that what we’re doing is for the sake of Heaven, even if it is a bit new and revolutionary."

People who are confident that what they are doing is for the sake of Heaven don’t need to tell themselves to be confident that what they’re doing is for the sake of Heaven.

I was struck that one of the opponents of the Women of the Wall has a hyphenated last name, "Shira Leibowitz-Schmidt."

She tries to take the Torah scroll from the Women of the Wall when they’re davening and an amusing fight breaks out.

Jonathan Rosenblum writes Feb. 9, 2005:

Mrs. Shira Leibowitz Schmidt heard about the planned demonstrations on the Monday night English-language news. Unlike most Torah Jews, who have long since learned to filter out such news items or convinced themselves that they are helpless, Mrs. Schmidt has become something of a one-woman truth squad.

When she hears or reads such a news item, she starts with the assumption that something has been misunderstood and does not rest until she gets to the bottom of the issue. So when the story of Rabbi Abergil’s psak broke, the first thing she did was to call Rabbi Abergil, whom she did not know. He told her that no one from the press or Machon Hoda’a had ever contacted him, and that he was very disturbed about the way his words were being distorted and misquoted. He faxed Mrs. Schmidt his psak.

Next Mrs. Schmidt contacted the Maariv reporter. He admitted to her that he had not contacted Rabbi Abergil. Worse, he had never even seen Rabbi Abergil’s actual psak, but had only learned of it from an informant. The only thing he could offer in his defense was that Rabbi Abergil’s failure to respond after the story was already published proved that it was accurate.

After that, Mrs. Schmidt contacted the op-ed editor of the Jerusalem Post and offered to write a piece placing the entire hullabaloo in perspective. Her lengthy response was prominently featured in the paper’s Friday magazine.

Even then, Mrs. Schmidt did not rest content. She proceeded to track down every news outlet that had carried the story of Rabbi Abergil’s psak and the subsequent demonstrations to inform them of the inaccuracies and politely suggest that an apology to Rabbi Abergil was in order.

All in all, Mrs. Schmidt provides a remarkable example of how much each of us could do if we only set our minds to it and did not leave the task for others.

If similar news items come to your attention, please contact

Shira Leibowitz-Schmidt responds to a different item by Jonathan Rosenblum: "Sometimes, Jonathan….
…the situation is vice versa- people from the national religious (knitted kippa) stream “take the rap” for something that characterizes the haredim. A group of knitted-kippa wearing yeshiva boys from a hesder yeshiva where the boys alternate periods of study and army service went on Israel’s Memorial Day to fallen soldiers to say Psalms in an army cemetery. To honor the fallen they donned white dress shirts. While they were there I saw a woman (from her dress probably not observant) go over to them and lambaste them for not serving in the army, mistakenly identifying them as yeshiva students with deferments. They tried to gently explain that they do serve in the army. But in her rage she couldn’t listen and shouted, “I bet your rabbis tell you not to serve” “why don’t you at least guard kindergartens” etc. (Eventually her husband, who did realize they were yeshiva-student-soldiers-dressed-in-white-shirts calmed her down.) After witnessing this I understood why many from the national-religious sector are particularly vehement against deferred yeshiva students. The non-haredi yeshiva students are often grouped along with haredim in the mind of the public, just as in Jonathan’s case (of the spitting) the haredim may have been grouped along with non-haredi yeshiva students."

Here is an online bio of Shira: "Shira Leibowitz Schmidt was raised in an assimilated Jewish home in New York, and became observant while studying at Stanford University in California. In June 1967 she told her engineering school professor she would miss the final exam because she was going to Israel to volunteer during the Six Day War. "That’s the most original excuse I have ever been offered," he responded. She arrived during the war and stayed, receiving her BSc in absentia. She subsequently met and married the late Elhanan Leibowitz, and they raised their six children in Beersheba. Shira acquired a Masters in Urban & Regional Planning from the Technion, and an MSc in Civil Engineering from University of Waterloo. She remarried Dr. Baruch Schmidt, and they live in Netanya where she currently works as a translator and writer, and does volunteer work for the Shas Ha’maayan Torah day schools."

Shira has co-authored a couple of books on Judaism and science.

Here’s another online bio of this woman: "Shira Leibowitz Schmidt has six children and eight grandchildren … so far. She is a lapsed engineer and co-authored Old Wine, New Flasks: Reflections on Science and Jewish Tradition (New York, 1997) with Nobel chemist Roald Hoffmann. She is currently affiliated with the Haredi College in Jerusalem and writes polemical articles on controversial issues for The Jerusalem Post."

Danielle Bertsin of WOW says about her critics: "How are they so sure that their way is the right way?"

Well, Danielle seems pretty sure her way is the right way.

The documentary ends: "The Women of the Wall continue their struggle to give women’s prayer a voice."

Director Yael Katzir is Dan Katzir’s mom.

Filmmaking is in his genes."


Rahel Jaskow writes March 23, 2007:

This morning I went to the DocAviv International Documentary Film Festival in Tel Aviv with other members of Women of the Wall to see Praying in Her Own Voice (Hebrew title: Kol be-isha tefilla), a film about our group and its legal struggle that was made by history professor and filmmaker Yael Katzir. I came out extremely moved, and wonderful to relate, I wasn’t the only one by far. It seems that the entire audience—which filled the largest auditorium at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque almost to capacity—was, too.

Yael, who spent four years making this film, put her heart and soul into it. Most important, she understood us. She got us: who we are, what we’re about (and, just as important, what we’re not about), what we want and why it is important to Israeli society and to Judaism as a whole. Thanks to her film, Israelis now understand that for the first time… and if we can judge by the audience’s reaction—prolonged, loud applause at the end of the film and the heartfelt comments they made to us after we left the theater—they get it, too.

People have already asked me where they can buy Praying in Her Own Voice on DVD, and I hope that soon I will be able to tell them. I recommend it highly: not because I am involved in Women of the Wall or because I appear in the film (a little), but rather because in my opinion it shows who we are, truly and simply, and why our struggle for the equal right of Jewish women’s prayer groups to worship according to their custom at the Western Wall has implications that go far beyond ourselves.

On July 28 2008 Luke Ford also decided to interview the director Yael Katzir. Here's the interview:

July 28, 2008
An Interview With Yael Katzir, Director Of ‘Praying In Her Own Voice’

1. Why did I choose to make the film

For many years I am dealing with topics that concern womens’ role in our society.
In 2000 I did a documentary on the role of women in the army - the sterotype Macho club.
To this film I came by chance when I dicovered a group of Jewish- Israeli women praying in the old city of Jerusalem in the ruins of a crusader church from the 13th Century.
It was so bizare that I decided to follow them. I started research and then started to film. I followed them for four years but the movie covers only two years.
I chose to make the film because I felt an urge almost an irresistable impulse to become the mouthpiece of this group in their struggle to have a voice and the right to read, the freedom to have knowledge. I am a secular jew, and yet I think that every citizen have the right to pray in his own voice and manner, even though I don’t pray at all. The dictatorship of the ultra orthodox in Israel is a threat to freedom. The fact that women are treated as second class citizens, this is what compelled me to do the film.

2. Did I have a point of view - and did it change over time?

I have a liberal democratic POV. Namely I believe in human rights and freedom of expression in every domain of life including religion.
My point of view did not change much but my viewing of reality received a twist of sadness as I shared with women of the wall the fact that they were defeated in the supreme court. I felt that this fight must go on as women are 50% of the population.

3. Differences in reaction in Israel and US

In Israel, secular people ar shocked. They didn’t know how violent women can become to women.
The TV chanels did accept the film as it has a powerful criticism of what is going on in the wailing wall.
In America the issue is exteremly hot as most of the Jews belong to more liberal comunities and they don’t want to be excluded like the women of the wall from the right to pray at the Kotel.

4.My obstacles

I had a number of obstacles:
1. My husband didn’t think that this is an important topic
2. I didn’t get money from the Israeli film funds
3. Shooting was tough as there were many occasions when we were violently attacked by the hate, screamings and fists of the ultra-Orthodox women.
4. The reactions to the movie that most surprise me were: those of young people in India. They understood and Identified with the women whose voice is repressed and their need to read from the Torah and have joy in their worship are rejected by man.
I believe that in 2008 it is impossible to accept women as doctors, attorneys, judges, politicians, and have the same women banned to sit at the back of the bus. This is a disgrace to the future of Judaism. Women were present when Moses gave the Torah and they should be together with men to continue to be the carriers of it.


Dear Luke,

I probably was too tired when I have written to you last night.

If this is OK allow me please to add a few points which I failed to include.

The passage or journey that I went through was rather an eye opener.

I did the film for the Israeli public and as a protest against the way women are treated. But in the course of doing the film I realized that there is also another issue and that is the question of who is a Jew and what is Judaism in modern times. In the famous debate about identity what are we in Israel — Jewish first or Israeli first? My answer and unquestioned attitude was that I am a Jew first and an Israeli second. (My husband is Israeli first.)

When I did the film I felt that my long given answer to the question is not satisfactory. On the contrary, the Ultra Orthodox people curse me together with the women of the wall as being a goy or even worse, a person ruining Judaism.
So the film has created for me an opportunity to restructre my personal identity and deepen my conception of what is Judaism - or what it ought to be in the 21st century.

Yes I believe in the unity of the Jewish people. This is the one and only code word for survival (Kol Israel Arevim ze laze = all Israel are responsible each one for the other). In today’s world there must be space for all Jews and for a diversity of religious practice. Reading of the Torah depends on interpretations and traditions and as much as the Jews were dispersed among the nations and collected various traditions so it should be accepted that more than one custom will prevail.

What happened in the course of the making of the film is that I realized that the film is not only for Israelis but also for the Diaspora Jews if we want to remain one people. My son Dan and Ravit suggested that I open the film and adjust it to the American Jewry and I did it (with all the resulting extra labor and cost that it required).

I hope that the screening of the film with the right echo here in the US will open the doors and more important the hearts of people in Israel to understand that there is more than one road to the gates of heaven. Moreover no one should forget the women were also present at Mount Sinai when the whole people of Israel was given the task to carry the Torah…

At the end of this journey I find myself not one of the Women of the Wall but an more ardent jew who wants to read his Torah and sing and pray to good with enthusiam although I am a woman!

I also must add that without the encouragement of my students, some of whom observers, I could have never brought the film to the finish line.


Do you feel any irony that you have become so passionate over these religious questions when you are not religious?

Do not the ultra-Orthodox have the right to control the Wall as they are the ones who daven the most and study the most Torah and observe Torah the most keenly?

Was there any proponent of the traditional perspective that you felt much sympathy for?

Yael responds:

Dear Luke,
The kotel belongs to all the jewish people and not to one group.
Even in the days of the 2ed temple the jews were not a solid state unit, and the temple was shared by all.
So I think that all the jews especially the majority of them should not be excluded. the ultra orthodox are a minority, and they should be tolerant to other jews. when Hitler sent people to the Gas chambers he didn’t ask them which synagogue they went to and many of those burt were not going to schule at all.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Jewish SF WEEKLY : PRAYING IN HER OWN VOICE Film review at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival.

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Jew vs. Jew: Documentaries focus on two Jerusalem standoffs

by michael fox

There are few things more disturbing than Jews attacking Jews. After all, we have plenty of enemies without fighting each other.

In “Jerusalem is Proud to Present,” a lesbian and gay organization’s 2006 plans to host the annual international World Pride celebration in the capital, culminating with a parade, run into a storm of opposition and enmity fanned by Orthodox rabbis and city council members.

“Praying in Her Own Voice,” another documentary in the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, catalogs the efforts of a small group of Orthodox women to don tallits and read the Torah at the Western Wall. They encounter all kinds of resistance, but the most vociferous and venomous interference, shockingly, comes from other Orthodox women.

Neither film is a great work of art, but each contains passages that convey with nerve-wracking immediacy the level of passion and intimidation that Orthodox Jews of the Holy City can muster.

Although both epic confrontations unfold in Jerusalem, the movies would seem to have their greatest impact in the diaspora. After all, it’s inconceivable that either film will influence the opinion of a viewer already in one camp or the other. A religious person with a strict traditionalist interpretation of Torah will not be swayed by civil rights arguments, nor will a liberal, secular individual be persuaded by halachic interpretations.

But American Jews, especially those who’ve heard anecdotes and rumors about religious-secular conflict in Israel but haven’t seen it firsthand, will find both documentaries profoundly unsettling.

It should be noted that the filmmakers intend to inspire a portion of their audiences through the words and deeds of the courageous, committed activists they put on camera. They succeed, but any feeling of celebration is decidedly bittersweet.

“Jerusalem is Proud to Present,” co-presented with Congregation Sha’ar Zahav in San Francisco, starts out as an upbeat lark, with Israeli gays and lesbians handing out postcards on the streets of Manhattan touting next year’s bash in Jerusalem. But the tone darkens with the introduction of Adam Russo, a young man who was stabbed while marching in the ’05 parade, and gay council member Sa’ar Netanel, who is mocked and ignored in open session.

Filmmaker Nitzan Gilady (“In Satmar Custody”) also gained access to American-born, media-savvy Rabbi Yehuda Levin and religious city councilwoman Mina Fenton, giving the film a vestige of balance. But the death threats and violence originate with only one side.

As an organizer of the pride events remarks while perusing a crude, anonymous hate flyer, “Since when do religious people know how to make Molotov cocktails?”

The tension ratchets as the day of the parade approaches, and one frets for Israel’s soul. Only a miracle, or a war with Hezbollah, can prevent an ugly scene.

“Praying in Her Own Voice,” co-presented by Temple Sinai of Oakland and the San Francisco chapter of Hadassah, introduces us to Orthodox women who want nothing more than to pray to God on an equal basis with men. That means reading the Torah at the Western Wall, an act that goes against the beliefs and teachings of the male Orthodox establishment.

Director Yael Katzir at times relies a bit too heavily on interviews, cutting from one talking head to the next (including an array of Los Angeles women rabbis who are supportive of the Women of the Wall but not directly involved).

She does a good job, though, of illuminating the influence of the Orthodox on the government. From the handling of the case in the Supreme Court to the reaction of policemen in the women’s section of the wall, one sees that the Orthodox are the 800-pound gorilla in Israel’s parlor.

And they are not at all adverse to breaking some of the family china if they don’t get their way.

“Jerusalem is Proud to Present” screens

7 p.m. Tuesday, July 29 at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco, 4:30 p.m. Aug. 5 at the Roda Theatre at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre and 8:45 p.m. Aug. 6 at CineArts @ Palo Alto Square.

“Praying in Her Own Voice” screens with the short “Four Questions For a Rabbi” at 3:15 p.m. Thursday, July 31 at the Castro, 4:30 p.m. Aug. 2 at CineArts and 4:15 p.m. Aug. 3 at the Roda Theatre. Tickets: $10-$12. Information: