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:

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