Jewish and Israeli Film Festival Takes Roads and Rivers Less Travelled

The Mayerson JCC Jewish and Israeli Film Festival featured a selection of films via streaming platforms and in-person. A pair of these films, Paddling for Life and The Holy Closet, were documentaries that challenged our paradigms and inspired hope. I watched both films, plus a discussion of The Holy Closet with the director, Moran Nakar, and producer, Avigail Sperber.

Paddling for Life, (18 mins), a film  by Judy Herbstein

When you picture a rowing crew, a group of women in their silver years is probably not the first image that comes to mind. The Pink Lionesses are cancer survivors determined to reclaim their lives through exercise and teamwork, paddling from the Kinneret down the Yarmouk River. They go through all of the stretches, exercises, and disciplines of any other crew and even have a drummer right out of Ben Hur.

Paddling helps cancer survivors by strengthening muscles to reduce swelling from lymph gland removal. It also offers emotional support as survivors help each other through treatments and surgeries.

Who could not admire the strength and resilience of these women? And yet, they do this without a shekel from the Ministry of Health or of Sports. Rather, each participant chips in what she can. As this documentary makes the rounds, that may change.

The Holy Closet (59 mins) by Moran Nakar

Orthodox Judaism is highly structured around gender roles. Sanctuaries are divided between men’s sides and women’s sides. Only men count for a minyan and become rabbis. 

What is a religious person to do when they do not fit the mold prescribed for sexuality and gender? Do they suppress their true desires, or do they walk away from the only faith, family, and community they have ever known? 

Or is there a third option?

The Holy Closet profiles seven couples in Israel who identify as both religiously observant and LGBTQ. They get married, have children, and raise families with all of the Jewish props and rituals like a chuppah and a bris (circumcision). They are pioneering roads less traveled in the hope of showing others the way. It should be noted that while the State of Israel does not recognize same-sex marriages performed in Israel, they do recognize those performed abroad. 

The film discussion was moderated by Elliot Draznin, co-founder and leader of Elech, Cincinnati’s Queer Minyan, and featured Director Moran Nakar and Producer Avigail Sperber. For Sperber and Nakar, The Holy Closet was the movie they wished they could have seen growing up. Sperber imagined a child secretly watching this movie under their blanket with the sound turned off, finally feeling validated in who they are.

Sperber grew up in an orthodox community in Jerusalem where the words “gay” and “lesbian” were not spoken. Discovering the medium of cinema changed her world. She found she could express herself beyond the restrictive, insular society she was raised in. 

Nakar was raised in an all girls’ school in the West Bank. She had no role models because she didn’t see herself as a lesbian represented anywhere. When Jerusalem held its first Pride & Tolerance Parade, the rabbi of the school called an assembly to rail against it. One girl asked if they should join the counter-protest, but the rabbi forbade it, saying that doing so would be like confronting a person covered in feces whose filth might rub off on them. Nakar related this as the moment when something inside her broke, and she had to make a change, not only in her own life but in Israeli society. The Holy Closet is part of that ongoing effort.

It’s sweet to see lovers holding hands. For gay couples, however, this simple act demands caution and constantly assessing their safety. On their first date, Omri and Danny, both religious students, navigate this reality amidst their initial awkwardness and shyness.

Omri says, “It’s always awkward at first with religious guys. The first ten-second test is to see how messed up he is.” They both share their coming-out stories. Danny’s father responded with silence during the car ride home, which Danny described as the most painful twenty minutes of his life. When Omri came out, his rabbi told him to “burn his evil inclination on the altar.” 

As they walk hand-in-hand, they get some funny looks. It’s one thing to be a cute couple. It’s another thing to be a gay couple. But a cute gay couple wearing kippot and tzitzit…. Well, that’s just not something you see every day, even in Israel. Yet, Danny doesn’t want to be “a walking political statement.” He just wants to hold hands with his boyfriend without drawing stares. Maybe one day, he will.

Originally meant as a web series, each profile is its own self-contained walnut, showing a different aspect of being both orthodox and LGBTQ in Israel. We join them as they plan their weddings, bake challah together, prepare for a baby son’s bris, celebrate a birthday, and search for the chametz. They all live the normal routines and rituals of Jewish life, and yet all have this added layer of complication to deal with.

As people raised in religious homes, they all imagined their lives quite differently. They were expected to marry the opposite sex and produce multiple children. Some were to live in remote settlements, isolated from everyone but their own insular worlds, but that’s not how things worked out.

For example, Eliq and Adam are in a mixed marriage. Eliq is religious, and Adam is secular. As they prepare the house for Passover, part of their ritual is haggling over which rules to follow. It took Eliq’s grandmother some time to accept who he is. “Why do you have to find a man?” she asked. He answered, “If I don’t, I’ll never find love.” That’s when she realized her desire for her grandson’s happiness was more significant than her prejudice.

Some family members are more supportive than others. When Bin-Nun married his husband, Aviel, his mother’s greatest disappointment was not that her son was marrying a man. What broke her heart was the number of family members who refused to attend. On the other hand, Netta feels very conflicted about her sister Reut’s lesbian marriage. Is this really the life that G✡d wants Reut to live? One look into the faces of their happy and healthy children tells us the answer.

The most unusual profile was Liraz. What looks like a beer belly on him is actually a gestating baby. Yet, he insists on being treated as a man with masculine verbs. (Hebrew conjugates verbs differently for males and females.) Liraz knows others look askance at his choices, but he says, “At the end of the day, I’m the one living this life, and I have to be happy.” 

I know of one other documentary on the subject of gay, orthodox Jews: Trembling Before God. In the 2001 film, family relations were strained at best and cut off at worst. In The Holy Closet, the subjects’ families were more loving and supportive, even if conflicted. In Trembling Before God, the question was can one’s faith and sexuality co-exist? In The Holy Closet it is how can one’s faith and sexuality walk hand-in-hand. That road is far less traveled, but at least the travelers know they do not walk it alone.