My father broke with the religion of his birth, Judaism, when he was 14. Three factors drove his apostasy, two practical, one philosophical. During my grandfather’s Austrian childhood, a rabbi boxed his ear for an infraction of one of a myriad of Hebrew School rules. My grandfather went out into the world at 14 to serve a tailor’s apprenticeship half deaf. My father’s own introduction to the world of work at the same age, was almost as traumatic. The grocer he worked for after school ordered him to stick “Kosher for Passover” labels on shelf stock that was decidedly not kosher for Passover or any other occasion. As my pop sat alongside his friend Joe Prizy (“Polish Joe,” to distinguish him from New York Lower East Side friends, “Ninth Street Joe and Spanish Joe), on a curb in front of the tenement where my father lived, Joe declared, “I’m done with religion. Eight years in Catholic School, and I don’t believe a word of it!” My father was in awe of Joe’s Advanced Math acuity (Prizy later became CEO of Consolidated Edison), and thought, “Joe is right. Religion is a pile of horse feathers,” a point of view he maintained for the rest of his life. He built a wall of invective that separated me from religion and obscurantism, and counseled me never to marry or have children. He said he had seen too many Jewish wives who worked their fingers to the bone, while their husbands sat in solitude, turning the pages of the Torah (or some other tome) with smooth, white, unsullied hands. Jack “Juaco” Singer saw the nuclear family as tantamount to slavery and degradation for women.
Some might complain that I viewed “The Women’s Balcony” with a jaundiced eye that predisposed me to enjoying it. Admittedly, I was primed from birth to fall into line behind the small army of Lysistrata-knockoff women, who, in this Israeli-made film, throw a monkey wrench into the works reluctantly built by their spouses. Led by Etti (Evelin Hagoel), they want to rebuild a temple so that restores them to their rightful place, if a “rightful place” can exist for women in a sex-segregated Jerusalem synagogue! A handsome young Rabbi David (Aviv Alush) is bolstered by a minyan of acolytes. He carries out a one-man campaign, using a war of words excerpted from chapter and verse, to subordinate the women’s demand for an equality he claims to admire, to an exalted place for the synagogue’s scroll. The adversaries comprise a small community limned by the parochial, patriarchal and infantilizing ties that bind them. As the women do their best to organize a victory despite fissures in their ranks, they discover universal truths that supersede the religion’s omnipresence. Their vibrant determination finds expression in a silent sequence shot from above, as each leaves a building one at a time, opening a different-colored umbrella in the rain, resolute. In this battle, they are not only the bright spot in a dreary backdrop, they are the collective Goliath going up against a self-righteous, if disingenuous David.
Yigal Naor, as Etti’s avuncular husband, who places a greater premium on the humanistic than the ritualistic, anchors the story. He adds a quotient of reason to the Chelm-like madness that overtakes the little community, as rote-learned rules from the past threaten to steal the women’s future. This is a comic take on a dilemma facing a monoculture hoist on its own petard. “The Women’s Balcony” doesn’t probe as deeply into the conundrum of the patriarchy, as does the Iranian film, “The Separation.” It does succeed in lifting its protagonists out of their discomfort zone long enough to reconsider the merits of pasting labels where they don’t belong in the name of traditions that might be better off tagged “Do Not Resuscitate.”