March 9, 2000
A Jaundiced Lens
'Kadosh' presents a flawed, amateurish view of the haredi community
An edgy moodiness pervades "Kadosh," Israeli filmmaker Amos Gitai's jaundiced examination of haredi Jerusalem women oppressed by religious extremism. There is little nuance in this uneven film or in Gitai's intentions: to expose the fanaticism of the haredi community and the misogyny inherent in their beliefs. There are, however, inaccuracies and misinformation.
The film's title, Hebrew for sacred, is heavily ironic. In the opening scene Meir, a Torah scholar, recites numerous blessings to invest his every act with the sacred and thanks God for not having made him a woman. What follows is image after jarring image of the denigration haredi men inflict on their wives and daughters in the name of divine law.
But are the images valid?
Art attempts to underscore message. Though shot in color, the film is remarkably colorless, much like, one is led to assume, the drab lives of the haredi community. The music grates. Jangling, whiningly insistent chords with traces of shtetl instrumentation foreshadow catastrophe. The paucity and starkness of the locations -- the boxlike synagogue; the cramped, dark bedrooms; the narrow, curved streets -- suggest the meanness of a life hemmed in by restrictions. There is no indulgence here, no beautiful furnishings or objects unless they are sacramental, and rows and rows of holy texts.
Against this background Gitai presents the usual haredi stereotypes: the autocratic father intent on marrying off his resisting daughter (he is rabbi, too, and bully); the cowed wife (she runs the mikvah, the ritual bath); the boorish suitor who substitutes zealousness for intellect; and not one, but two beautiful daughters, Rivka and Malka. Each is trapped by her traditional role and prevented from achieving happiness and self-fulfillment.
After ten years of a childless marriage, Rivka and Meir, still in love, share tender looks and long, brooding silences but are not intimate. Sex for mere pleasure, Meir informs her, is forbidden. Rivka is overwhelmed by the shame of her barrenness. Her mother blames her. Her father commands Meir to obey the law and take another wife. A childless marriage is pointless; a barren woman, useless. When Meir argues that Abraham did not abandon Sara, the father-in-law counters that children are the haredis' weapon to vanquish the non-religious.
Malka, too, pays a heavy price. In love with an ex-haredi-turned-pop-singer, she flirts with rebellion but obeys her father and marries Yossef. The wedding is a rushed, joyless event. Even the mother is grim: she knows the wedding canopy promises no happiness. Later the bride weeps as she lops off her long hair (her sister's hair remains inexplicably unshorn). She lies stoically on the Spartan marital bed and screams when Yosef, who prefaces his advances with prayers, quickly and brutally consummates their vows. This is a rape, not a marriage, and it sets the stage for the beating Yossef inflicts when he suspects Malka of infidelity.
Meir is spineless, not man enough to defy his father-in-law (perhaps not man enough to father a child, a doctor suggests to Rivka). He takes another wife, and his mother-in-law, bending to her husband's will, must supervise the spiritual cleansing of the woman who will take her banished daughter's place. Rivka retreats into an island of despair and silence. Relief, Gitai ultimately shows, is possible only through escape of one form or another.
These disturbing images of the helplessness of women, their subservience, and victimization, are potentially powerful, but their power is diminished by the film's flaws. As art, the movie is bogged down by a jagged, amateurish quality and stretches of tedious silence, by puzzling gaps in the narrative, unanswered questions, and an improbably melodramatic ending. As social commentary it is suspect and filled with inaccuracies. Just as the rooms in the film are deliberately narrow, so is the lens through which Gitai tells his story. That is my problem with "Kadosh."
The wedding night scene is a distorted caricature. Torah law forbids forced sex or abuse; it encourages loving intimacy and obligates a husband to pleasure his wife, not only for procreation. A "brilliant scholar" like Meir would know this. And while a couple may divorce after 10 years of childlessness, this is never done -- certainly not at the directive of a father-in-law/rabbi.
The daily prayer men recite for not being created female is not intended to be sexist. It signifies man's gratitude for being obligated to perform concrete acts of observance (mitzvot), from which women, whom the Torah considers spiritually superior, are exempt.
The mikvah scenes depict preparatory ritual as primitive and humiliating; the mother grills her barren daughter with patronizing, accusatory questions and shoves her head beneath the water. At my mikvah there is dignity, privacy and the gift of spiritual renewal.
The lives of Gitai's haredis, uniformly and unrelentingly oppressive, strain credibility. Are there no loving, compassionate fathers? No noble husbands? No fulfilled wives? No men or women rejoicing in religious observance? Are we to believe that haredi men don't seek infertility treatment? (They do.) That domestic violence is sanctioned? (It is not.) That all haredi men regard women as objects, as baby machines? That haredi couples procreate to outnumber the secular population?
Chassidic, fervently Orthodox, and Modern Orthodox young men are taught, along with the laws of family purity, to treat their wives with love and dignity, with respect and gentleness. Sadly, some men fall short; some abuse their wives. But Gitai misinforms in suggesting that the pursuit of the sacred leads to and justifies this abuse.
There is nothing kadosh about the subjugation or abuse of women, but there is something abusive about "Kadosh."
Rochelle Krich is an award-winning Los Angeles mystery writer. Her most recent novel, "Dead Air," has just been published by Avon Books. Her Web site is www.rochellekrich.com