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Matchmaking minus schmaltz

11 July 2014

Stephen Brown enjoys a film that avoids Jewish stereotypes


THE Queen of the Fairies in Gilbert and Sullivan's Iolanthe curses the peers of the realm, telling them that Strephon, half man, half fairy, will enter Parliament and have the power to pass any Bill he wishes, and "prick that annual blister, Marriage with deceased wife's sister".

This legal impediment, reflected in the Church of England's Table of Kindred and Affinity, persisted until 1907. While it stemmed from Leviticus 18's prohibition of such unions, that doesn't seem to pose a problem among the Haredi Jews in the Israeli film Fill the Void (Cert. U), now available on DVD (Artificial Eye). Instead, the film concentrates on the delicate intricacies of arranged marriages.

The setting in which we view these resolutely Orthodox Jews is Tel Aviv. We become acquainted with them through a rabbi's daughter, Shira (Hadas Yaron), now 18, and looking, with her mother, for a prospective husband. They think they have spotted one in a supermarket, and, with the help of a marriage broker, enter into pursuit.

Meanwhile, after celebrating the feast of Purim, Shira's older sister (coincidentally bearing the same name as Esther, from whom this ceremony is derived) dies in childbirth. We may think that Shira is now spoiled for choice in regard to a husband. Is it to be her widowed brother-in-law, whom the Haredi community might consider has a moral responsibility to marry his late wife's sister, or does she continue with the object of her affections, arrangements to wed having already been set in motion?

In fact, the director Rama Burshtein, who joined the Haredi sect in only her mid-twenties, offers a far subtler scenario than that. Instead of sticking with one of those rom-com eternal triangles, we are also treated to an understanding of a gentle, devout people. In the order of things, marriages may be arranged among Haredis, but that is in distinction from their being forced. As a matter of duty, care, and love, rabbinic and parental preferences may be made clear, but, ultimately, marital decisions rest with the young women.

The film quietly goes about illustrating how religious belief informs behaviour among the Haredis. The rabbis have a calming influence on proceedings, not lording it over their people, but discreetly assisting them, whether by relieving the impoverished or sorting out someone's faulty oven. In this, they reflect the nature of the God in whom they believe, one who encourages rather than condemns and punishes.

We see this most clearly in Shira's spiritual relationship. She feels able to walk and talk with God, sharing her concerns and feelings openly. A quote from one of the rabbis sums this up: "Blessed be he who says one word of truth to the Almighty."

We are a long cry in Fill the Void from the usual depiction of Jews, even by Jewish filmmakers. In place of loud, argumentative stereotypes (not an "Oy vey!" is to be heard), we are given a portrait of sense and sensibility influenced by a faith that, though different from Christianity, nevertheless is one to admire. And without schmaltz.

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