New Israeli-Made Documentary Takes Us to the “Fringes” of Jewish life

by Brian on December 19, 2012

in Jewish Holidays and Culture,Reviews

The most remarkable thing about Paula Weiman-Kelman’s new documentary, “Fringes,” is how unremarkable it is.

I don’t mean that in a bad way. Rather, the Jerusalem-based filmmaker’s latest movie, which opened to a sold-out theater at the Jerusalem Cinemateque’s Jewish Film Festival last week, presents the lives of three communities on the “fringes” of Jewish life in a way that makes them seem like they’re your next door neighbors; folks who don’t seem as far out as they might to those who hadn’t been introduced through Weiman-Kelman’s sensitive directorial hand.

The 70-minute documentary focuses on two couples and one larger community: Leibish and Dena, the founders of the open haredi Ghetto Shul which also doubles as a rock club and performance space in Montreal; Pablo and Esther, Jewish organic farmers plowing away at their Stoney Lonesome Farm in Virginia; and the first cohort of the Secular Yeshiva in Jerusalem.

If you met any of these three groups outside the lens of the film, you might marvel at how they seemingly cope so well doing the difficult dance between tradition and a much wider world perspective on sex, lettuce and rock and roll.

How does Leibish with his black beard, payot and ultra-Orthodox garb, also run a music club with men and women mingling freely? How can Pablo and Esther live a satisfying traditional Jewish life so many miles from the nearest shul, and when they don’t sell their produce on Shabbat (the main market day for local organic farms)? And what the heck is a secular yeshiva, anyway, especially one whose study hall is populated with stacks of thick Talmuds and bareheaded and tank topped co-ed yeshiva bochers?

Weiman-Kelman’s gift is to introduce us in these unique individuals’ lives, so that they seem as much a part of the mosaic of modern Jewish life as the “usual” polarized exchanges that make the headlines. Indeed, when women wearing tallitot at the Western Wall are being hauled into jail, Weiman-Kelman insists on showing us that there are vibrant Jewish communities where pluralism and tolerance are the norm.

Weiman-Kelman was quoted in Haaretz prior to the film’s opening. “I think that nowadays, especially in Jerusalem, there’s a tendency to see divisions and not to see unity,” she said. “I hope people walk away from my film with an openness to enrich their lives with connections to other people.”

My take on “Fringes” may not be entirely objective, however. I’m already pretty immersed in these types of fringe communities in my own life. Our daughter studied at a year-long mechina (a pre-army program recognized by the military) that mixed men and women, religious and non religious, much like the Secular Yeshiva. We regularly shop at the organic food store, compost our garbage, and for a while bought from a local community farm like Pablo and Esther’s.  And at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, just down the street from us, it’s not at all unusual to see a black bearded rabbi teaching a co-ed group including women wearing kippot of their own.

So what might be eye opening or even shocking for the average Israeli was not so out of the ordinary for me.  Nor was it, I suspect, for many of the familiar faces attending the Cinemateque on opening night.

That shouldn’t detract from your interest. Wherever you’re coming from, if Weiman-Kelman’s movie is playing in a theater near you (maybe at your next Jewish Film Festival), you certainly won’t be on the fringes if you rush out and buy a ticket.

More information from the distributor: Ruth Films.

I reviewed “Fringes” yesterday on Israelity.

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