Ultra-Orthodox feminist!

INTERVIEW! Marlyn Vinig is Israel's first ultra-Orthodox film critic, and a self-proclaimed feminist. A guest of Berlin's Jewish Film Festival, she was on the four-member jury that awarded its top prize to Aalam-Warqe Davidian's "Fig Tree" on Tuesday

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Photo by Iryna Sylinnyk. Marlyn Vinig is Israel’s first ultra-Orthodox film critic.

For all those who may deem it controversial for JFBB to have invited an ultra-Orthodox Israeli to sit in this year’s all-women jury, meet Marlyn and you’ll rethink. Marlyn belongs to that type of people who effortlessly resist categories, and push boundaries. Not yet 40, the young (she looks uncannily young and girly) mother of seven and self professed feminist is an accomplished academic who made a name for herself with her groundbreaking research – and book – on Orthodox cinema. Marlyn also writes for the secular Saloona website, as Israel’s first and only ultra-Orthodox female film critic. In Israel her modest attire immediately gives her away as an Orthodox woman, ironically in Berlin she blends in – long black hair collected under a black beret, tight black sweater over a long, shapeless patterned skirt, she could pass for a regular hipster. What stands out though is her cheeky girly face that must have done well when she was still treading the stage before her conversion to the ultra-Orthodox Belz community. Here she says she enjoys the freedom of the unlabelled, and clearly relishes telling her startling story. That of an ultra religious woman who managed to combine creative fulfillment, motherhood and career like few secular feminists would dream to.

You’re a researcher, a lecturer, a film critic, you wrote books and a film script. How did you manage to accomplish so much on top of seven children?!

It was difficult because with all the pregnancies there was a time when I felt a little helpless. For the first five years of my marriage, I gave birth almost every year! My oldest is now 18 then 17, 16, 15… It made me a little crazy so after the fifth I felt I could go to the rabbi and request a break. Once a couple has at least two children of each gender, the rabbi generally permits you to have contraception, and he did, but I tried everything and somehow it didn’t work. So I thought, well, this must be God’s design for me, and I went along with it! Now my youngest daughter is eight and I can dedicate myself to my research about Orthodox cinema. This is my PhD topic and my passion right now. I already wrote a successful book Orthodox Cinema, about movies made by Orthodox women for Orthodox women. What started in Israel, is now all over the world, the UK, USA… It’s an amazing phenomenon that started some two decades ago and has grown to become the biggest cultural thing that shook the female Orthodox world in recent times. It all began in a girls’ classroom, when one teacher experimented by showing pictures with titles and filmed them. It turned into a cult. Girls were wild about it, and more female teachers started to show it. The films were about family, and everyday conflicts, the kind of drama young Orthodox girls experience in their lives, but could never share that way before. More women made more movies, they filmed theatre and then real feature films. These films spread like fire throughout the community – showed in schools, in basements, even in some synagogues. They got so successful. If you went to a screening you’d be in shock – the passion, the hunger, and it’s women of all ages, teenagers, grandmas, babies. They cry, scream, they shout, it’s just unbelievable!

How do you explain the success of those films among Orthodox women?

Orthodox women can’t go to the theater or cinema, they don’t have TV. If you have a computer at home it’s only for work – no internet, rabbis discovered how it led Orthodox people to connect to non-Orthodox culture, they were against it. So it was a very unique thing for women to have this window into the world of moving images and other women’s worlds. It was also unprecedented: Women were making their own films, without asking anyone. It was an amazing shift. And not only that, when men saw how successful they were they started making these films too under female names – Orthodox men having to hide under women’s names to release their movies – until then it was the opposite. In publishing for example women had to use male pen names to be able to publish their articles and books!

Doesn’t sound very kosher to me – were rabbis okay with that?

In the Orthodox world when something as big happens, the rabbi can give what we call the “silent agreement”, an unspoken blessing if you wish. They don’t publicly approve. But since it’s not forbidden, you can go ahead with it. They did, and within 20 years it’s turned into more and more films, and a whole lucrative business.

So the ultra religious female film market is a lucrative one? Who produces these films?

There’s no government subsidies for these Orthodox movies because it’s for women only, and it’s in a different language – in Yiddish and the cultural references are too specific; you don’t express eroticism the same way for example. So the women learned how to find private sponsors, rich people who invest in them. And it pays off! One Orthodox woman told me that she could buy her children three apartments with the proceeds of her film that was a big hit, and when you think it’s only the small Orthodox community and we don’t have real cinemas – all underground! But then, in normal Israeli cinemas, you pay say 40 shekels, but to watch these films women pay double. The movies come out four times a year, at our big holidays. And almost every woman in the community will go and watch them. The women who make them like Dina Perlstein are big stars in the community!

Would I, as a secular woman, be allowed to watch these films?

Yes, of course, it’s for women, but women only. The London Jewish Film Festival wanted to screen one Orthodox movie some years ago. The filmmaker agreed, but of course on the condition that the screening be women-only. They first agreed. But some men got very angry, and it turned into such a scandal that she took back her film!

You were born in Australia the daughter of liberal Jews, grew up in an open, free environment in Jerusalem, flirted with filmmaking and theatre among the Tel Aviv bohemia … what made you convert to the Ultra Orthodox world?

It’s a long story. And it is somehow a romantic love story (laughs). My husband and I attended the same liberal school in Jerusalem, the first so-called “democratic school”, that’s where we met and started dating. But he left for the US because he didn’t want to do his military service. I stayed because I always knew I wanted to write and I did my time as a journalist for the army paper. So we lost contact. But when I finished the army, he came to visit and we understood we’d missed and loved each other. It was very romantic. But then we started asking big philosophical questions about who we are, and why we are in this world, what it means to marry, in which direction to take our lives. I’d studied in Tel Aviv in a very liberal environment, I was writing, directed a play, my big love always was cinema, but I was confused and a little empty… and slowly we came to religion. We met people and rabbis and finally joined the community.

My mother respected my choice, but she still would sometimes ask me if I didn’t miss my old hair.

Wasn’t it scary for someone like you to join such a conservative community, especially as a woman?

Usually when one converts, they cut off with their past. Often when you ask new converts their age they’ll start counting from the day they were born into the community, I don’t. For me it meant a new step forward with my life, not a rebirth from day one. Of course I was afraid the rabbi was going to tell me to stop what I’ve been doing until now – but he just said one thing: “why not?” Then I understood that I wanted to study seriously. I made my three diplomas side by side and I really wanted to do my PhD in cinema, which wasn’t easy for me because I needed mentors and usually when an ultra-Orthodox woman wants to pursue university, they just think “Oh, she will be pregnant every year”. But there was that one German professor Carola Hilfrich who, when everyone was skeptic, supported me. I came to her and she said – I still remember her German accent! – “Marlyn, you threw a stone and left a seal. Few are the people who left their mark on the academic world. You’re one of them ”. She helped me get more mentors, pursue my doctoral studies.

How did your family react to your conversion into the ultra-Orthodox Belz community?

It was hard for them to understand. Especially my father who was very secular and always thought I’d become a big time TV journalist. Then, seeing me become modest and hiding my great nice hair… It was very hard for him. My mother respected my choice, but she still would sometimes ask me if I didn’t miss my old hair.

Do you miss your “great nice hair”?

Listen, if I didn’t feel complete with something I wouldn’t do it! Some friends decided to shave their head but as a convert it is tolerated that you keep your hair. So I decided to wear a hat instead. Only rarely a wig, for special occasion. Some new converts feel like they need to apologise for who they are, or what they were. I don’t. I stand for who I am and what I feel I need to do. For example, it was very important for me not only to take but also to give back to the community. My husband retired to study the Torah and I fought very hard to keep my family from poverty. I wanted my children to grow up well, it was important to me. I didn’t just want to be in the kitchen. So I worked very hard.

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Photo courtesy of Marlyn Vinig. Marlyn taught a popular seminar at the Orthodox university.

But aren’t Hasidic women supposed to remain within the four walls of their kitchen? Not to be their family’s breadwinner?

I felt I had more to say to the world. I had to fight for my special place. It’s very easy to feel guilty all the time. The first few years I joined, I wasn’t sure if I should apologise for not looking like the others, doing things differently – for example I was teaching a very popular seminar at the Orthodox university. But I decided to stay true to myself and little by little people started to respect that. And the Orthodox world has changed. Now you find more and more women in universities.

You made a free choice to live this life. Do you sometimes feel like you don’t give your children the same freedom bringing them up in the very secluded Yiddish-speaking world of the Belz community?

I believe this is the right way, that’s why I’m here. I also believe that through my own actions and life, I’m showing them how to use one’s potential. You don’t need to go outside in the secular world to fulfill it. My first son just got engaged. He chose a second-generation girl – her parents, like us, weren’t born in the Hasidic community. It was his choice. I want my children to do as they feel is right for them. They speak Yiddish, which is the international language for Orthodox Jews, so they can live in any country they want.

You make it sound all easy and wonderful but you got a lot of flak when you tried to run for municipal office on a secular list – you got threats, right?

Yes, it was about six years ago. I was asked to run for the Jerusalem city government on a secular ballot – they knew how involved in film I was and promised me I could get involved in the film commission. It was a great opportunity, so I said yes. I asked my rabbi. Getting a meeting was very hard, so I got a blessing from his wife. But suddenly it was all over the papers, and in the community some people got very upset. They believe a woman doesn’t need to be involved in politics, only men. It was really bad. I almost couldn’t get out of the house. Very, very scary. So after a couple of days I decided to step back. It was very hard because I couldn’t do what I believed in. But then, a few years later I managed to get involved in film commission anyway.

I had to prove something to the world, so I survived.

So how did you end up getting involved in the Israeli film world again?

When I became religious, I kind of lost touch with Israeli cinema. For 10 years I only saw Orthodox films, then because of my academic work, the Israeli film community invited me. They respected me and wanted to hear my opinion about films. And I started watching all these films again. At first I was shocked. I said to myself, I want to know what journalists write about these movies. I start to read reviews. Suddenly I discovered that all reviews look the same. Who wrote them? Privileged white men from Tel Aviv, very few women. And I asked myself, is this the only perspective on these movies?

So that’s when you decided to chime in and become a movie critic?

Yes, and at first my plan to be a movie critic sounded crazy, why would any medium let an Orthodox woman write about secular cinema? But I told myself, if I don’t get a platform, I’ll create my own. So I contacted other women I knew and I said let’s built up our own film platform. We don’t need men; we can have our own perspectives. So we started our own small website, a blog really. If you were a woman and you had an opinion, you could contribute. It was very exciting! And it became hugely popular. A few years later Saloona, a big website read by millions of people every day asked me if I want to write reviews for them. Now I’m one of the very few women who managed to hold out as a film critic in Israel. Most women don’t usually survive this business. It’s time consuming, and badly paid and if you have children it’s very difficult. But I had to prove something to the world, so I survived.

Do you think people read your reviews specifically because you’re a Hasidic woman, they’re curious?

I am the first Orthodox woman to do this job. No one believes that I’m doing that. People read my reviews specifically because I am Orthodox. Secular people don’t love Orthodox people, especially women, so it’s not always easy for me. It’s hard to prove that you are more than what they have in mind. There are people in the scene that respect me and that I respect, but many people don’t know how to accept me. I respect everyone, that’s how my parents taught me. When I was a child my dad would take me for long walks through the city, Jerusalem, and we’d visit an Ethiopian Christian priest. Very kind and open minded, my dad believed that all religions were in some way true, and that we don’t need to follow just one. He taught me to respect everyone, secular or religious.

As an ultra-Orthodox Jew from Israel, does your open-mindedness extend to Muslims… Palestinians?

Yes, of course, they are our neighbours, and we actually have a lot in common. I think Muslim women and Orthodox women share many values and suffer very similar prejudices form secular people. For example, a couple of months ago, I had to grab a cab, and I ran into the first car I saw: the driver happened to be an Arab and he was in shock. He told me that it is the first time in his life that a religious Jewish woman got into his taxi. Then we started to chat in Hebrew and we realised that our parents were neighbours and we’d played together as kids! It’s interesting how people in the West can be so surprised by stuff like that. Like the fact I can be religious and a feminist.

I think I am more liberal than these women who think they are liberal.

So do you identify as a feminist?

I’m a Jewish feminist, not a Western feminist. I believe that best thing I can do in this world is to fulfill my potential. It’s my mind, my desires and hopes, but it’s also my biological body, how God created me. So to be complete I feel I need to have children. This is important to me. In the Western world, feminists dismiss that, many believe they need to be married to their career. I met many women that choose to stay single or say they don’t want to have children “to remain free”. But how free? You might just be missing out on something you’ll never be able to understand because you never experienced it. But fine, I accept it. I believe that every woman has a special way to be true to themselves. Secular women, though, often don’t respect my kind of feminism. I think I am more liberal than these women who think they are liberal.

Most reports and documentaries show Hasidic women as oppressed… you’re basically saying it’s not true?

This is the kind of stuff that makes me upset. All these movies showing us as quiet, suffering oppressed girls. They don’t show you movies of women who feel great in their Orthodox life, who are grateful about the life that God has given them. We have very strong feminist women who achieve amazing things. They’re just not famous in the secular world. They don’t need that kind of recognition, so I think these films are made by people who just hate the Hasidic community, I don’t know why but they just do! Worst of all are the documentaries, because they’re made by people who left the Orthodox world and are looking to settle scores or take revenge. They show the worst, the most vulgar people in the community as if they were representative, but they are not; they’re the extreme. My father used to think that way and that’s why it was so hard for him to accept that I wanted to become religious. But I think he opened up a little, seeing my life and what I was able to achieve… I actually co-wrote a script that shows the Hasidic world also has its strong women, its ‘bad girls’!

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Photo courtesy of Marlyn Vinig. Marlyn wrote a successful book called Orthodox Cinema, about movies made by Orthodox women for Orthodox women.

Are you a Hasidic bad girl?

In a way, yes. I mean, I don’t commit crimes, but I try to live my life to its maximum potential, while believing in the bible and its rules. Life for a woman is not what it’s described to be in some papers. It’s not that dark, evil world, populated by voiceless oppressed women!

Okay, what about politics though. Ultra-Orthodox Jews aren’t very progressive when it comes to Palestinians. What’s your position?

Since that traumatic experience with the local elections I’ve distanced myself from politics, all I can say is that Israel is not an easy place, but it’s a special place. We’re a young state and still need to work very hard to build a viable nation, to overcome feuds between the secular and the Orthodox, between the Arabs and the Jews… So many conflicts! No matter what position you have in society – writer, photographer, artist – you feel like you need to do some part to solve those conflicts but also, sometimes, you feel like running away. I love Israel. The conflicts makes me sad, we don’t need to be enemies. The bible teaches us to make peace. And you have to believe me, we’re not all those Palestinian haters described in some media. Recently an Orthodox rabbi said “people who go and settle beyond the Green Line have Jewish blood on their hands,” that’s not something you’d expect from an Orthodox rabbi, right?

People had to accept me the way I am and God created me …. So they fired me.

Another thing I wouldn’t expect from a woman is to publish erotic poetry, is it true?

Where did you read that?! Haaretz? This is totally puzzling to me! (laughs) Beside my academic work, there always was that creative fire in me and after my first book about Orthodox cinema I wrote a manuscript – it was a dialogue with Roland Barthes including my songs and poems. I got a prize for it and was offered to publish it, which I did – I was so glad! But I didn’t realise how sensitive this would be – an Orthodox woman doesn’t write those songs! Back then I was teaching an important seminar and someone called the headmaster to complain about my “inappropriate” writings. Well, I was offered to choose for the future between continuing my seminar or writing poetry. It was fair. I thought a lot about it. It was a really excruciating dilemma, because at the time I needed the money, but I also needed to feel free to do what my soul craved and wished for. And people had to accept me the way I am and God created me…. So they fired me.

But your book, was it erotic or not?

Of course not! It was a book about love, about love in God mostly! Any orthodox reader would understand that! But one song particularly was read as containing sexual innuendo and it was even Xeroxed and circulated clandestinely among Jewish communities even in New York! That one song!! And then the secular press started to write about me as an Orthodox who writes erotic stuff! It was so evil… I was in shock!

Is it important for you to travel and come to festivals like Berlin’s Jewish Film Festival?

It’s very important. It’s an honour and an opportunity. People have all these prejudices about Israel. It’s not easy to be Israeli in the world. It’s not easy to be Jewish in the world. And then it’s not easy at all to be an Orthodox Jewish woman in the world! So I’m very grateful to Nicola (Galliner) for inviting me here. It wasn’t an obvious choice to have an Orthodox woman on her jury. But she’s someone who believes in what she does, she goes with her fire, with her passion. And she gave me a big chance, a chance to say something different.