In Lysistrata, the women of Athens deny their husbands sex to force them to end the Peloponnesian War. The women in Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq, a loose interpretation of the Aristophanes comedy, attempt a similar demonstration to end gang wars and gun violence in Chicago using the simple yet effective slogan: No Peace, No Pussy. In The Women’s Balcony, the women of a close-knit Jerusalem congregation fight for their rights and a balcony by showing the men what it means to have a day, or in this case several days, without women. Part culture clash, part battle of the sexes, this charming debut feature from Emil Ben-Shimon also provides a warm-hearted, intimate look at Jewish culture and tradition.
It all begins with a bar mitzvah for the grandson of Etti (Evelin Hagoel) and Zion (Igal Naor), beloved figures of a small neighborhood Orthodox community. It’s a place where everyone knows your name and attends every big family engagement such as this. But tragedy strikes at the synagogue celebration with the sudden collapse and destruction of the women’s balcony. As this is an Orthodox community, many of the religious spaces are separated by gender – the women sit in the balcony, while the men stay on the ground floor. The rabbi’s wife, seated on the balcony at the time of the collapse, falls into a coma which leads the rabbi to fall into a state of shock. Unable to continue his leadership duties, the synagogue falls into disarray until the arrival of a deceptively charismatic young Rabbi David (Avraham Aviv Alush).
The men of the congregation appreciate Rabbi David’s wisdom and magnetism. At first glance, it’s not hard to see why. He’s bright, good-looking and is able to find a minyan (a quorum of ten) for prayers at a moment’s notice. Many are impressed with the ambitious young rabbi including Zion, but Etti and the women sense something else. When Rabbi David advises the men to gift the women with headscarves to encourage more modesty, Etti knows something is up. When it is revealed that the synagogue was renovated without a women’s balcony in place, she launches a campaign to get the women’s balcony – and dignity – back.
Gender roles in the face of traditionalist beliefs are the primary focus of the script penned by female screenwriter Shlomit Nehama. Ben-Shimon has said that he wanted to tell a story that included strong, dominant female characters, and working with Nehama helped move this forward. The women in the film remind him of women in his childhood and Etti is based on his own mother. Politically speaking, he also wanted to address the impact of haredi (or strictly Orthodox or ultra-Orthodox) communities in moderate Jerusalem neighborhoods. An issue which he says has forced many to change their ways or move out.
The clash of cultural and religious ideals is seen not just between men and women, but between the women too. Some choose to wear the headscarves and dive deep into prayers, while Etti remains adamant about her beliefs. While most of the women cover up their hair, she wears it bigger each time, a simple act of defiance and a testament of her spirit. The fight for the women’s balcony isn’t just about remodeling a place of worship. It’s a challenge to a patriarchal belief system, and when the women stage a protest it’s a show of feminism and sisterhood. In this town (and any town, for that matter), everyone deserves a seat at the synagogue.
This entertaining comedy warms the heart with the help of a stand-out cast, including the no-nonsense Margalit (Einat Saruf), the custodian Aaron (Itzik Cohen), the smoking and atoning Tikva (Orna Banai). A budding young romance between Yaffa (Yafit Asulin) and Naftali (Assaf Ben-Shimon) a disciple of Rabbi David, adds another plot within the numerous subplots between husbands and wives and friends. Each relationship shows a different aspect on how conflicting religious ideals can influence even the most mundane aspects of life. Perhaps the most touching and complex relationship of all is between Zion and Etti, played with heart and spunk by Naor and Hagoel. They’re the cutest grandparents ever and you can’t help but root for them.
Whether or not you’re familiar with Jewish traditions, it’s not hard to fall in love with this endearing community. Most events are familiar – family parties, dates and fundraisers. If you’re confused at some point you’ll learn a thing or two by simply paying attention. Some of the film’s most memorable moments are the religious festivities and there are quite a few of them. Like any family party, The Women’s Balcony has plenty of drama, comedy, food and funny dance moves, along with some lessons learned along the way. Come for the bar mitzvah, stay for protest and don’t leave until you’ve had some fruit salad.