Review | The Women’s Balcony

The cast of the Israeli film The Women’s Balcony

The Women’s Balcony is a culture-clash tale without much clash—a Lysistrata reimagining where the women rally the troops not to end the Peloponnesian war or stop inner-city gang violence (à la Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq), but to fix a balcony at an Orthodox synagogue. Emil Ben-Shimon’s film explores a close-knit community’s semi-comic skirmish with religious fundamentalism.

For this devout corner of Jerusalem, it is rare that any character is ever seen alone. The men huddle and talk outside the shops, the women go everywhere in twos and threes. They sing together, dance together, eat together, pray together. It is blue, blue skies for this slice of Israeli life, until catastrophe strikes at a bar mitzvah for the grandson of Ettie (Evelin Hagoel) and Zion (Igal Naor)—two leaders in this Orthodox community. Halfway through the ceremony, the women’s balcony in the sex-segregated synagogue collapses in a cloud of smoke. The rabbi’s wife is seriously injured, leaving the Rabbi himself out of sorts.

Fortunately for them, there’s a new rabbi in town—a seminarian who’s a little too eager to help. Rabbi David (Aviv Alush) has a puritanical streak and a wild imagination. He designs a villain where none exists, insisting that the balcony collapsed not by a random act of chance, but by divine intervention—God’s punishment for the women’s lackadaisical approach to Orthodox practice.

For some ultra-Orthodox Jews, it is said that women’s holiness is innate because of their ability to create life—therefore, they are not expected to pray as fastidiously as their male counterparts. This kind of reverential lip-service not only excuses the more sexist bedrock beneath, but also keeps women in a certain role—ahistoric and mythic—reducing humans to fables. The women in question are not bra-burning radicals—they love their husbands, they stay at home, they gossip with their girlfriends. But their religion matters to them, and their cause célèbre is an important one—they deserve a place to worship in their temple.

Avraham Aviv Alush as Rabbi David in The Women’s Balcony

When Rabbi David gives an incendiary speech—“man’s holiness comes from women’s covered hair”—the men rush to buy their wives headscarves. One husband weakly suggests to his wife, in a botched misquote of David’s speech: “Don’t you realize a woman is like a bible scroll?” The women reject the scarves almost without exception. One wife dismissively blows smoke in her husband’s face.

But some of the women bite the bait. Ettie—who is deeply religious, but practical and strong-willed—finds herself alienated by some of her closest friends. The chain-smoking Tikva (Orna Banai) puts the cigs away and even refuses to eat Ettie’s food, accusing her of not keeping kosher. Cruelly, she places the blame of the synagogue accident directly at Ettie’s feet, since it was her grandson’s Bar Mitzvah when the balcony crashed. Fear and guilt haunts every once-sunny corner of the community’s life—even the grandson insists it must be his fault since he failed to memorize the bible. During a Passover seder, Ettie confronts the Rabbi, accusing him of polluting their community with fear. The lights go out—yet another act of chance—and David refuses the help of a Sabbath Gentile, forcing the meal to move outdoors. Zion doesn’t stand up to David, and so the rift becomes personal.

While Shlomit Nechama’s script does a fine job keeping the drama light and amusing—it never quite feels as though the stakes are high enough. The marriages are too strong, the friends too close, and the conflict doesn’t emerge from within the community itself. The flowers wilt, but they can regrow—the roots below are strong. The men are weak-willed—doormats for the outsider Rabbi to wipe his feet on as he enters—they do bad by doing nothing. But it sets a low bar for conflict resolution. You never quite feel the dread of damnation.

Ettie’s rational coolness is the epicenter of the film’s moral integrity. The draconian Rabbi David remains an enigma—to the film’s detriment, because he’s never a serious enough villain to begin with, merely a guy whose self-righteousness has been overindulged. He isn’t holding the community hostage. No one’s holding a gun to anyone’s head—but then, that would be a very different film. In the interest of keeping the tone gently comedic, the community—and the marriages in particular—never seem truly threatened. After the women declare war, Ettie is still doing Zion’s laundry in secret. When Tikva leaves, she makes her husband promise to keep taking his blood-pressure pills. The comedy helps the film stay afloat, never dissolving into polemics. But it also means the film can never truly take flight. The community’s foundation is too strong. From the rubble they re-emerge—just as they started.

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