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Orthodox Jews Are Kvetching Over Disobedience for All the Wrong Reasons

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Disobedience, the most anticipated lesbian film of the year, is now in theaters. Its subject matter has ignited a firestorm in the Orthodox communities, in which the film’s Star of David-crossed lovers struggle to find a place.

In a Hey Alma piece written by a woman who grew up Orthodox, Disobedience is praised for its overall accuracy, getting an A+ for its accurate portrayal of clothing and style, a B for language, an A for music, a B- for Orthodox customs and practices, and a B+ for breaking down sexuality in the community. 

The complaints are not so much about the discrimination against LGBT people in hyper-traditional and isolated sects of Judaism, but how the sects themselves are being portrayed. Here are the top issues Orthodox Jews are taking with the film. 

"There weren't enough Jewish (particularly Orthodox) people involved in the making of the film."
Disobedience was based on a novel of the same name, written by Naomi Alderman, who grew up in an Orthodox Jewish family in England. She was deeply devout into her college years at Oxford University, where she frequently experienced anti-Semitism. When dining halls didn't provide kosher food, she ate at the Jewish Society six days a week. On the seventh day, she ate a double foil-wrapped baked potato.

When she moved to New York, she met Orthodox gay and lesbian people “who had these terrible stories: rabbis who said if you didn’t marry and have children you were completing Hitler’s work,” she told The Guardian in 2016. They inspired the story of the film and a change in her personal beliefs, "I went into the novel religious and by the end, I wasn’t. I wrote myself out of it."

The film stars Rachel Weisz, who also produced and was the driving force behind shepherding it to the big screen. She is Jewish, as well; her mother converted from Catholicism to Judaism. Her father came from an Orthodox Jewish family in Budapest who fled to London during the Holocaust.

The film was co-written by director Sebastián Lelio, a cisgender, straight, non-Jewish man. This is not the first time he's been criticized for directing a film outside his experience; he came under fire for making A Fantastic Woman about the transgender experience. But, he shares a screenwriting credit with Rebecca Lenkiewicz, a prominent Jewish writer, known for the Oscar-winning Polish film Ida, which examines the life of a nun who discovers she is the orphan of Jewish parents murdered in the Holocaust.

"Maybe a Jew can play a Jew every once in a while? Maybe? How many years has it been since a Jew played the Jewish lead role in a movie about Jews?," Stephanie Streisand wrote on Facebook about Rachel McAdams's casting as Esti.

Disobedience is the biggest Jewish-themed narrative to come out this year. However, in 2016, Logan Lerman played the lead in Indignation, a film about the son of a Jewish butcher at a Christian college in 1951 Ohio. "I definitely identify myself as being Jewish, and I’m proud of my background. But I have the same questions as Marcus has in his mind about life and religion. I’m questioning — I question things and I have no answers," he told Variety when promoting the film.

Others have taken issue with the fact McAdams was chosen for a Jewish role. Was a rare role for women who are "too Jewish-looking for Hollywood" squandered?

"Its marketing does not distinguish ultra-Orthodox communities from the communities on the more mainstream Orthodox spectrums."
This is perhaps the most convincing criticism of the film. "The producers calling it Orthodox, instead of ultra-Orthodox, is part of the erasure I and a lot of other people will inevitably feel, that this Jewish film narrative don't represent us" Chana N., an Orthodox Jew who declined to provide her last name, told The Advocate. "Consulting ultra-Orthodox rabbis in an effort to learn about the community and calling it mainstream orthodoxy ... that gives modern Orthodox LGBT people like me the perhaps exaggerated, repressed, caged, silenced connotations, which the wider secular audience will think represents all orthodoxy."

Modern orthodoxy is a movement within Orthodox Judaism that attempts to synthesize strict observance with living in the secular, modern world. Though they share many of the religious and traditional values with ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities portrayed in Disobedience, Mod-Ox Jews are often much more accepting of diversity, including LGBT people.

This population has many sub-levels of observance, but as a whole, their numbers are strong across the world. Lelio consulted with ultra-Orthodox rabbis in Brooklyn and London.

"In fact, they actually did know there is a difference because they consulted with ultra-Orthodox rabbis," Chana explains. "Non-Jewish or completely secular viewers are at risk of lumping all Orthodox people together. It boils down to them having it labeled Orthodox, but to be fair, they may have been biased by their consulting rabbis who state is as such." 

"At the same time, it highlights an industry trend where most Jewish-themed movies portray the ultra-orthodox world (often women), ignoring other Jewish or Orthodox communities which aren't as interesting, film subject-wise. I would love to see a film where Jewish characters are simply living their average lives, without sensationalizing their existence."

"Disobedience portrays Orthodox women as too oppressed."
In her piece in Tablet, "I’m Sick Of Orthodox Women Being Fetishized In Films Like Disobedience" Avital Chizhik-Goldschmidt lampoons the film. She criticizes the score as making the film too eerie and depicting ultra-Orthodox culture as a dark oppressive prison. 

"Orthodox women are either caged animals, of the Esti variety, or self-righteous yentas snitching on you when you’re sneaking around doing inappropriate things. No personality, no sense of humor, no creativity — and little intelligence, outside of the sympathetic protagonist," Chizhik-Goldschmidt claims about films like Disobedience, "Instead, what emerges is an obsessive fetish with Orthodox women — a sort of voyeurism."

Yes, Orthodox women are often portrayed as overly submissive, but Esti is depicted as shy but also grows as an advocate for her independence. She's an educated teacher devoted to nurturing young Jewish women — and a passionate lover. Many can interpret her as not silenced, but coping with complicated pressures and decisions.

Through an LGBT lens, this op-ed is extremely problematic. The truth is, this is a queer film. Although it offers insights into Orthodox women, the piece has is only one sentence about LGBT people. Chizhik-Goldschmidt is circling the issue that the women are oppressed in this movie because they are gay, not just ultra-Orthodox.

Her op-ed itself speaks from a straight perspective and erases LGBT people from the Jewish community. 

"Have you ever bought a wig for the first time, nervous but also excited about the status, the glamour, that is promised to a married woman?" she questions secular audiences, not realizing that for queer women like Esti and Ronit, a meaningful marriage is not even a possibility. "Have you ever gone on a shidduch date and told yourself you should just marry him, because you’re 22 already? Have you ever said the Song of Songs for 40 days straight in the hopes of getting married?"

When you're a queer Orthodox woman, marrying a man is not something you hope for — it's an oppressive nightmare. To ignore that reality, and that being queer and Orthodox can be painful has homophobic undertones.

This criticism is empty, complaining that Orthodox women are being portrayed as too oppressed without even addressing what is oppressing them. The writer is upset over a single scene in the film and addresses none of its actual subject.

The reason there is so much hairsplitting over the film? To avoid real discussions about homophobia in Orthodox communities. As long as we can unqualify the movie for bringing up the issue, we don't have the conversations about the mistreatment of LGBT people in Judaism.

It's important to respectfully portray ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities. As the most visible Jewish people, they face the most anti-Semitism. But the issue is, some of the most vulnerable communities are some of our most homophobic.

The obsession with creating a perfect representation of everyone's Jewish experience seems like a distraction from the abusive practices that queer Jews face, including conversion therapyDisobedience delivers a hopeful message about a community that hasn't offered many steps towards tolerance. It does not vilify Orthodox Jews, but it will not justify homophobia. Because that is unjustifiable.

"As a queer Jew who grew up going to a Yeshiva in Brooklyn where we had many teachers for all different sects of Judaism (particularly a lot of Orthodox people), the environment was extremely homophobic. I was taught from a young age that homosexuality was a sin and unacceptable and that people who were queer would die and be punished for their sins," explains agender femme Abrina Krasnov. "I was also shunned by my classmates at school when I came out as bisexual and dated a fellow classmate, to the point that a girl who I thought was my friend told me that she didn’t want to interact with me because I would go to hell.

"It’s important to understand that these are actually lived experiences that Jewish women have in Orthodox communities. I’m not trying to generalize all Orthodox communities and say that they are all horrible and homophobic, but some of them are, and that needs to be talked about. I refuse to feel bad for my oppressors even if they are a part of my community."

We cannot be so afraid of how the outside world will perceive us that we do not question the hatred within us.

ARIEL SOBEL is a Jewish bisexual writer and an editorial assistant for The Advocate.

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