by Libby Herz
One of the most-widely attended Jewish film festivals in the United States shined a spotlight on the lives of religious women this week, treating all-female audiences to screenings of a uniquely feminine work of art and a chance to get to know the film’s director.
With a cast dominated by religious women and girls – many of them from the Chabad-Lubavitch run Beth Rivkah High School in Brooklyn, N.Y. – “The Heart That Sings” hit theaters last year after the success three years prior of director Robin Garbose’s similarly female-centric “A Light for Greytowers.” It tells the story of Miriam Bogen, a 20-something Holocaust orphan who must find her way into the hearts of young summer campers through dance and music.
At the showing Sunday at the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival – another showing took place on Monday – Dassie New, a Chabad-Lubavitch emissary who directs Atlanta’s Chaya Mushka Preschool and Louise D. Habif Mikvah, introduced Garbose and the film’s star, Rivka Siegel, to the audience for a question-and-answer session after the closing credits.
Most of the questions from the packed 350-seat theater centered on the challenges presented to religious women in the arts.
“The bulk of the women in the crowd were not observant,” observed New, who brought a group of 40 women from Chabad-Lubavitch of Georgia to the showing. “There were a lot of questions about kol isha, the Jewish concept that holds a woman’s singing voice as sacred. Women were impressed to see this niche where women in the traditional community can express themselves through the arts.”
Garbose agreed, noting that she produced “The Heart” and “Greytowers” as windows “into the observant world which women would not otherwise have.”
With all their dramatic and comedic value, each film stands out in the motion picture industry due to their focus on the religious woman. In keeping with the actresses’ request for exclusively women viewers, the Atlanta Festival advertised “The Heart” as “intended for female audiences only.”
Garbose, whose insistence upon all-female audiences has sometimes been met with resistance, was pleasantly surprised at the accommodating stance of officials at the Atlanta festival, considering their 26,000 tickets and 70 narratives makes the project one of the top Jewish film festivals in the country.
“The mission of the Jewish film festival is to explore Jewish religious practice and promote cross-cultural understanding,” explained Garbose. “There is something inherently worthwhile about different groups of women coming together and enjoying a cultural experience together. It’s a model that can happen in every city across the country.”
In fact, film-goers in Atlanta fully embraced the work, said guest coordinator Dina Fuchs-Beresin.
“We had people come to the screenings from all walks of life,” she said. “We added screenings because the response was so overwhelming.”
Carmelle Danneman, 17, an observant young woman and budding actress, attended the film with her mom and fell in love with the story line.
“It was inspiring how one girl with a really hard past went to this camp and changed everyone,” she said.
“It was a beautiful story,” added Robin Varon. “I enjoyed the whole film.”
Debbi Kalwerisky felt empowered by the collective embodiment of women’s talents.
“To me, the main value of the film was seeing a performance written, directed, acted, and produced by women,” she shared.
After the question and answer session, women and girls clamored towards Siegel, requesting her autograph.
“For many people, this was their first exposure to religious Judaism,” said the actress. “It’s an honor and a privilege to be a part of this.”