by Matthew Wagner
The Jerusalem Jewish Film Festival has rejected a film created by Orthodox women after the film director demanded screening for female audiences only in accordance with Halacha.
The film, “A Light For Greytowers,” directed by Robin Garbose, was initially accepted by the festival on the basis of its artistic merits. The film was slated to be screened during the festival, which takes place between December 13 and 19 at the Jerusalem Cinematheque.
However, the festival’s management refused to acquiesce to Garbose’s demand, made at the time the film was first presented for consideration, that screening would be billed as “by women, for women.”
“We tried to explain that our festival doesn’t discriminate on the basis of race, religion, nationality or gender,” said Aryeh Barak, spokesman for the Jerusalem Cinematheque.
“Accepting the director’s terms would mean discrimination against half of our audience on the basis of gender.”
Barak said that the director-general of the Cinematheque, Ilan De Vries, had offered two compromises.
One was that the festival would market two screenings, one for men only and one for women only.
“Out of respect for the religious feelings involved, we were even willing to plan the screenings so that men and women would not meet each other,” said Barak.
The other option was that the film would be screened for women only outside the framework of the Jewish Film Festival.
Barak said that both options were rejected by the filmmakers. “It’s too bad because the film is really special and of high quality,” he said.
Halacha forbids men from listening to a woman sing. There is dispute among the rabbis on whether the prohibition applies solely to live performances or also to other instances where the woman can be seen singing, such as on film, and also on whether the prohibition also applied in cases where the music is taped and only the woman’s voice could be heard. The rabbis taught that the female voice is considered so sensual and stimulating that it might arouse in men passions that are spiritually unhealthy.
In a telephone interview from Los Angeles, Garbose said that the option proposed by the festival of having a private screening of the film outside the framework of the festival was out of the question. “It is at the festival where the opportunity for dialogue and exposure exists,” she said, adding, “A private screening is simply not serious.”
Garbose said the other option mentioned by Barak, of having separate screenings for men and women, had never been offered to her.
She said that she had looked at the options offered by the festival from a halachic perspective and found that they were unacceptable.
“I wanted to find a middle ground because everyone wanted the film to be screened,” said Garbose, a Hollywood director who was forced to make changes in her career after she embraced an Orthodox lifestyle almost two decades ago and could no longer work on Shabbat.
“But they wanted me to go against Halacha and I couldn’t do that,” she said. After leaving Hollywood, Garbose founded Kol Neshama, a performing arts academy in Los Angeles for Orthodox girls. “A Light For Greytowers” was born of her work there.
Based on a popular Jewish novel, the movie tells the Victorian-era saga of a Russian Jewish girl separated from her family and sent to an orphanage, where the cruel matron tries to keep her from celebrating her religious traditions.
The Atlanta Jewish Film Festival agreed to market “A Light For Greytowers” in its 2009 festival as a “by women, for women film experience.”
According to documents provided by Garbose, the Atlanta festival managers said that they saw the women-only screening as a “unique” opportunity to reach out to Orthodox communities who otherwise would not participate.
“After billing the screening as women only, if a man insists on attending no one can stop him and we are not responsible. The onus is on him to adhere or not,” Garbose said.
“But we cannot allow the film to be marketed to men. That would be a breach of Halacha.”
In a letter to the managers of the Jerusalem Jewish Film Festival, Garbose wrote that they were not living up to their claim to “explore the many and varied issues surrounding the question of Jewish identity, history, culture and religious practice.”
“You have deemed that Jewish art that comes from the religious community is acceptable only if it conforms to non-religious standards,” she wrote.
“This conformity would serve only to negate its truth as art, thereby prohibiting the possibility of there ever being any truly frum [Jewish religious] art.
“The spiritual concept of Kol Isha [men’s prohibition against hearing a woman’s singing voice] has existed since the giving of Torah. I do not judge you by your choice not to honor this practice,” she wrote. “I am simply asking you to respect the many Jews who do and welcome them at your festival. After all, we’re talking about films here, not war or politics, art as a forum for understanding and dialogue.”