Showcasing the light on Queer Individuals in Hasidic Communities
As awards season starts, it’s important to remember the small films that were released earlier this year. Even though, these films are not likely to receive recognition within the awards circuit, it’s important to appreciate them as much as the films we will be receiving in the next two months.
Disobedience is a film that premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in 2017 and as released in cinemas in the spring of 2018. It follows the story of Ronit (Rachel Weisz), a British woman that goes back home to attend her father’s funeral. That seems like enough conflict to focus around for a film but, there is more. The fact is that home for Ronit is in an Orthodox community and Ronit is gay.
This film is ultimately a love story between Ronit and her childhood lover Esti (Rachel McAdams is her strongest role to date) but it is also a close study on the Hasidic community and what happens to people who don’t fit that exact mold that they priase.
The Hasidic community has been around forever but has become more prevalent since the mid 1940s after World War II. The most known Hasidic communtities are located in Brooklyn, NY and North-East London, UK. Here the people strive on old tradition. Most of these individuals stem from Eastern European descendants who were survivors of the Holocaust. It is the Holocaust, the mass genocide that killed around 6 million Jewish people, that resulted in the heighten Hasidic lifestlye. They are most private now, more to themselves as a community and less likely to let secular people in. Because, according to them, the last time a Jewish person got close to a non-Jewish person or, a person in the secular world, the Holocaust happened.
Hasidic people live a lifestyle that was common centuries ago. They value the Old Testament (Torah) and Talmud (a collection of Jewish civil and ceremonial law) over everything. They wear modest clothes, speak Yiddish (as well as English), and value the family (average number of children in a Hasidic family is eight). There are constant rules that Hasidic people have that every orthodox person follows like modest clothing and the lack of birth control. But then there are differences,(as compared to orthdox/religious Christians and Muslims) like wearing a wig once the woman gets married, or lack of secular (non-Hasidic) education (it is uncommon for a boy to attend college, or finish high school. Since after his Bar Mitzvah, he studies the Talmud. For girls, they stop attending school when they get married to focus on a family. If they do work, they are normally teachers for the children in the community). But something every orthdox or religious community has in common, including the Hasidic people, is that it is not okay to be gay.
This is where Disobedience becomes an interesting peice. For a rarity, it talks about a topic that has never been mentioned on film: the relationship between the Hasidic community, specifically, and their LGBT community. Certainly, there are gay individuals born into the community, and one day they will find out that their community will not accept that part of them. Disobedience shows the two ways a person can go about their lives with Ronit and Esti. Ronit choose herself and decided to leave the community and never return (until she found out her dad died). She was considered ‘banished’ from the community as if she never even existed and was never mentioned in the community upon her return. But, even if Ronit was able to be her true self and love who she loved, she was cut off. She had cut herself off from her family, her childhood, her history, and her identiy. She threw it away, never looked back and was forced to come up with a new one.
“‘Being married, well, that’s the way it should be.’ ‘Is it? The way it should be? Or is it just institutional obligation?’”
Whereas Esti chooses her religion. Esti, a loyal person of faith was unable to run away from her home since her faith is a huge part of her identity. She bottles everything up, shuts down and conforms to/for her relgion. She does everything a young woman in the Hasidic community is suppose to do. She married her childhood friend Dovid (Alessandro Nivola), wears a wig, shows zero skin, prays daily, and even teaches at the all-girls school in her community. On the outside, Esti is another woman in the community, but she is constantly repressing apart of herself to be seen as a good woman in the face of God. She’s trying to walk the fine line of being a good Jewish woman and making her God proud and following her religion, but also trying to be true to who she is.
Both of these characters are going through two different internal struggles in result to their choice, which only intensifies when they reconnect. With Ronit and Esti being in the same location together again, while it is at the end a good thing, brings up these questions all over again for these two characters. Once again, Ronit feels as if she is constantly being put under a microscope and deemed ‘unproper’ for not wanting to marry whereas Esti feels as if she is living a double life, but she is desprate to feel something after all these years.
“When we were girls. Even then it was the same. It has always been this way! I’ve always wanted it”
Without a doubt, there are queer people born into strict religious communities that don’t beleive in homosexuality. At some point these individuals must choose what matters to them more, their sexual identity or their religion. It’s an impossible question, espically if someone is a person of faith (which Ronit and Esti both are). There are hundreds of Ronits out in the world trying to fit in the secular world without a map and there are probably thousands of Estis that have repressed their sexuality because they don’t want to disappoint their community, family, and God. No matter what that person chooses, there will be consequences and it will hurt the individual and take time to adjust. If that is even possible.
These individuals aren’t given the right to choose who they love or even what they want to do with their lives. Their community is strict with religion that doesn’t leave any room for freedom of choice. You must marry, you must wear a wig, you must provide at least three children, you can’t have pork, you shouldn’t want to leave the area you were born into. If you are, there’s something wrong with you. But what if they’re curious? What happens then?
Internal hell happens.
Disobedience shines a light on a specific minority that the general public doesn’t understand or even know about. Hasidic people love their religion and love their tradition. They thrive on it and it makes them truly happy and content (really it does). They love their lives and don’t see a reason to change it. But within this community director Sebastián Lelio also shines the light on a smaller minority within this minority. What happens to the queer population in this community? It’s a community that people never think about (especially Hasidic people) and has never been showcased on film before. This film draws back the curtain on these people’s world and showcases the two routes these people can take and the toll it takes on them as people.
“Please give me my freedom”
You can watch Disobedience on Amazon and iTunes