Crossing the line

Crossing the line

During the wedding scene in Fiddler on the Roof, Perchik, the student revolutionary, breaks with tradition by crossing from the men’s side to the women’s side to dance with Tevye’s daughter Hodel. On stage it plays like a breakthrough; even the rabbi joins in the mixed dancing.

So each time I see the film, why do I want to yell, “Don’t do it, Perchik!”

I should explain. I am not an Orthodox Jew. I am a committed egalitarian. I belong to a synagogue where men and women have the same opportunities on the bima, in the pews, and in the study hall. I am committed to and have even engaged in — gasp — mixed dancing. I am indebted to the thousands of Perchiks and Hodels who tore down the mehitza.

So who am I to criticize Perchik? I suppose I have absorbed some of the criticism of Fiddler as well as some of the critiques of American Jewry — namely, that in their eagerness to assimilate, Jews caused an irreparable rupture with their own traditions. The rupture begins, symbolically, with Perchik crossing that once uncrossable line. The next thing you know, “kosher-style” delis in Hallandale are serving pastrami with cheese. 

Fiddler is as much a portrait of the era in which it was produced as of the time period it depicts. In the 1960s, the Reform and Conservative movements were well on their way to egalitarianism, and most of the religious rituals and folkways in the musical were already seen as quaint and old world. Fiddler was meant to comfort its Jewish audiences for the choices they made, not rebuke them for the customs they left behind.

Still, I find myself feeling protective of fervently Orthodox Jews in pop culture. Believe me, it hasn’t been easy lately. An awful lot of articles report haredim up to no good, from political and religious coercion in Israel, to their leaders’ underwhelming and sometimes obstructive response to charges of sex abuse, to the reluctance of some hasidic movements to abandon the dangerous practice of metzitza b’peh.

But I also know that the haredim are a diverse community with a deep sense of dignity and integrity, and that they deserve better than the treatment they get from the media that depict them as exotics, eccentrics, or anachronisms. 

I wasn’t prepared for the odd haredi subplot in John Turturro’s current film, Fading Gigolo. Turturro plays a kindly florist who, at the urging of an elderly bookstore owner played by Woody Allen, allows himself to be turned out as a male prostitute. The incredibly implausible plot is played for whimsy, although, like Pretty Woman, another comedy about prostitution, its lighthearted surface masks a foul reality. 

In the film, Allen’s pimp character meets a lonely Satmar widow, Avigal, living in a Brooklyn walkup with her mostly teenage children. Whether Allen senses her loneliness or a business opportunity is not clear. Either way, he convinces her to visit Turturro’s apartment in Manhattan for some unspecified “therapy.”

Creepy, right? I’m a fan of Turturro’s work and honestly don’t know what he is getting at here. His character gives the widow (played by the striking French actress Vanessa Paradis) a gentle massage, nothing more, and comforts her when she begins to weep. Later their professional relationship blossoms into something more, sweetly enough. 

Perhaps a haredi mother would feel tempted to escape her circumscribed life in Brooklyn for a chaste walk on the mild side, just as a pair of gorgeous society women played by Sharon Stone and Sofia Vergara would feel the need to pay for sex from an unremarkable middle-aged florist. What made me uncomfortable was the filmmaker’s assumption that, for a deeply religious woman, liberation is only possible according to the terms of the secular world, and in its most debased form (in some ultra-Orthodox communities, seeking mental health care comes with a stigma. If the movie was a statement on this, it could only have been by accident).

The real lives of haredi Jews are interesting enough without the sort of voyeurism that borders on ridicule. Recent Israeli films like Fill the Void and Ushpizin squeezed drama and real understanding out of the lives of haredim without forcing implausible encounters with the “outside” world. 

Maybe I feel protective of the haredim because I am protective of Jewish observance. Kashrut can seem silly and obsessive, but it’s my silly and obsessive. When audience members hope a character crosses a line, it’s my line they are crossing. 

Or maybe I don’t like what films like Fading Gigolo say about us. Perchik’s and Avigal’s rebellions represent a rupture between the old and the new. But it is also a rupture among Jews — namely, the haredim and the rest of us. Both sides are implicated in an estrangement that keeps us from seeing each other — or keeps us from seeing each other as anything but oddballs, sinners, and stereotypes. There’s a void between us and our haredi brothers and sisters, and both sides fill it with contempt.

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