On Fill the Void.
The most beneficial by-product of the national debate on gay marriage involves a sharply increased, society-wide willingness to take the institution of matrimony with the seriousness it deserves. Folk-rock balladeer Joni Mitchell’s 1970 lyrics insisting that “we don’t need no piece of paper from the City Hall/Keeping us tied and true” now seem hopelessly dated in a popular culture that suddenly treats “the right to marry” as an elevated, profoundly important privilege. This trend has become so pronounced that even the most militantly secular precincts of the prestige media have recently embraced a stunning little movie from a fervently religious subculture that treats the legal and spiritual union of two souls as an event of transcendent personal and cosmic consequence.
The Israeli film Fill the Void represents a breakthrough on many fronts. For one thing, it constitutes a rare import from the Jewish state’s busy film industry that makes no reference to the intractable conflict with the Palestinians and delivers no searing indictments of perceived shortcomings in Israeli society. Instead, the film offers a fond, fully realized, uncannily convincing portrayal of a family crisis that unfolds entirely within the confines of the devout, self-contained Haredi community of Tel Aviv.
The story focuses on Shira, a sunny but sensitive 18-year-old who, in the midst of preparations for the joyous festival of Purim, has begun the serious business of meeting with young men who might make a suitable bridegroom. As played by the luminous newcomer Hadas Yaron (whose riveting performance earned her the 2012 best actress award at the Venice Film Festival), Shira emerges as observant in every sense: She views each detail of her world as if it were freshly created and revealed to her for the first time, managing to share both wonder and awe with the audience. That is particularly true when her saintly older sister dies in childbirth, leaving a numbed widower, Yochay (the smoldering Yiftach Klein), and the newborn boy.
To provide for this baby and stabilize his own life, the stricken father considers a quickly arranged marriage to a widow in Belgium, but his mother-in-law is devastated at the prospect of her only grandchild leaving the country. She pushes relentlessly for Shira to accept engagement to her late sister’s husband in order to cement his position as a permanent member of the family. Shira offers spirited resistance to this plan, in part out of the well-founded fear that she could never replace her sister in Yochay’s affections. In the course of battling her mother’s desperate desire to keep the family intact and in place, Shira struggles to discern God’s will at the same time she tries to understand and balance her own.
This intense, decidedly old-fashioned saga has drawn unanimous praise. Manohla Dargis of the New York Times called it “an enthralling, stirring tale” crafted with “a sure, delicate touch and great intimacy.” Peter Keough of the Boston Globe hailed Fill the Void as “an accomplished and intense drama that has almost Chekhovian overtones” while noting that “the exterior scenes sparkle with color and vibrancy, and the interiors radiate warmth and security.”
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of this unprecedented artistic triumph involves the self-disciplined piety of its writer-director, 46-year-old Rama Burshtein. She counts as the first successful director, female or male, to emerge from within a Haredi community that generally frowns on watching movies, let alone making them. Born in New York City, but raised in Tel Aviv from the age of one, Burshtein studied motion-picture production at Jerusalem’s Sam Spiegel Film and Television School before she found herself drawn to Orthodox life at age 26. Married for 18 years to a psychologist and ritual circumciser (mohel), she is the mother of four children, the eldest 16, who have been raised in the uncompromising Haredi tradition. She told the New York Times that “my privilege is that I know both worlds.”
In this regard she followed another incongruous figure in the generally left-leaning Israeli film industry who combines a rich secular, artistic background with the deep religious commitment he developed as he approached middle age. Shuli Rand became one of the nation’s leading stage actors before he moved to Jerusalem, joined the Breslover Hassidic movement, and fathered seven children. In 2004 he wrote the screenplay for Ushpizin (or “Sukkot Guests”) about an impoverished but pious religious returnee who welcomes some criminal friends from his rough secular past for the annual Feast of Tabernacles. Rand also played the lead in the film under the condition that he’d perform alongside his own wife, despite her lack of any prior acting experience; he wouldn’t consider bending Orthodox rules of modesty to play tender scenes with any other woman. Though it relied on a veteran secular director (Gidi Dar), Ushpizin broke new ground in portraying Haredi characters as complex and sympathetic human beings rather than exotic stereotypes.
In the same sense, Fill the Void arrives at an ideal moment to help close the gap between mainstream Israeli society and the too often isolated and misunderstood world of the Haredim. In the most recent Israeli elections, the most spectacular gains went to a political party (Finance Minister Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid) that pledged as its principal priority to end the military service exemption for citizens often described in the Western press as “ultra-Orthodox.” Many religious leaders (including the modern Orthodox who now make up a majority of the IDF officer corps) resent that designation. To them, Haredim aren’t more fervent, unbending, or authentic in their Orthodoxy; they merely take a different approach. The streimlach (cylindrical beaver fur hats) and payus (side curls) favored by most of the characters in Fill the Void aren’t more Orthodox than the knit yarmulkes favored by religious nationalists; they just reflect a distinctive European tradition. Calling Haredim “ultra-Orthodox” would be the equivalent of calling the Amish “ultra-Protestant.”
And those same Amish have inspired a bizarre literary fad that has registered on bestseller lists even as Fill the Void reached appreciative audiences in 20 nations. At least 86 titles scheduled for release in 2013 count as “Bonnet Rippers”—romance novels set in Amish country. The Wall Street Journal reported that the three top authors of Amish romances—Beverly Lewis, Cindy Woodsmall, and Wanda Brunstetter—have sold among them an astonishing 24 million copies of their books.
The appeal of these entertainments is that they restore notions of dignity, honor, permanence, and self-control to the pursuit of females by males, and males by females. Relationships that develop for months or years before a kiss can easily build greater intensity and fervor than the wham-bam approach of contemporary hook-up culture. Many modern romantics, both men and women, find it refreshing to savor heroines who evaluate potential mates based on their nobility rather than their six-pack abs. Yochay, the brooding widower in Fill the Void, will flutter vulnerable hearts like a Mr. Darcy in side curls, and Rama Burshtein cheerfully admits she felt inspired by the Austen titles she hungrily devoured when she was younger.
She also perplexingly acknowledges to interviewers her admiration for Tarantino’s hyper-violent fantasies though her Haredi masterpiece displays far more obvious debts to Austen than to Quentin. In fact, the only scene that even hints at brutality or sex occurs near the very conclusion of Fill the Void as Shira at last prepares for her own wedding in penitential prayer. The intense close-up of the pained face of the young protagonist, lost in the frilly splendor of her otherworldly bridal gown, shows her swaying up and down in ecstatic jerks that seem at first both erotic and vaguely violent. She is reciting the viduy—the Yom Kippur confessional that each bride and groom traditionally chants in the final prayer service before the nuptials, culminating a day of fasting and introspection intended to render them new and cleansed to begin a fateful, fresh phase of life. In this indelible scene, Shira casts light on the true meaning of the word Haredim—which stems from Harada, suggesting fear and trembling as Isaiah 66:55 describes “those who tremble at the word of the Lord.”
No film has ever made a better case for the awesome power of the marriage bond, and for the significance of the commitments that bride and groom make that could shape lives for countless generations. Regardless of current efforts to deploy political means to redefine the essential nature of that marital intimacy, Fill the Void will remind attentive viewers that it is the God-like potential of birth and eternity that infuses marriage with its literally death-defying power.
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A Haredi Masterpiece
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A Trump of their own.
There were many arguments for opposing Donald Trump’s bid for the presidency, but the retort usually boiled down to a single glib sentence: “But he fights.”
Donald Trump could accuse John McCain of bringing dishonor upon the country and George W. Bush of being complicit in the September 11th attacks. He could make racist or misogynistic comments and even call Republican primary voters “stupid”; none of it mattered. “We right-thinking people have tried dignity,” read one typical example of this period’s pro-Trump apologia. “And the results were always the same.”
If you can get over the moral bankruptcy and selective memory inherent in this posture, it has its own compelling logic. Driving an eighteen-wheel truck through the standards of decorum that govern political discourse is certainly liberating. If there is no threshold at which the means discredit the ends, then everything is permitted. That kind of freedom has bipartisan appeal.
Democrats who once lamented the death of decency at Trump’s hands were apparently only troubled by their party’s disparity in this new rhetorical arms race. The opposition party seems perfectly happy to see standards torn down so long as their side is doing the demolition.
This week, with passions surrounding Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court reaching a crescendo, Hawaii Senator Mazie Hirono demonstrated that Democrats, too, are easily seduced by emotionally gratifying partisan outbursts. “They’ve extended a finger,” Hirono said of how Judiciary Committee Republicans have behaved toward Dr. Christine Blasey Ford since she was revealed as the woman accusing Kavanaugh of sexual misconduct as a minor. “That’s how I look at it.”
That’s an odd way to characterize the committee chairman’s offers to allow Dr. Blasey Ford the opportunity to have her story told before Congress in whatever setting she felt most comfortable. Those offers ranged from a public hearing to a private hearing to a staff interview, either publicly or behind closed doors, to even arranging for staffers to interview her at her home in California. Hirono was not similarly enraged by the fact that it was her fellow Democrats who violated Blasey Ford’s confidentiality and leaked her name to the press, forcing her to go public. But the appeal of pugnacity for its own sake isn’t rooted in consistency.
Hirono went on to demonstrate her churlish bona fides in the manner that most satisfies voters who find unthinking animus compelling: rank bigotry.
“Guess who’s perpetuating all these kinds of actions? It’s the men in this country,” Hirono continued. “Just shut up and step up. Do the right thing.” The antagonistic generalization of an entire demographic group designed to exacerbate a sense of grievance among members of another demographic group is condemnable when it’s Trump doing the generalizing and exacerbating. In Hirono’s case, it occasioned a glamorous profile piece in the Washington Post.
Hirono was feted for achieving “hero” status on the left and for channeling “the anger of the party’s base.” Her style was described as “blunt” amid an exploration of her political maturation and background as the U.S. Senate’s only immigrant. “I’ve been fighting these fights for a—I was going to say f-ing long time,” Hirono told the Post. The senator added that, despite a lack of evidence or testimony from the accuser, she believes Blasey Ford’s account of the assault over Kavanaugh’s denials and previewed her intention to “make more attention-grabbing comments” soon. Presumably, those remarks will be more “attention-grabbing” than even rank misandry.
This is a perfect encapsulation of the appeal of the fighter. It isn’t what the fight achieves but the reaction it inspires that has the most allure. But those who confuse being provocative with being effective risk falling into a trap. Trump’s defenders did not mourn the standards of decency through which Trump punched a massive hole, but the alt-right and their noxious fellow travelers also came out of that breach. The left, too, has its share of violent, aggressively mendacious, and anti-intellectual elements. They’ve already taken advantage of reduced barriers to entry into legitimate national politics. Lowering them further only benefits charlatans, hucksters, and the maladjusted.
What’s more, the “fire in the belly,” as Hillary Clinton’s former press secretary Brian Fallon euphemistically describes Hirono’s chauvinistic agitation, is frequently counterproductive. Her comments channel the liberal id, but they don’t make Republicans more willing to compromise. What Donald Trump’s supporters call “telling it like it is” is often just being a jerk. No other Republican but Trump would have callously called into question Blasey Ford’s accounting of events, for example. Indeed, even the most reckless of Republicans have avoided questioning Blasey Ford’s recollection, but not Trump. He just says what’s in his gut, but his gut has made the Republican mission of confirming Kavanaugh to the Court before the start of its new term on October 1 that much more difficult. The number of times that Trump’s loose talk prevented Republicans from advancing the ball should give pause to those who believe power is the only factor that matters.
It’s unlikely that these appeals will reach those for whom provocation for provocation’s sake is a virtue. “But he fights” is not an argument. It’s a sentiment. Hirono’s bluster might not advance Democratic prospects, but it makes Brian Fallon feel like Democrats share his anxieties. And, for some, that’s all that matters. That tells you a lot about where the Democratic Party is today, and where the country will be in 2020.
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A lesson from Finland.
High-ranking politicians are entitled to freedom of speech and conscience. That shouldn’t be a controversial statement, but it often is, especially in European countries where the range of acceptable views is narrow–and narrowing. Just ask Finnish Foreign Minister Timo Soini, who spent the summer fighting off an investigation into his participation at an anti-abortion vigil in Canada. On Friday, Soini survived a no-confidence vote in Parliament over the issue.
“In general, I’m worried that Christianity is being squeezed,” he told me in a phone interview Friday, hours after his colleagues voted 100 to 60 to allow him to keep his post. “There is a tendency to squeeze Christianity out of the public square.”
Soini had long been associated with the anti-immigration, Euroskeptic Finns Party, though last year he defected and formed a new conservative group, known as Blue Reform. Before coming to power, Soini could sometimes be heard railing against “market liberals” and “NATO hawks.” But when I interviewed him in Helsinki in 2015, soon after he was appointed foreign minister, he told me his country wouldn’t hesitate to join NATO if Russian aggression continued to escalate. He’s also a vociferous supporter of Israel.
Through all the shifts of ideology and fortune, one point has remained fixed in his worldview: Soini is a devout Catholic, having converted from Lutheranism as a young man in the 1980s, and he firmly believes in the dignity of human life from conception to natural death. “I have been in politics for many years,” he said. “Everyone knows my pro-life stance.” The trouble is that “many people want me to have my views only in private.”
Hence his ordeal of the past few months. It all began in May when Soini was in Ottawa for a meeting of the Arctic Council, of which Finland is a member. At the church he attended for Mass, he spotted a flyer for an anti-abortion vigil, to be held the following evening. He attended the vigil as a private citizen: “I wasn’t performing as a minister but in my personal capacity. This happened in my spare time.”
A colleague posted a photo of the event on his private Twitter page, however, which is how local media in Finland got wind of his presence at the rally. The complaints soon poured into the office of the chancellor of justice, who supervises the legal conduct of government ministers. A four-month investigation followed. Soini didn’t break any laws, the chancellor concluded, but he should have been more circumspect when abroad, even in his spare time.
Soini wasn’t entirely oblivious to the fact that he was treading on sensitive ground. A top diplomat can never quite operate like a private citizen, much as a private citizen can’t act like a diplomat (someone tell John Kerry). Still, does anyone imagine that Soini would land in such hot water if he had attended a vigil for action on climate change? Or one in favor of abortion rights?
“No, no, no. I wouldn’t say so … The Finnish official line is that I should be careful because abortion is legal in Finland and Canada.” So the outrage is issue-specific and, to be precise, worldview-specific. In Nordic countries, especially, the political culture is consensus-based to a fault, and the consensus is that the outcome of the 1960s sexual revolution will never be up for debate. Next door in Sweden, midwives are blacklisted from the profession for espousing anti-abortion views. Ditto for Norwegian doctors who refuse to dispense IUDs and abortifacients on conscience grounds.
The consensus expects ministers to bring their views into line or keep their mouths shut. “This is of course clearly politics,” Soini told me. “I think I have freedom of conscience. I haven’t done anything wrong. This is me practicing my religion.” And the free exercise of religion means having the right to espouse the moral teachings of one’s faith—or it means nothing.
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Banality and evil.
A week ago, I wondered what was going on in Sunspot, New Mexico. The FBI had swept into this mountain-top solar observatory, complete with Black Hawk helicopters, evacuated everyone, and closed the place down with no explanation whatever. Local police were politely told to butt out. It was like the first scene in a 1950’s Hollywood sci-fi movie, probably starring Walter Pidgeon.
Well, now we know, at least according to the New York Post.
If you’re hoping for little green men saying, “Take me to your leader,” you’re in for a disappointment. It seems the observatory head had discovered a laptop with child pornography on it that belonged to the janitor. The janitor then made veiled threats and in came the Black Hawks.
In sum, an all-too-earthly explanation with a little law-enforcement overkill thrown in.
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The demands of the politicized life.
John Cheney-Lippold, an associate professor of American Culture at the University of Michigan, has been the subject of withering criticism of late, but I’m grateful to him. Yes, he shouldn’t have refused to write a recommendation for a student merely because the semester abroad program she was applying to was in Israel. But at least he exposed what the boycott movement is about, aspects of which I suspect some of its blither endorsers are unaware.
We are routinely told, as we were by the American Studies Association, that boycott actions against Israel are “limited to institutions and their official representatives.” But Cheney-Lippold reminds us that the boycott, even if read in this narrow way, obligates professors to refuse to assist their own students when those students seek to participate in study abroad programs in Israel. Dan Avnon, an Israeli academic, learned years ago that the same goes for Israel faculty members seeking to participate in exchange programs sponsored by Israeli universities. They, too, must be turned away regardless of their position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
When the American Studies Association boycott of Israel was announced, over two hundred college presidents or provosts properly and publicly rejected it. But even they might not have imagined that the boycott was more than a symbolic gesture. Thanks to Professor Cheney-Lippold, they now know that it involves actions that disserve their students. Yes, Cheney-Lippold now says he was mistaken when he wrote that “many university departments have pledged an academic boycott against Israel.” But he is hardly a lone wolf in hyper-politicized disciplines like American Studies, Asian-American Studies, and Women’s Studies, whose professional associations have taken stands in favor of boycotting Israel. Administrators looking at bids to expand such programs should take note of their admirably open opposition to the exchange of ideas.
Cheney-Lippold, like other boycott defenders, points to the supposed 2005 “call of Palestinian civil society” to justify his singling out of Israel. “I support,” he says in comments to the student newspaper, “communities who organize themselves and ask for international support to achieve equal rights, freedom and to prevent violations of international law.” Set aside the absurdity of this reasoning (“Why am I not boycotting China on behalf of Tibet? Because China has been much more effective in stifling civil society!”). Focus instead on what Cheney- Lippold could have found out by Googling. The first endorser of the call of “civil society” is the Council of National and Islamic Forces (NIF) in Palestine, which includes Hamas, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and other groups that trade not only in violent resistance but in violence that directly targets noncombatants.
That’s remained par for the course for the boycott movement. In October 2015, in the midst of the series of stabbings deemed “the knife intifada,” the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel shared a call for an International Day with the “new generation of Palestinians” then “rising up against Israel’s brutal, decades-old system of occupation.” To be sure, they did not directly endorse attacks on civilians, but they did issue their statement of solidarity with “Palestinian popular resistance” one day after four attacks that left three Israelis–all civilians–dead.
The boycott movement, in other words, can sign on to a solidarity movement that includes the targeting of civilians for death, but cannot sign letters of recommendation for their own undergraduates if those undergraduates seek to learn in Israel. That tells us all we need to know about the boycott movement. It was nice of Cheney-Lippold to tell us.