For the past few years, the Israel Engagement committee at my synagogue has been showing Israeli films a few times a year, as a way to explore the modern state of Israel from the point of view of its own citizens. This year the theme is movies made by Palestinian Israelis, and told from a Palestinian perspective. You might think this would be a weak draw at a synagogue on Long Island, but more people came to the first movie of the year than come to most Friday night services.
This was my first time going. When the series first started I was busy with graduate school and too exhausted to go back to synagogue for an extra night, to sit in uncomfortable chairs and watch movies I could easily watch online. I finally went this year for a practical reason: I’m on another committee that’s planning to show a movie in a few months, and I wanted to see how the Israel Engagement committee managed the scheduling, snacks and seating, and the actual showing of the movie (and no one else on the committee volunteered to go).
Mom came with me for moral support, and we both decided to skip the schmoozing period before the movie. It turned out that even though the movie was listed as starting at seven, it actually didn’t start until after eight o’clock, so many people were still arriving long after Mom and I found seats in the back of the sanctuary (the film was being shown on one of the new screens in the remodeled sanctuary, to justify the expense of building screens into the design). This was my first lesson from the movie – don’t plan for seven and show the movie at eight, no matter how many people talk about “Jewish Time”. Fifteen minutes for schmoozing and late arrivals, and then start the movie, because I don’t want to be there forever.
The head of the Israel Engagement committee gave a brief introduction to the theme for the year, and a warning to the one sixteen year old in the audience that he had just made the age cut off, because there was some drugs and other adult themes in the movie.
I was a little apprehensive, partly because I’m always tense before seeing movies in movie theatres, worried that I’ll be trapped for an hour and a half watching a movie I don’t like, but also partly because the movie was billed as coming from a Palestinian perspective, and I had no idea what that would mean. The description of the movie had said that it was a story about three Palestinian women living together in an apartment in Tel Aviv, and it sounded like a sort of comedy/relationship movie, but there could still be anti-Jewish or anti-Israeli stuff going on, and while I’ve worked hard to challenge myself with different perspectives on Israel I tend to do it at home, where I can stop the movie or close the book and take a few deep breaths and pet a dog before continuing.
Once the lights went out I took a deep breath and told myself to accept the challenge of watching the movie, because, really, it wouldn’t kill me. I might get bored, or annoyed, but how bad could it be, especially with so many other members of my congregation filling the room. I rolled my eyes at all of the marijuana, and the smarmy men hitting on the gorgeous women at the beginning of the movie. I couldn’t really tell when the dialogue switched from Arabic to Hebrew, because they all spoke so quickly and fluently in both languages. The whole thing hurt my ego, because after so much effort to work on my Hebrew I was still stuck reading the subtitles like everyone else.
I noticed that even though some of the men in the movie were creepy, either overly smarmy or overly controlling, there were a lot of other characters worth watching, straight and gay, religious and secular, successful and not so successful. And the actresses in the main roles were very good, luminous really, and funny and smart and interesting. The friendships developing among the women, once the early partying and drug scenes were out of the way, were surprisingly gentle and sweet, and I started to really care about what happened to them, especially to the religious girl who seemed very familiar to me, despite being a religious Muslim rather than a religious Jew. I was almost patting myself on the back for my open-mindedness by then, for being able to look past the drugs and the sex and the politics and just enjoy the people.
And then the rape happened. I saw it coming when the controlling fiancé touched his girlfriend’s hair-covering and started to tug on it. No, I saw it coming before then, in the way he tried to control where she lived and what she planned to do for work once they were married. The conflict was all telegraphed from the beginning, but it was played light and sort of funny, and I figured that over the course of the film the religious girl would come to realize that some kind of independence would be great and maybe she didn’t have to do every single thing her fiancé or male relatives told her to do. I assumed that the movie would continue in the same light-hearted style, with the sex happening behind closed doors, and all of the challenging topics addressed with humor and ellipses.
And then the fiancé touched the religious girl’s hair covering (they didn’t call it a hijab in the movie, so I’m not calling it a hijab, even though that’s the only word I know for a Muslim woman’s hair covering). My whole body tensed, because I know what it means for a religious man to break what other people might see as a minor boundary. I don’t care if you are Muslim or Jewish or Christian, if you follow modesty laws and you suddenly break them, watch out.
The rape started so quickly, and I was so busy telling the girl (silently) to get the hell out of there, that it took me a second to really freak out. I wanted to drag that man off of her, just reach up into the screen and toss him to the floor, and I couldn’t. The only thing I could do was run, or walk, out of there. If she couldn’t run, I would have to run for her.
I stood up awkwardly, because there wasn’t a lot of room between the rows of chairs, and quietly told my mother that I had to leave. I was willing to sit alone in the hall by myself for the next hour or two, if necessary, but I wasn’t going to stay in that room and watch a woman being raped. I felt like, by sitting there, I was allowing it to happen, even making it happen.
Mom followed me out immediately, and listened to me ranting all the way home, and even sat with me, and the dogs, while we watched a Hallmark Christmas movie to recover.
It’s important to say that, even if they had warned me that there would be a rape in the movie, I’m not sure I would have known how it was going to affect me. Though, just the word rape would have been a trigger. No one used it. Watching people have sex on screen is embarrassing, and would have felt really weird in a room filled with fellow congregants, but not scary. Rape is scary.
As far as I know, no one else left. But I didn’t speak to anyone about it afterwards, so I don’t really know. I have no idea if they discussed the rape scene during the discussion after the movie, or if it had been eclipsed by other plot points by then. I don’t even know if anyone, other than the female rabbi who was sitting in front of me, even noticed that I left, or why. She emailed me after the movie, to make sure I was okay, and I sobbed with relief, because I was afraid that no one had even noticed that I’d left. Or why.
The thing is, a bunch of the people in that room have read my novel, or know about it, and know that I am an incest survivor. They do not talk to me about it, or ask me about it, though. And when I’ve offered to discuss it with the congregation, in person, in a letter, any which way, no one has taken me up on it. The fact that they can sit through a rape scene in order to show their support for Palestinian women and Palestinian filmmakers, but they don’t want to hear from me, hurts.
The rape scene, as much of it as I saw, still flashes through my mind over and over again. And I resent it. I have enough awful memories of my own. I don’t need more.
I felt selfish for walking out of the movie. I beat myself up about it for hours. I felt immature, and melodramatic, and I could hear my father’s voice in my head calling me Sarah Bernhardt and telling me that I was overreacting, again, just like I always used to do as a child when I got all riled up about my father’s behavior and the crazy conspiracy theories he liked to spin about why he kept being accused of sexual misconduct at work, with children.
But most of all I felt invisible and insignificant. I felt like, in the face of intersectionality and world issues, and the increasingly strong need for people not to think about certain things, I do not matter at all. That’s the scariest thing, to feel like I don’t matter to the people who matter to me. And I can’t shake that feeling any more than I can shake the etch-a-sketch of my mind and make the rape images go away.
If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.
Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?