I’m reacting strongly to the powerful film My Father, My Lord [Hebrew: חופשת קיץ Hofshát Káits] for which I wrote the plot synopsis. In the film, just as the family is about to board the vehicle to go on the vacation to which the Hebrew title refers, one of Rabbi Eidelman’s followers comes running, enjoining him to come quickly to the site of a pigeon nesting on the windowsill of his son’s school. The reference is to Deuteronomy 22:6-7, which states that if you should happen upon a (kosher) bird’s nest while out and about, and you decide that you must have the eggs or the hatchlings for your own consumption, you may take these after shooing the mother bird away, far enough to where she cannot see you collecting her young. According to the Mishna, one who performs this commandment is assured longevity. As we might imagine, the “opportunity” to perform this commandment is unlikely to ever arise even once in a lifetime in the urban milieu that most Jews inhabit.
In the above-named film, the rabbi responds immediately: His follower leads him to the site of the nest, and presumably excited at the rare opportunity to perform this arcane commandment, he duly shoos the mother bird therefrom, leaving behind two hatchlings, which he does not take with him, but rather leaves there, presumably to starve. He then chants a prayer of praise, not unlike a kid who gleefully squashes a bug because someone in authority says it’s OK. When his young son, who has been observing the nest from his classroom for days, asks him disturbing questions about the fate of the hatchlings, he brushes off the boy’s feelings and grandstands about the privilege of having merited performance of this commandment.
Now, every time someone critiques the ultra-Orthodox based on a movie or book, the critic is immediately attacked for “judging an entire community / lifestyle based on a movie / book / play". But let’s deconstruct this argument: First of all, the definition of a story is that the plot must contain a conflict. This I learned in junior high. The oldest plot conflicts center around forced marriage a la A Fiddler on the Roof, or forbidden love a la Romeo and Juliet. Necessarily, any plotline in a story about a closed, traditional community is bound to be about individual desires versus compliance with community norms. So it shouldn’t surprise us that literature about the ultra-Orthodox community invariably contains this element.
I also believe that it’s legitimate to get my information about the ultra-Orthodox community from books, movies, films, and plays, many of whose authors and screenwriters come from within the community, including authors Shalom Auslander, Yochi Brandt, Naomi Ragen; film directors David Volach, Rama Burshtein, Haim Tabakman, and Amós Gitái; and playwright Amnon Levy, whether having left the community or still a part of it. Can I not assume that they have an interest in depicting the community accurately to outsiders?
As an analogy, take the example of cop shows. Even having never been present at an arrest or in a courtroom, I know about the reading of Miranda rights and courtroom protocol. While the thrilling car chases and unlikely plot twists are obviously the products of some screenwriter’s imagination, as are the personalities of the characters, the “frame” with all its details reflects reality — even the unseemly parts such as organized crime, drug dealing, and human trafficking. In the same way, I believe that we can believe the “frames” of plots concerning the ultra-Orthodox, as it is these very strictures and taboos that set the plots in motion.
Look, as I’ve written before, as increasingly turned off as I am by this community, it’s really their business. Even if all the mother pigeons in Israel were simultaneously shooed off their nests tomorrow, it likely would not upset any balance, either ecological or cosmic. So no, they’re not hurting anyone…as long as they fund their lifestyle on their own steam. Once my tax money is involved, then yes, I do have right of critique.