An Ex-Orthodox Queer Reviews Disobedience: Part 2

I have been sitting on this for a while, afraid to post it because it doesn’t sound like a “real” review. But then I decided fuck it – I’m not a “real” reviewer, so I should just post my random messy thoughts without trying to write in a genre I have no knowledge of or experience in. The film is being released on Blu-ray on 7/17, so I figured I would post these scattered thoughts now.

I also discovered (not because I was Googling my own name, why would you think that?) that my first post about Disobedience was shared on tumblr and (gulp) people I don’t know have apparently been reading my stuff and looking forward to the Part 2 I promised but haven’t yet delivered. (I didn’t mind flaking on my friends, but the pressure of strangers’expectations….! Lol.)

So here are some additional thoughts about the movie, a random collection of my reactions and responses with no real attempt at cohesion or coherence.

Spoiler alert! I’m not trying to keep much suspense in here. I’m not giving away the exact ending, but you’ll find out a lot of plot details if you read this.

  1. The storytelling, apart from Jewish, XO, or queer concerns:

    Some things are left unexplained a little too long. I thought Dovid was Ronit’s brother for too long in the film. And we never really know why the rav was taking care of Esti, or where her family is. These details don’t matter much to the overall story, but they did leave me wondering.

    Related to that: Ronit says she has friends, but we never see any indication of that. The characters do seem to exist in a vacuum – and that’s understandable to a point, since ultra-Orthodox Jews do exist in the vacuum of their own insular community. But the reality of an XO coming back to her hometown is that she does not live in a vacuum – she would certainly have been in contact with her friends from NY while visiting her childhood home, and we don’t get to see any of that.

    Good stories may not tell us everything about the characters, but they do at least indicate that the characters have lives beyond the frame and beyond the bounds of the movie. I was left unsatisfied with the way this film did that.

  2. The accuracy of Jewish religious things:

    I don’t care so much about the inaccuracies, because in my opinion the film does an excellent job of portraying an emotional truth, and that’s more important to me than getting all the details of ultra-Orthodox rituals right. But there were lots of inaccuracies, and some friends who have not yet seen the film want a rundown of those inaccuracies, so here they are.

    a. “May you live a long life.” The characters greet each other and say goodbye to each other with this phrase. I’m not sure if this draws from Naomi’s own life, but I’ve never heard it. Is it intended to be a variation on “tseischem l’shalom“? Why not just say “shalom” or “go in peace,” which would be more in line with what people actually say?

    b. Ronit goes in for a hug and forgets not to touch Dovid when she first sees him. This moment is useful for highlighting the significance of the end, where they all hug and she touches his cheek in a display of how much closer and more accepting Dovid has become. But it felt a little off to me. Part of the reason for my discomfort is because if she left when they were 18 or so, she wouldn’t have been touching Dovid anyway, and the resistance to physical touch would be ingrained in her. She wouldn’t have had to remind herself not to hug Dovid, because it’s not a natural thing for her when coming in contact with him.
    On the other hand, it is conceivable that Ronit has spent so long without any boundaries that her body memory takes a moment to catch up when she’s in the community again. My own experience says this is not realistic, but I can imagine that others have different experiences than I’ve had 😉

    Along the same lines, Ronit sings to Dovid when they’re in the kitchen (which, by the way, is the moment when I inwardly groaned “Rachel no!!” because her pronunciation of Hebrew is so terrible). Why doesn’t Dovid stop her? Her voice is kol isha, and he’s not allowed to hear her sing. He’s so careful about touching, but the filmmakers seemed not to have realized that hearing a woman sing is just as forbidden in ultra-Orthodox practice as is touching her.

    c. The close relationship that Esti, Dovid, and Ronit had as adolescents is unrealistic in this community. While not every Orthodox community maintains strictest segregation of the genders, the dress and customs of this community indicate that they would. There is no way that a post-bar mitzva boy would be allowed to have close female friends, especially is he’s a “good boy” like Dovid who is being groomed by the rabbi to be his successor!

    d. The depiction of the shiva week is more like a Christian wake and memorial than a Jewish shiva. An ultra-Orthodox Jewish funeral happens as soon as possible – on the same day of the death if there’s time before nightfall, and the very next morning if the person died after nightfall. If no one knew Ronit was coming, it’s very unlikely that she would have had time to buy a ticket and fly over in time for the levaya.

    And the shiva – where are the low chairs for Ronit’s aunt, sister of the deceased?

    The main plot point that drives Ronit’s stay is the hesped, the eulogy that Dovid will give for the rabbi. But that is not how it works. The hespedim are delivered during the funeral, in the chapel before the levaya leaves for the cemetery. Even allowing for slight differences in practice, this delayed hesped sounds more like a Christian or secular memorial than a Jewish ritual.

  3. The subtle storytelling and mood-setting: A lot of the tense, pent-up emotion is portrayed so beautifully, through small moments:

    a. The muted quality of the opening scenes, especially the general non-display of emotions in the shiva house. Everyone is just so straitlaced – someone just died, for goodness’ sake! But they’re all polite, formal… It’s enough to make me want to scream. But that’s good, because it really captures the expectation of decorum and reserved emotion.

    b. Dovid’s careful movement around women when moving through doorways is pronounced to nice effect. It’s very subtle, and it’s easy to miss if you don’t know what you’re looking for. But when women are in the doorways, and he smiles demurely and looks modestly down, and the women press into the one side of the doorway while he presses into the other side, to avoid all risk of brushing past them and touching them accidentally – it’s subtle if you don’t see it, and like a brick to the head if you do. (Yes, that is a profound observation.)

    c. Ronit is wearing pants when she arrives, but her top is fully tznius’dig. It’s a choice I would make, if I had to go home – and it’s a choice I did make, in fact. Ultimately my parents and some of my siblings were just always too uncomfortable with it, but I wanted to draw the line of “respect the home” at donning a skirt.

    d. Towards the end of the film, Esti stands in the doorway to the men’s section in shul. Dovid doesn’t want to talk to her, and he has the power to stay inside while she motions that she wants to talk to him. He’s engrossed in conversation with other men, and he motions to her like “what? what do you want?” and then ignores her. The punch to the gut effected by that brief moment is so powerful.

    e. This point I really love. There is no “beautiful shul” moment until the end of the film. In many films about the frum world, the beautiful singing of shul and davening is used to introduce the community. But this film is not about the beauty of the community. It’s about the anguish and pain and grief. And since the first hour and a half or so of the film develops the pain and anguish part, when we get to the beautiful singing in shul at the end, it’s more achingly heart-wrenching than serene and beautiful. It puts the audience into Ronit’s mind so much more effectively.

  4. The characters:

    a. Esti: She is presented to us at the beginning as timid and meek. It is absolutely wonderful to watch her shed that mask and become the one to initiate the renewed sexual relationship with Ronit. She’s aidel at first, and by the end she’s more outspoken and powerful – but she never loses her essential core character – and that’s a testament to Rachel McAdams’s amazing acting!
    But while she’s aidel at the beginning, we already begin to see flashes of her strong personality: When Ronit asks why no one told her that Esti and Dovid got married, Esti smiles – a sweet, silky, dangerous smile – and says “you disappeared.” There’s a sense of anger and hurt underneath the polite smile. Later, when Esti shows Ronit to the guest bedroom, Ronit asks if she should find somewhere else to stay. Esti answers “Do what you want.” I didn’t catch it the first time I saw the movie, but it was so clear the second time I saw it – she is so angry at Ronit. That anger comes out more clearly later, but at the beginning, Rachel McAdams masterfully portrays a woman who has settled into her role in this community but still harbors so much pain and anger about the past.

    In the Friday night scene, Esti seems to be easing up off her anger at Ronit. When the rebetzin says they never expected to see Ronit again, Ronit says “Sorry to disappoint you!” and Esti stifles a laugh and ends up with a little half-smile on her face. She seems to be softening to Ronit, moving from the anger and betrayal she feels back to the affection they had for each other as teens.

    We also see a glimmer of the “real” Esti at that meal. On the topic of women changing their names when they get married, Esti says “their own histories are gone.” There’s a brief silence, and then one of the men tries to argue against that. But I love that Esti says that, without any prompting. It’s clear that she is not comfortable with the silencing and erasing of women in her community, despite the fact that she stayed in that environment.

    And then we find out that Ronit was not the “bad influence” on Esti – quite the contrary. Esti was the one who kissed Ronit when they were twins – Esti awoke Ronit’s queer tendencies, not the other way around! I love that little detail. It makes such a difference to Esti’s character.

    b. Ronit’s uncle. One of the first moments when this character stood out for me in the film is when he talks about his own son at the Friday night meal. “He’s a nebbish,” he says, and his wife Fruma laughs and says “Look how he talks about his own son.” The uncle goes on, “I love the boy, but he is – he’s a nebbish.” That term alone – nebbish – is enough to paint a very clear picture of what this man’s values are, and to let us know that he does not respect people for who they are. He’s one of those people in the community who represent all the worst of it – the judging, the insularity, the sneering at anyone who’s even slightly different.

    He shushes Ronit at the shabbos table when she tries to talk about selling her father’s house – it’s a business matter, after all, “nisht oif shabbos geredt” (not to be spoken of on shabbos). That creates a funny moment when Ronit tries to say “okay, but we’ll meet after shabbos? You’ll help me?” trying simply to secure a promise of help – but her uncle is so strict about not doing business on shabbos that he won’t even commit to that.

    And then comes the most powerful part: when Ronit goes to his office. His office is (inexplicably) behind a wig shop. While Ronit waits for him, she tries on a wig and doesn’t take it off when she enters his office. He looks at it and raises an eyebrow, and Ronit says jokingly, clapping her hands to her head, “I’ve gone frum!” It’s a pretty good joke, in my opinion 😉 But her uncle’s response is a sour-faced “don’t joke.” And she subsides and they get to talking. It’s like – yes, we get that this is important to you, that frumkeit and Yiddishkeit are super-heavy topics for you. And that you carry pain (or do you?) that your niece isn’t frum. But really? She makes a joke about wearing a sheitel and you get all offended? Okay then.

    The zinger comes shortly after. In the course of conversation about Ronit’s father, her uncle says “It must be very painful for you not to receive the rav’s forgiveness.” Ronit visibly deflates at that, and I wanted to rush to the front of the theater and punch him in the face for that. He is arrogant, callous, and unbending – all the things that make him a good guardian of the faith. Dovid is on that path too – but he develops and gets out from it before the end of the film.

    c. Ronit’s aunt, Fruma:adore Fruma. She’s so amazing, representative of only a few frum people I know who are so accepting, with no conditions and no strings attached. The first time we see just how amazing she is, is that same Friday night meal. The “Rebetzin” (who I despise, by the way), makes many snide comments. One which could be seen as innocent involves Ronit’s mother’s candlesticks. “Give them to your children,” she says, in an overly saccharine and earnest voice. “I don’t want to ever have children,” Ronit responds, and the rebetzin’s face goes slack with shock – at the sentiment to begin with, and at Ronit’s brazenness in coming right out and saying this. Fruma intervenes, with her calm voice and smile: “You take the candlesticks, and you pass them on. That’s what you do. You pass them on,” she says – removing any mention of children. Ronit looks up at her briefly and smiles, then looks back down.

    Towards the end of the film, when everyone is filing in to the shul for the hesped, Ronit says, almost desperately, taht she doens’t want to cause trouble, she just wants to be here for her father. Fruma takes her hands gently, smiles, and says “I know.” She knows everyone else will be judging and disapproving, and she lets Ronit know that she has at least one friend and ally, no matter what.

  5. Ronit and her father: I really think that Ronit’s relationship with her father is the more important plotline / theme than Ronit and Esti’s relationship. (Which is why some of my queer friends didn’t like the movie – it wasn’t queer enough. I get that, but I will maintain that this is first and foremost an ex-Orthodox movie, and only secondarily a queer film. The marketing of is as a queer film which incidentally happens to be about an ex-religious Jew is… weird.)

    There’s a point where Ronit says, in context of how much the community loved her father, “I used to wonder if I loved him at all.” Everyone else in the community adores him and talks about him like he’s infallible. This is a common dilemma for children of high-profile figures. The child knows the parent as a parent, not as the public figure everyone else knows. But the child sees and hears everyone else loving and adoring the parent, and wonders what’s wrong with them that they don’t feel the same way.

    Later, when Dovid says that no one really know what they want, Ronit says, “I do. I want my dad to know I loved him.” Not “I want to know my dad loves me,” not “I want my dad to accept me,” nothing like that. This is a very very difficult relationship.

    The last shot in the movie is of Ronit snapping a photograph of her father’s grave (she had said earlier that she regrets never having taken his portrait), and then laying a hand gently on the mound of the freshly-dug grave. It’s extremely poignant, and to me solidifies the idea that he main point of this story is Ronit’s relationship with her father. Or, at the very least, Ronit’s relationship with the community and with her past as primarily filtered through her relationship with her father and secondarily her relationship with Esti and Dovid.

  6. The audience: I was very interested in the audience’s reactions. The first showing I went to was attended by many Orthodox and ex-Orthodox Jews. The second was attended by many lesbian women. And this made a difference to how they reacted, very much so. I scribbled a lot of notes about the audience’s reactions, but I’m not going to share them all. Just one:

    When Esti and Dovid have sex: the reaction on the first night was laughter, and on the second night – SILENCE. I could read all sorts of things into that. I would actually have expected it to be the opposite. But I’m not entirely sure what to make of it.

    My reaction to that scene was an aching sadness. Because it simultaneously displays the awkwardness of prescribed sex with prescribed positions and the love between them. And Esti and Dovid certainly do love each other. Dovid loves Esti sexually, and Esti doesn’t return the sexual love. But she does love Dovid as more than a friend. That is very clear.

    And let me leave off with one final, somewhat preposterous thought: I was left thinking that in a perfect ideal world, Dovid Esti and Ronit would be in a polyamorous relationship. It seems so clear that they all love each other and should be together.


7 thoughts on “An Ex-Orthodox Queer Reviews Disobedience: Part 2

  1. The inaccuracies would take me out of the movie. There’s suspension of disbelief, but it’s like if a movie set in the present-day USA had everyone walking around wearing pants on their head, as though that’s how you wear pants. Luckily for the filmmakers, most people won’t know the difference.

    > The marketing of is as a queer film which incidentally happens to be about an ex-religious Jew is… weird.

    It’s marketing. How many people are there who are interested in a movie about ex-Orthodox Jews? How many are interested in a movie about a queer couple contending with a homophobic community? The second one sells a lot more tickets.

    > I was left thinking that in a perfect ideal world, Dovid Esti and Ronit would be in a polyamorous relationship. It seems so clear that they all love each other and should be together.

    L’halacha, that’s technically muttar…

    1. 1) I know. The list of inaccuracies was almost solely for your benefit 😉

      2) I get that, but it’s false marketing. The film was very much about Orthodox Judaism and the community, so focusing on the queer part was misleading. It got people in the theater, but it left a lot of people weirdly unsatisfied, and some not knowing why they weren’t satisfied. But also the film itself tried to be too many things at once, which led to all of the elements being ever so slightly weak. I still like the film. Just gonna keep saying that 😉

      3) Hm, that is fascinating. I mean, it would be muttar for him to have two wives (pre-cherem d’rabenu gershom), but would it be okay to have a polyamorous relationship where Esti and Ronit have sex, and Ronit and Dovid have sex, but Esti and Dovid don’t really? Because remember, Esti is a lesbian – not at all into men. Ronit is bi. And I do think that Esti loves Dovid in a chaste, asexual but romantic kind of way (yes, that’s a thing). So it woulcn’t be a case of a man having two women. It would be its own thing. What does halacha say about that? lol you don’t need to answer.

  2. > The list of inaccuracies was almost solely for your benefit


    As I understand it, it’s not clear that lesbianism is assur. There are rishonim who hold that it’s just an “unrefined” thing to do, and so you shouldn’t. In general, it seems that halacha doesn’t consider something sex unless there’s a man involved.

    Dovid would “have” Esti in the sense that she’s his wife. Romantically, the common partner in the relationships is Ronit, but that’s halachically irrelevant.

  3. It has to do with being the am hanivchar, and “unrefined” is shorthand for, “Disgusting things that other nations do.”

    But I would challenge the assumptions that sex is qualitatively different than other physical indulgences and that some kinds of sex are holy and others are debauched.

    1. Absolutely. I agree with you completely. I mean, wider society is still working through that, still has many assumptions about how certain kinds of sex are debauched (hence my disclaimer before suggesting that they could be polyamorous, even though – how beautiful is that!!!)

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