Israeli women struggle with Orthodox purity in documentary

The Jewish laws addressing marital relations and impurity are clear — and place the onus squarely on the wife.

Or as the striking divorcee Natalie declares with an undercurrent of bitterness in the lovely and evocative Israeli documentary, “Purity”: “That the sages were men, not women, and throughout the ages weren’t really interested in what women think, of this I am sure.”

The exquisitely composed, unfailingly compassionate one-hour film, subtitled “Breaking the Code of Silence,” airs July 26 on the Sundance Channel.

Israeli filmmaker Anat Zuria offers neither an investigation nor a critique of “taharat hamishpacha,” the Orthodox regulations concerning menstruation, birth and the limited contact allowed between wives and husbands at those times.

She comes in the spirit of poetic inquiry, as a way of opening a discussion, rather than with a philosophical or moral agenda. In lieu of interviews with rabbis and scholars, she focuses on the effects of halachah on the day-to-day lives of a few specific women.

Zuria doesn’t try to persuade the viewer that the Orthodox Jewish laws are unfair or anachronistic. That they place an extra burden on some women, that much seems certain. But she also recognizes that there is comfort in ritual, and power in tradition.

Employing a stripped-down yet stunning asceticism, Zuria shoots in a serene, classical style that frequently approaches still photography. The tacky handheld shots that are all too often the hallmark of verité films are rarely in evidence here. Jonathan Bar-Giora’s spare score, employed minimally, enhances the sense of mystery and privacy.

In yet another smart decision, “Purity” (which screened last year in the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival) spotlights vital, sexual women, demolishing the myth of repressed Orthodox Jewish wives.

The lively Katy and her husband, Arie, whose accents suggest they emigrated from Australia, are in their early 40s and have several children. Katy has a uterine disorder that results in some bleeding, substantially extending the period of time each month that she is considered impure and can’t sleep with her husband.

Needless to say, observing halachah adds strain to the marriage. There’s no question about Katy’s love of Orthodox Judaism, but the physical and emotional anguish weigh on her.

Shira, meanwhile, is about to get married, and her mother reminds her of the commandment that must be observed on her wedding night. “There are three ways a woman is acquired,” Shoshana explains. “One is intercourse.”

Shoshana also explains the procedure and significance of the mikvah. The young Shira — like the simple son in the Haggadah who asks “What is all this?” — is unimpressed. A generation gap begins to yawn between mother and daughter.

But as the wedding gets closer, Shira gradually gets used to the whole gestalt of the ritual bath. Immediately after her wedding, but still shy, she seems increasingly ready to immerse herself in the responsibilities and traditions of being an Orthodox Jewish wife.

And then there is Natalie, who compares the wedding night of an observant bride — who hadn’t so much as held her partner’s hand until the reception following the ceremony a few hours prior — to rape.

Natalie looks at slides of her wedding, recalling how at some point she decided to stop going to the mikvah. Since she was “impure,” and therefore unable to fulfill her marriage obligations in the law’s eyes, her husband had grounds for divorce.

While many women find authority and identity in the rituals of a religious community, Natalie experienced only social and psychological pressure.

Zuria closes her elegant film with an anecdote about a group of women in Rambam’s time who staged a protest against the rules surrounding the mikvah. Her point is clear: As long as Judaism exists, the laws of purity will be enforced — and there will be women who rebel.

“Purity” airs at 9 p.m. Monday, July 26, on the Sundance Channel.

Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a longtime film journalist and critic, and a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Film Critics Circle. He teaches documentary classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute programs at U.C. Berkeley and S.F. State. In 2015, the San Francisco Film Society added Fox to Essential SF, its ongoing compendium of the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions.