five women stand in a synagogue staring up
Women gaze up at their synagogue's collapsed woman's balcony in a scene from “The Women’s Balcony.” (Photo/Menemsha Films)

‘Women’s Balcony’: East Bay Jewish film fest opener is a favorite in Israel

Set among a congregation of observant Jews in a quiet neighborhood in Jerusalem’s Old City, “The Women’s Balcony” begins with a bar mitzvah and ends with a wedding.

But there’s plenty of tsuris in between, triggered by the collapse of the women’s balcony halfway through the bar mitzvah service. The catastrophe shutters the shul and threatens the foundation of the affable community.

Things fall apart and, happily, fall back together stronger than ever in this skillfully constructed, crowd-pleasing saga of reasonableness fending off extremism and humanism triumphing over ideology.

Emil Ben Shimon’s spirited film pays unusual homage to the autonomy and power of women in Jewish religious patriarchies. The film both honors and pokes fun at traditional roles and relationships, but it is unambiguous in its critique of an adherence to scripture that overrules fundamental values of compassion and understanding.

The East Bay International Jewish Film Festival has chosen “The Women’s Balcony” to open its annual showcase of Jewish films this year. The dramatic comedy will play at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, March 2 at Century 16 in Pleasant Hill.

A number of other local screenings are right around the corner, as well. The film will play at 5:20 p.m. March 5 at the Roxie in San Francisco, as part of the S.F.-based Jewish Film Institute’s Winterfest, and at 1 and 7:30 p.m. March 7 at Rialto Cinemas in Sebastopol as part of the Sonoma County JCC’s Israeli Film Festival.

In addition, the film, reportedly Israel’s biggest box office hit last year, is set for a cinematic release on March 10 at the Sundance Kabuki in San Francisco, the Rialto in Berkeley and the Rialto in Sebastopol, and March 17 at Camera 3 in San Jose, according to the film’s website.

Nominated for five Israeli Academy Awards, the film tells the story of how a small congregation struggles to navigate its way forward after its balcony gives way. One of the issues is that the synagogue’s aged rabbi is sidelined by shock and grief; his wife was injured in the mishap and he remains riveted to her bedside.

The status quo is further disrupted by an ultra-Orthodox man who chances to be walking by one morning when the men are struggling to make a minyan. In a calculated twist of fate, this helpful fellow turns out to be a rabbi, notes the congregation’s leadership void and shrewdly moves to fill it.

Smartly, “The Women’s Balcony” doesn’t position young and handsome Rabbi David (Aviv Alush) as a total opportunist and villain. Sure, his sermons are more conservative than his adopted flock is used to hearing, and his attitude that a woman’s place is in the home is contrary to the ethos that defines and binds the congregation. But everyone interprets the Torah a little differently, don’t they?

Nominated for five Israeli Academy Awards, the film tells the story of how a small congregation struggles to navigate its way forward after its balcony gives way.

Rabbi David’s instructions for dressing modestly in public are an affront to some of the women, while others are fine with the new discipline. This fissure between longtime friends adds a dramatic subplot whose strongest aspect is that it allows us to observe the lives of religious women when the men aren’t around.

The prevailing dynamic between husbands and wives is also challenged by the rabbi’s teachings. Zion (Igal Naor) and Ettie (Evelin Hagoel) are the main couple we get to know, and the accretion of details depicting their steady, solid relationship imbues the film with texture and heart.

The movie’s attention to Ettie and Zion (and their fellow congregants, to a lesser degree) subtly reminds us that the real problem with authoritarian philosophies and dogmatic policies is the way they impact individuals in their daily lives.

Meanwhile, the community is grateful for Rabbi David’s energy and plans for repairing the synagogue. Every successive pronouncement and act, however, excludes the women from the decision process and pushes them to the margins of their own shul.

Rabbi David is indifferent to the idea that he has planted the seeds of a resistance, and he underestimates the women’s resolve — and their ability to strategize.

“The Women’s Balcony” deepens as it goes, smoothly combining a humanistic worldview with a timely political undercurrent. It delivers witty, intelligent and emotionally satisfying entertainment, along with a retort to Israel’s powerful religious conservatives.

“The Women’s Balcony,” 7:30 p.m. Thursday, March 2 at Century 16, 125 Crescent Drive, Pleasant Hill. $12. (In Hebrew with English subtitles, 96 minutes, unrated)

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.