The world of Orthodox Judaism is not one we often see on the big screen. In Shekinah: The Intimate Life of Hasidic Women, a new documentary from Quebec, the lives of young women at a seminary come to the fore.
Taking its name from a word meaning “the female essence of God,” Shekinah is a sensitive and insightful film. It explores the interactions between young chassidic women and the surrounding population who do not know what to make of their differences.
“There’s wisdom in tradition,” filmmaker Abbey Jack Neidik says, narrating, “but most of that old world is gone now.” Neidik is fascinated by the Chassidim in his Montreal neighbourhood and wants to understand their way of life better.
Neidik follows young women who are Chabad Lubavitch as they attend the BMC Teachers’ Seminary in Montréal. Their director, Chana “Chanie” Carlebach, lays out the ground rules on the first days. Be modest and cover your body – you are supposed to notice the person, not their shape. Seek profound truth in Torah and God, not the Internet. Dedicate your life to create a home based on the model prescribed in the Torah.
Shekinah examines the relationships Chassidim try to form with a non-Jewish community. When one of the students finds a swastika drawn on the seminary door, the women try to erase the negative feeling by spreading kindness, delivering food to nearby homes.
Despite the temptations around them, these women follow the teachings with honour and dedication. Neidik looks at how these spiritually intuitive young women react to concepts of love, marriage and relationships.
The students are pure and have profound thoughts about the world and their place within it, even if there is curiosity about the outside world. “When I was younger, I thought maybe [being Orthodox] was being repressed,” student Rivkie Feldman tells Neidik. “It is so much easier to not be religious.”
Near the film’s end, the subjects of the film engage in a dialogue with local female high schoolers. “You have rules to follow and you respect them,” one of them says, stunned. “We have too much freedom.” These intersections between the chassidic women and the outside community comprise the best scenes in the film, bridging connections between cultures that do not normally intertwine.
If Shekinah falters on a narrative level, it is the lack of time we spend with many of the young adults at the seminary. The film follows the structure of their year there, from the first day of study until graduation. However, when Neidik explains how after spending a year covering these women, “they feel like family,” his reflection does not ring true with the viewer, who only gets a limited glimpse at many of these girls.
The looks we do get are fascinating, especially the profound worldview of Chaya Mushka Stern, an 18-year-old woman from England trying to adapt to a rewarding lifestyle some may see as too rigid. However, Shekinah would be a more engaging film if it focused on more of these young women and their spiritual journeys.
Nevertheless, Shekinah is a fascinating exploration of a group not often explored in modern culture. It is an especially significant film for Quebec audiences, since the misperceptions of some people around chassidic Jews may have spurred the recent controversy regarding the Quebec charter of values.
Shekinah: The Intimate Life of Hasidic Women opens in Toronto at the Carlton and Elgin Mills Cinemas on Friday, May 16, 2014. Additional play dates around Canada will follow in 2014.