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New documentary lifts the veil on a Jewish Israeli nun’s life

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Marina, left, and her sister Tatiana try to reconcile their divergent lives in A Sister’s Song. (Entre Deux Mondes Productions)

The difficult integration of many Russian Jews into Israel is well known. While some choose to leave the country, one young woman followed a more radical path.

Tatiana, who immigrated as a child, converted to Christianity, became a nun and has spent more than 20 years in a remote monastery in Greece.

Sister Jerusalem, the name she took with her vows, is the enigmatic personality at the heart of A Sister’s Song, a new documentary by Israeli-born filmmaker Danae Elon, which had its world premiere in Montreal and is playing at Cinémathèque Québécoise from Nov. 30-Dec. 7.

Marina is worried about her sister, Tatiana, whose life is one of strict obedience and isolation from the world, including her own family.

The siblings have had limited contact over the years, but their loving bond remains strong.

Marina, who’s concerned that Tatiana is unhappy, wants to convince her to come back to Israel, so she travels to the Greek monastery. It is a reckoning for the sisters, but not a confrontation. Marina is eager to understand, while Tatiana feels constrained in expressing her feelings, which she believes would be a betrayal of her faith.

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Although the film has no conclusive ending – no one is proven to be right or wrong – viewers are left with plenty to ponder.

Marina is not judgmental, no matter how bewildering her sister’s decision seems to her. But she does feel a twinge of guilt. It was Marina, the younger sibling, who first explored a Greek Orthodox monastery in Jerusalem as a curious child. She persuaded Tatiana, then two years older at 13, to come back with her.

It was fateful. Tatiana had an epiphany and decided then and there that she would devote herself to the church. As soon as she finished high school, she headed to Greece, to the mountaintop monastery that has been her home ever since, where she lives with a cloister of nuns in full habit.

It’s an austere life of rigid routine and, most troubling to Marina, they live under the sway of the elder monk.

The parents, though secular, were naturally opposed to their eldest daughter’s choice and their contact with her dwindled over the years.

A Sister’s Song is not about religion or politics, per se, but rather the universal theme of troubled family relationships and, at a deeper level, how we may never really know another person. The word “Jewish,” in fact, is uttered only once in the 80-minute film.

Documentary filmmaker Danae Elon (Filmoption International/CC BY-SA 4.0)

In the film, Marina says that the family felt like strangers in Israel for the first few years: “We were Russian, which meant we were probably not Jewish in their eyes.”

The parents eventually found acceptance in the United States. (Although unsaid, there’s little doubt that having a daughter who became a nun only further ostracized them.)

What is most striking about A Sister’s Song is how Elon, who has been living in Montreal for the past five years, was able to document such an intimate, private exchange between the siblings, especially considering Tatiana’s seclusion.

Elon said she met the nun about six years ago when she was working on her previous film, The Patriarch’s Room (2016), which is about the ouster of Greek Orthodox Patriarch Irineos. after he was accused of selling church property to Jewish settlers.

She became close with the sisters and gradually gained their confidence. “They were looking for a safe space to talk, and I was instrumental in creating that space,” said Elon.

A Sister’s Song was first screened in May at DocAviv, the documentary festival in Tel Aviv, where it was entered in the Israeli competition. It won the award for innovative filmmaking, as well as one for best original music.

The Cinémathèque Québécoise in Montreal. (Jean Gagnon/CC BY-SA 3.0)

A Sister’s Song continues to tour international festivals and is confirmed for the Toronto Jewish Film Festival next spring.

Elon, who was born in Jerusalem in 1970, is the daughter of the late writer Amos Elon, a leading public intellectual who was sharply critical of the direction Israel was taking.

She explored her own ambivalence about her native country in the 2015 autobiographical documentary film, P.S. Jerusalem.

In the late 1990s, Elon, who had been living in New York since completing her army service, and her French-born Jewish husband, decided to move back to Jerusalem, where there third son was born.

But after three years, they were left disillusioned by what they saw as deepening injustice against Palestinians and the demonization of left-wing Jews.

They ended up settling in Montreal. “I thought it would be a good place to bring up my boys. There have been challenges like any immigrant has, but I have a fantastic team and we’ve produced three films here,” she said.

A Sister’s Song was co-produced by Elon and Paul Cadieux for Montreal-based Entre Deux Mondes Productions. Quebecer Peter Venne composed the original score.