‘Black Bus’: The Pain of Defecting from the Fold

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April 1, 2012
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Toby Perl Freilich

Anat Zuria’s spare, eloquent and moving new film, “Black Bus,” is sure to fuel the roiling controversy over extreme gender segregation within Israeli ultra-Orthodox sectors. The conflict has provoked embarrassing comparisons between Jerusalem and Teheran, and sparked a critical debate on the tensions inherent in a free society’s commitment to protect cultural as well as individual rights.

In Israel, where for decades scantily dressed women venturing into certain Haredi neighborhoods could expect a sharp rebuke, the clash of differing codes of modesty is not new. What is new is its spillover into the civic sphere, where female images gradually began disappearing from billboards across Jerusalem, and women have been denied the podium at governmental ceremonies featuring ultra-Orthodox ministers.

Although newspaper headlines have included growing numbers of these flashpoints, Zuria’s film focuses on segregated “mehadrin,” or stringently kosher buses in which women are asked to sit in the rear.

Zuria’s films zero in on the stickiest reminders of Orthodoxy’s patriarchal structure, ranging from women doomed to a life of limbo because their husbands have refused to grant them halakhic divorces (“Condemned to Marriage”), to the intrusive nature of Jewish laws of ritual purity (“Purity”), which dictate the rhythms of an Orthodox couple’s sex life based on a woman’s menstrual cycle.

In “Black Bus,” which was named the Best Documentary Film at the Haifa International Film Festival in 2009, Zuria takes on a relatively new, halakhically contested issue that has come into widespread practice in the last decade, mandating strict gender segregation in all public arenas. (Unlike the American racial segregation it invokes, women are relegated to the back so as not to incite impure thoughts in men, and so as to facilitate a means of travel for thousands of ultra-Orthodox men and women committed to a voluntary code of sexual modesty and holiness that governs all aspects of their lives.)

The roving mehadrin buses provide an irresistible example of the spread of this preoccupation with gender segregation across circumscribed geographical boundaries. They also graphically illustrate the real nub of the film: that in the male-dominated ultra-Orthodox world, women — physically and humanly — are being constrained within ever-narrower limits.

The documentary’s Hebrew title, “Soreret,” or “She Who Strays,” is a more accurate description of its dramatic thread: the story of two young women — Sara, who writes a blog for ex-Haredim, and Shulamit, a law student — both of whom have left the ultra-Orthodox fold and are enduring the painful psychic and social consequences of their defection. Ostracized by their families and communities, their very sanity is questioned for abandoning the Torah way of life.

Shulamit is also a gifted photographer who compulsively records Haredi street life, and her photographs are beautifully woven into the film. In one scene, as Shulamit snaps her picture, a young mother pushing a stroller instinctively drops to a defensive crouch, cowering behind the carriage to hide herself from view.

The play on “seeing/being seen” is skillfully evoked in two separate scenes as Sara and Shulamit preen in front of the mirror. Question marks haunt their mirror images: Who am I? Was it worth it? Can I survive?

The survival question is not a rhetorical one; both have either seriously contemplated or actively attempted suicide. Sara, an engaging mother of two, is an active cutter, and her scars are noticed by a sensitive Hasid who seeks her out after discovering her blog on Google. His face is never shown on camera, as he is still considering his own “coming out.” The loaded metaphor is a crucial reminder that living an identity lie threatens all those in Haredi culture, male and female, who cannot abide its imposed behavioral conformity.

Still, with regard to gender segregation, the religious obligation has gradually shifted from men enjoined not to look to women pressed to disappear. Speculation is rife about the root causes of women’s excision from public view, and “Black Bus” theorizes about indoctrinated disgust with the female body, for example, which eventually invades the marriage bed, draining physical affection from the holy act of reproduction.

Many aspects of Haredi culture should be celebrated: its piety; its purposeful way of life; and its joyful emphasis on family, charity, Jewish identity, and ritual. But it’s a community tacking sharply to the right, pushing stringencies ad absurdum and relying ever more frequently on totalitarian tactics of spying, intimidation, and fear to keep its members in check.1 Zuria’s film draws a disturbing and deeply human portrait of those dissidents who are cruelly ejected from its embrace.

1 In the film, Shulamit is spotted taking photographs and reported to her father for immodest behavior.

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Toby Perl Freilich is a documentary filmmaker. Her film, Inventing Our Life: The Kibbutz Experiment, will premiere at New York City’s Quad Cinema on April 25.

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