Filmmaking With Purity


Some people call her film daring, others dangerous. First-time filmmaker Anat Zuria admits that "Tehora," her hour-long documentary about Jewish family purity, is meant to provoke. But she sees greater peril in keeping quiet about a subject that shapes the lives of Orthodox Jewish women.

"Tehora" (Purity) focuses on observance of taharat hamishpacha (family purity), the laws that govern marital sex. The codes mandate a couple’s physical separation during the wife’s menstrual period and for a week afterward, when she is considered unclean. The woman’s purity is restored only when she immerses herself in a mikveh.

The film follows three women grappling with their feelings about the laws: Natalie, who prompted a divorce by refusing to go to the mikveh; Katie, who struggles to maintain her observance despite the physical and emotional stress it causes; and Shira, a bride-to-be who cannot relate to her mother’s enthusiasm for the tradition.

After sparking conversations on the taboo subject at film festivals from Jerusalem to Vancouver, "Tehora" has its New York debut next week. A Nov. 6 screening, sponsored by the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance at the JCC in Manhattan, sold out in advance. (See Arts Guide on page 46 for details about the Nov. 8 screening.)

Billed as a documentary, "Tehora" strives for art more than clarity and balance. Zuria’s camera lingers on spigots and drains; stark musical accompaniment creates cinematic foreboding.

"I wanted people to feel the sense of a trap," the painter-turned-filmmaker told The Jewish Week from her home in Jerusalem. "For those women, on one side it’s part of their tradition and Jewish identity. And it’s in very strong conflict with their [female] identity and intimate feelings about their bodies and their relationships."

Zuria, 42, also appears in "Tehora," which she started shooting six weeks after the birth of her fifth child, a daughter.

Raised in a secular home, Zuria began living an observant life two decades ago when she married an Orthodox man. As the years passed, however, her questions about taharat hamishpacha mounted. Together with her husband, Zuria began to study the laws’ biblical roots and the ways rabbis later expanded and enforced them.

The structure, she said, is "based on the experience of men and on their ideas of what a woman is or should be. I wanted to know ‘What is the nature of woman?’ "

Zuria is completing her second film, on Jewish divorce, and is planning a third, on motherhood.

"Tehora" took top prizes at festivals in Jerusalem, Prague, and most recently Japan. But the film has also drawn criticism as a diatribe and an attack on halacha, or Jewish law.

The real danger of Zuria’s film "lies in [its] potential to encourage Jews who may not yet have experienced the power and beauty of Jewish observance to simply dismiss those precious things out of hand," Rabbi Avi Shafran, the spokesman for the Orthodox umbrella group Agudath Israel of America, wrote in an online essay about the film, titled "Impure Intentions."

He also noted that growing numbers of non-observant Jewish women, "including a number of self-described feminists," have embraced elements of family purity: especially immersion in the mikveh.

When it is discussed, taharat hamishpacha is usually touted as beneficial for the couple, creating closeness and sense of sanctity.

In her interviews with more than 100 Israeli women (all Orthodox, all educated) Zuria initially heard such elevated sentiments. But in meetings with the same women over a period of months, more complex feelings emerged.
As trust developed, Zuria said, "I never heard a woman tell me, ‘Yes, it’s just great. I feel so wonderful.’ "

"I know there are women that declare it, but in my research I didn’t meet them," she said.

She sometimes encounters them now at screenings of "Tehora."

"They don’t always just love me," Zuria said of audiences. "But many times I get more love than rage. Which is interesting. Which should be an alarm for many rabbis."