Six years ago, Paula Eiselt was browsing the charedi website Vos Iz Neias when she stumbled across a compelling bit of news: Women in the chasidic community, rejected from joining the all-male Hatzolah ambulance service, were starting their own EMT corps. Eiselt, a documentary filmmaker, was not looking for a project; at the time, she was making another film and had just had her second child. But she knew a good story when she saw one, and so began the project that would become the documentary film “93Queen,” which opens here next week.
An Orthodox woman herself who lives in New Jersey, Eiselt “grew up with Hatzolah in my neighborhood, and it just never occurred to me that they banned women! And I thought, you know, I have actually never seen a woman serve as an EMT.”
Hatzolah, which serves Orthodox Jewish communities in the United States and Israel, is believed to be the largest volunteer EMT service in the world. “93Queen,” named for the corps’ official radio code, follows Ezras Nashim and its leader, Rachel “Ruchie” Freier from the project’s inception. Ezras Nashim, which means “women’s help” but is also the term for the women’s section of an Orthodox synagogue, is the name Freier’s group chose for itself. The winking pun is emblematic of the women Eiselt captured on film: committed to tradition, but creative, self-aware and lively.
That chasidic women were not allowed in Hatzolah was “a revelation” to Eiselt. Additionally, “that this was a group of chasidic women who were not taking no for an answer was really stunning to me.” Eiselt, who while Orthodox is not chasidic, was “an insider and an outsider at once” to the community she filmed. For most of the six years she was filming, Eiselt was a one-woman crew; the chasidic community, she said, has “so much fear and tension regarding media.” Of her methods, she said that “the only way you can get into women’s spaces in the chasidic community is to be small and blend in.”
The film, shot largely in Borough Park, is saturated with the evocative voice of Perl Wolf singing traditional chasidic melodies. Wolf is best known as the lead singer of the former all-women’s chasidic rock band Bulletproof Stockings, and her velvety voice carries some of the movie’s most emotional moments as she sings tunes that are typically the purview of men.
The film navigates the same tensions between what an observer might call women’s empowerment or feminism and the close-knit chasidic community that Eiselt confronted during production. “93Queen” most closely follows Ruchie Freier, a commanding and confident presence. Freier, an attorney, is approached by a group of women who have long wanted a women’s equivalent to Hatzolah but who lack the business savvy to get such an organization off the ground.
Among the women is Yocheved, who became religious as an adult and was, in her previous life, an experienced EMT. She and Freier butt heads repeatedly, most significantly over the issue of unmarried women serving as EMTs in Ezras Nashim; while Yocheved doesn’t see why unmarried women shouldn’t contribute to the community in this way, Freier insists that all EMTs must be married for the sake of propriety and communal approval.
Another point of contention in the film, one that reveals what Freier and company are up against, comes as the women seek an endorsement for Ezras Nashim from a prominent out-of-town rabbi. In a sweet moment, on the long van ride to the rabbi’s office, the women lean their sheiteled heads against one another’s shoulders. Tying scarves on top of their wigs to suit the more stringent head-covering standards of his sect, the women pile into the rabbi’s study. The film does not depict the women making their case to the anonymous rabbi, but it does depict the aftermath: They ride home dejected by his refusal to publicly support their endeavor. Yocheved, driving the van, attempts to raise the morale of her colleagues: “There is absolutely no reason for anyone to be disheartened. … The only thing you need to daven for is more emunah [conviction]. You have faith that Hashem [God] came this far with us; He’s with us, we’re going ahead. The end.”
An unexpected twist in “93Queen” is Freier’s campaign for a civil court judgeship. Though Freier mentions several times early in the film that she dreams of becoming a judge, her campaign comes as a surprise to the viewer. For Eiselt as well, the announcement was unexpected. “To have her announce that she was running for judge and to have that happen during the lifespan of the film was truly incredible,” she said.
Though the race for the judgeship is tense and fraught as Hatzolah supports a male chasidic candidate against Freier, the viewer can’t help but be confident of the result of the race.
Perhaps the best evidence of Freier’s political savvy is the discrepancy between two interviews she gives in the film, one to a religious radio station and one speaking to the camera. In the former, she forcefully informs listeners that “feminism is a secular concept. If you have a life that’s filled with Torah values, you don’t need feminism.”
Towards the end of the film, though, after she is elected judge, Freier reflects that “feminism in the chasidic community has a very negative connotation. People view it as a woman who wants to overstep the religious boundaries that are set up between men and women. … But obviously I couldn’t achieve this position if the women who have been trailblazing for women’s equality hadn’t made it possible. So my connection with secular feminism, I think, is very obvious.
“But you can’t just in one sentence narrow me down to a few specific words,” says Freier, capturing the nuance Eiselt aims for in the film. “It just doesn’t work with me.”
“93Queen” opens Wednesday, July 25 at IFC Center, 323 Sixth Ave. (at West Third Street), ifccenter.com.