Film Review - Fill the Void / Lemale et ha halal
by Manya Steinkoler
Rama Burshtein’s first film, Lemale et ha’halal” translated from the Hebrew as Fill the Void is beautifully filmed and exquisitely acted. It won seven Ophir awards and a variety of international prizes and honorable mentions. The film highlights the close Haredi family ties as the repeated tight shots depict the lack distance between the characters, especially between mothers and daughters. The beauty and intimacy is worth a closer look.
The filmmaker not only invites us to the table where food is served and charity is given to the poor and needy, but into a world of religious joy in the many scenes of celebratory song and dance. In a particularly beautiful scene, she invites us into the synagogue to witness a circumcision ceremony from above, a Divine perspective, but also one must note, from the women’s segregated section of the synagogue, a perspective we sometimes share with the female members of the community by way of Burshtein’s camera.
Like the women confined to their “section” of the synagogue, everyone has a place in this marginal world: the unmarried woman with no arms, the homely girl no man wants to marry, the complaining old woman who is unable to purchase a stove by herself, and even the greedy man plagued by his mentally ill wife are not deprived of the Rabbi’s indulgence. They will all find a place or discover that they already belong in the community. The question that we are forced to ask from a modern secular perspective is at what price do we have such a place?
The characters wrestle with deeply felt personal emotions amidst complex family and social dynamics. The audience is taken out of our secular world and shown a kind of intimacy and belonging that we could only feel nostalgic for in our modern, urban lives. I overheard the elderly New York man sitting beside me at the movie theater remark to his wife, “Who would have thought that we would have to become Hassidim nowadays in order to be happy!” The wife replied was silent for a moment, the audience was weeping and then replied – still moved by the film and wiping her eyes: “So you can read books and I can wash the kitchen floor?” It is to this response – both weeping and critiquing that this review is faithful.
The American critical reception of the film has been positive yet notably tepid in terms of meaningful critique. A.O. Scott of the New York Times sees a “young person figuring herself out” in the Hassidic community as “accessible and thrilling.” For the Jewish Week’s George Robinson, Rama Burshtein has “the power of an Otto Preminger” and calls the film “stunningly poised.” Kenneth Turan of The Los Angeles Times focused primarily on the plot of the arranged marriage and the threat to Shira’s “free choice.” Richard Brody, in The New Yorker, more ambiguously and coolly noted that “Burshtein gets taut and subtle performances, but also cuts the characters off from the wider world even more decisively than they do themselves.” The critics mention the tight shots of the closed community, as well as the intense personal conflict of a religious young woman. These seem to most New York audience members as I listened to them speak after the film, a sentimental, rather wistful longing for family, community and communal responsibility. While the film is most sentimental with regard to these two points, it is at the same time, most problematic and disturbing. And the way it is both sentimental and disturbing warrants more critical commentary.
The story: Shira Mendelman, aged 19, is thinking about getting married as Rivka Mendelman (her mother) takes a cell phone call from the local matchmaker, Mrs. Striecher. The pair proceed to the dairy section of the local supermarket to spy on the eligible Pinchas Miller who is standing in front of the milk. Shira looks at him and nods in approval; she likes him! Mazal Tov!
It is Purim and we see the holiday festivities at the home of Rabbi Aaron and Rivka Mendleman. Shira’s elder sister Esther is nine months pregnant. At the holiday celebration, Yochai, Esther’s husband, becomes drunk (it is permitted by Jewish law to be drunk on Purim) and movingly professes his love to his pregnant wife. Charity is given by the father, Rabbi Aaron to the needy, as they address their personal and financial problems to him. After the evening’s celebration, disturbing rock and roll music creeps in from the neighborhood. I remark upon this detail since it is one of the only times in the film that we are made aware that there is an outside world, one that differs greatly from the world we are watching; disturbing, dissonant “music” intrudes on the safe world of this traditional community who sing centuries-old Purim niggunim (religious tunes). Indeed, the fact that this story takes place in the Haredi community in Tel-Aviv is largely ignored except for the passing trucks and street signs we see in Hebrew. It seems as though it could be the Haredi community anywhere. As the loud rock and roll music from outside the home insists, Esther collapses in the bathroom. It seems rock and roll has adverse effects on pregnant Hassidic women. Esther dies and is survived by her infant son, Mordechai. We soon learn that Pinchas Miller will marry someone else and a year later, it is Yochai, the single father, who will require Mrs. Streicher’s matchmaking attentions.
Rivka Mendelman, the mother of Shira and of the deceased Esther, hears that Mrs. Streicher intends to match Yochai with a widowed mother in Belgium. Afraid she will be deprived of her infant grandson and son-in-law, her eyes fall on her youngest daughter, Shira. The remainder of the film will depict Shira’s ambivalence, as she vacillates back and forth between an initial “no” - Yochay is her sister’s husband, after all—to a weak “yes,”—“for the sake of the family” - that quickly turns into a “no” once again when the chief rabbi tenderly tells Shira that she is allowed to, indeed, expected to, express her true feelings when taking her marriage vows. She then says “No” to marrying her dead sister’s husband. Not long after, however, Shira will change her mind yet again to a “final yes,” in a private note she pens to the head rabbi. (This note-writing is the Hassidic practice of kvitel, which entails the writing of prayer notes to the Rabbi. It is through this kvitel to the rabbi that she is able to say “yes” to Yochai. I remark on this because the “writing” rather than speaking the yes puts it in the place of prayer and thus of jouissance - a source of the division that Shira was plagued with due to the oedipally interdicted nature of this match). A wedding scene follows, with long close ups of a nervously praying bride, full of her personal kvitel in her prayer book on her lap. A very brief final scene follows of the couple arriving home after the wedding. We are left with an ambiguous closing shot of a terrified and anxious bride hovering nervously, backing up against the wall of her new home.
Taking over her sister’s position as wife and mother is initially impossible for Shira. It is an oedipal interdiction that she cannot overcome, one that has structured her desire, allowing her to dream of her own future without conscious envy of her sister. (One is reminded of Freud’s case of Elisabeth von R. and her hysteric outbreak due to the death of her sister and her desire for her brother-in-law). This oedipal interdiction is made obvious many times in the film and is consistent all the way to the final shot of anxiety and trepidation in the newlywed home.
While not subject to hysterical somaticizations and symptoms, Shira Mendelman is nevertheless ambivalent and melancholic, mourning the loss of her sister and of the life she had dreamed of for herself with Pinchas of the dairy section. The drama of the film moves from Shira’s original “no,” to her agreement to marry Yochai in obedience to her parent’s wishes, to a “no” of her own, supported by the rabbi, to a final “yes of her own,” made possible via the kvitel to the rabbi. This final “desire of her own,” is luckily for all, exactly the one that is expected of her by her parents and by the community.
While there has been much simplistic “critical” affirmation of “Shira’s choice” in the reviews surrounding the film, in my view, this superficial enthusiasm marks an ersatz feminism fueled by liberal guilt and embarrassment at criticizing the religious right. There has been no critical discussion of this “choice” as an ideological one. It is through Shira’s “choice,” after all, that the community stays together in Israel, the Holy Land and a fate of dispersal is avoided. Shira’s choice is made to satisfy her mother; it was initially her mother’s idea.
One point worth mentioning is that this “yes” cannot happen without Yochai’s intervention, one that Shira originally had to denounce and flee. Yochai places his own desire on the line. Importantly, we never see Shira’s desire even once; we will only know about her ‘yes’ by way of her private and secret letter to the rabbi. Initially, Yochai is angered and humiliated when he is unsuccessful in his solicitations. Earlier in the film, we saw him movingly declare his life-long love for her sister, Esther, and a year later, with Esther gone, he is rather easily suggestible and sexually interested in Shira. The idea that this nineteen year old could say “no” to him - “no” to him insofar as he is a man—comes as a surprise. Here the film ably and sensitively tells us psychological truths. Shira is only able to finally say “yes” because she was once able to say “no” and defend her desire vis-à-vis her sister. Moreover, Yochai can only become desirable once he was shown to be lacking phallically, i.e., castrated, no longer expecting that Shira would embrace him now that he is suddenly available and she can take her sister’s place. What is at stake is Shira’s own subjective division, and it remains at stake throughout the film to the very end as she is pinned against the wall, anxious, praying and trembling installed in her “proper place at home.” The mother’s desire to keep the family together is supported by Yochai’s interest in Shira. In the scenes with Yochai and Shira, Burshtein manages – and hats off to her here—to depict a Hassidic man as masculine. Yochai takes a risk approaching a woman, in coming literally “too close to her,” as Shira will anxiously protest, putting out her hand in defense, “you are too close.” It seems that with all the physical proximity in the film, one finds a clear limit, and it is Shira’s. The limit is the oedipal transgression, the law is the one that structures the unconscious and repression as such. There is one “closeness” that Shira, at least to begin with, says “no” to. In these “seduction” scenes, Yochai is an important addendum to popular images of Hassidic men. He is not a good rabbinic father, nor is he a perverse frequenter of prostitutes, or a double-dealing crook; Yochai desires a woman and loves her as a man in terms of the law. He takes one woman (at a time) as his symptom, meaning he is able to replace the woman he loves with another one.
At the same time that we laud such innovations that counter our inherited stereotypes of Hassidic men, Filling the Void aims at much more than a difficult family romance as its ideological and symbolic underpinnings have deeper roots.
Esther Mendelman dies on Purim, the very day when the Jews celebrate Queen Esther’s saving them from impending destruction. The Purim story tells of a time when the future of the Jews was threatened. In the Mendelman family, the threat is the dissolution of the family unit; Yochai and Mordechai will be taken away from their grandmother Rivka, a fate unbearable for her. The threat is transposed from the “evil other outside” threatening the community, to the idea that the threat could be inside the community. We note that the threat to the community is concomitant with a threat to the mother. This destructive threat can be seen in the film on two fronts: destruction by way of modernity and secularism (the rock and roll music that kills Esther); and the threat of Diaspora. Concomitant with leaving the mother, Yochai could leave the Holy Land for—Belgium, the Diaspora! – (the place that the potential new wife proposed by the matchmaker lives). It will become Shira’s job to protect the family from this threat.
The threat of the Diaspora unites the family story with a less evident religious one and a more important, political one. This is made most dramatically apparent by the memorable music that underlines this point. At key dramatic moments of decision making, lush music overtakes Shira (whose name means “song” in Hebrew). Awash in pathos in a melancholic dirge while playing her accordion, in one scene she ignores all the kindergarten children for whom she is playing. This dirge transforms, however, into the major musical event of the film, a modern choral rendition of “If I forget thee Oh Jerusalem, may I forget my right hand.” The tune of the psalm is so melodic, so memorable, that many audience members left the theater humming it to the closing credits.
The moving song is a metonym for Shira (song) herself. It serves as the dramatic antithesis to the “disturbing rock and roll” that intruded from the neighbors, the “musical outside” that “killed” her sister. Shira is identified with the “good music” that is nationalistic and ideological - the music that preserves and doesn’t kill. Shira is identified with the good music insofar as her name means song and insofar as the song for Jerusalem becomes aligned with close ups of her. We might recall that on Purim, the congregation makes a loud noise to cover over the name of the evil Haman, the man responsible for trying to destroy the Jews. Noise is used to “cover over” the mentioning of his name, as a way of “erasing” his name. Here, “beautiful music” and religious ideology “covers” the threat of Rock and Roll, the threat of modernity, of the secular world. Moreover, by way of this song, Shira (song), her family, and the Haredi community, become Israel (Jerusalem); it is not Esther who thus saves Mordechai (the story of Purim) but Shira who saves the threatened nation of Israel (from modernity and Diaspora) by marrying Yochai. Shira literally becomes the “song” by which “God lives” (Yochai means God lives); the family is kept together and the place in Israel (with God) is ensured. The symbolic names and the repeated moving music underline the less evident religious-political message; in Shira’s “choice” to “fill the void” and take her sister’s place, “Jerusalem is not forgotten.” Married to song, the couple, “Shira and Yochai,” become a metaphor for art that glorifies God, and perhaps for Burshtein’s film itself. Shira’s choice re-establishes community and continuity where there was loss; the void is filled, as the title of the film promises. Shira takes her sister’s place; Rivka’s wish has been fulfilled; Jerusalem is not forgotten. A young woman stands trembling and terrified against the wall of her new home.
. . .
“Chalal” (void) is an interesting word in Hebrew. It means “space” or “void” and seems to have a variety of etymological origins, one of which is the Arabic, “breach.” Strong’s Biblical Concordance suggests two principal Biblical meanings: commencement, beginning, void, piercing, cavity, and vacuum; and in another series, wounding, making oneself sick, and profanation.
The notion of “void” in Hassidic thought has its origins on Lurianic Kabbalah. The Hassidic movement is inspired by the Kabbalistic notion of Tzimtzum where we learn that in creating the world, God, as Infinite, put himself aside. He thereby created a space for finite beings and thus for human choice. It is here that the notion of “free will” has a role in Lurianic thought. In the Chassidic interpretation and tradition based on this thought, by way of this void, God opens the way for love. This is called “chalal hapanui.” Contracted Divine space is where human creation and agency (through speech) can come into being. In this idea, interestingly, all the meanings of the word “chalal” come together: beginning, profanation (the mortal and finite), and vacuum (God’s retreat). God, “HaMakom” (in Hebrew, the place) is not the void. He is the Other that guarantees the void as constructed by His love for human beings. The more one is open to Divine Love, the more one’s choices will coincide with the Infinite itself. Shira’s “filling the void” while deeply personal, read in the religious context, is a destined choice, one “in tune” with God’s love for his people. In such a reading, the more she loves, the more her choice is God’s choice for his people. Such a literal and religiously inspired “filling of the void” is a reading lost on the secular audience but very present for a religious one. Shira’s choice is both hers and God’s at the same time. And the notion of family-community- and state achieve perfection in the Holy Land inhabited by God’s chosen people. We leave the theater singing, weeping, wishing for the good old days of tight-knit communities, charity giving and good ole tonal choral singing…
In Hebrew University Professor Zeev Sternhell’s famous text, The Anti Enlightenment, he argues vociferously against thinkers who require obedience, especially as regards the difficult work of the democratic state and just social action. In an article in Ha’aretz in 2011, bewailing the Israeli turn to the right and the passing of discriminatory ethnic laws in Israel fueled by the Orthodox right wing, he states that while the right is “marginalized all over Europe, Israel risks becoming an anachronistic state…where ethnic inequality has become a legal norm.” He continues in this regard: “The disgraceful flight from a confrontation with the right in the Knesset will not soon be forgotten, and the center’s moral bankruptcy will be recorded as a disgrace.” He continues with a statement not for the right - but for his readers: “The greatest enemies of democracy and the sources of fascism’s strength have always been - not the radical right’s independent power—but the opportunism, conformism and cowardice of the center” (Ha’aretz, April 1, 2011). His words should cause us to reflect: why have no critics commented on the ideological position of this movie? Why because it focuses on a young woman and its director is a Hassidic Jew, must we all keep our mouths shut? Why is it suddenly a “feminist choice” (according to one critic) to marry your sister’s husband and keep the family together in Israel?
In an article written the following November, Sternhell will ask tauntingly whether Israel still needs democracy. He states provocatively that there is “nothing holy about democracy” (Ha’aretz, November, 2011). Sternhell has been outspoken about the occlusion of democratic process and promise due to the institution of religious law. An attempt on his life was made because of his outspoken position.
Psalm 137: If I forget thee Oh Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its cunning.
The question of the division of the city, of the right to share the holy city, of an Israeli state as a modern state amongst other nations, of a Palestinian state, of the occupied territories, of the settlements, of citizenship with equal rights for non-Jews…
…Is there a catchy tune for something as unholy as democracy? What song do we sing when our choices have no guarantee and the void is not filled by our acts and our words but constituted by them?
In a closing reflection, I would like to place a lecture of Jacques Lacan beside our last shot of the new bride, as she is backed up against the wall of her new home. “Up against the wall,” conforming to a domestic, religious and maternal injunction that goes against her subjective division, Shira prays as her husband/brother-in-law enters the room to hang his hat, a shtreimel.
Je parle aux Murs, (I speak to the walls) is a series of lectures Jacques Lacan gave at the St Anne Hospital in 1971-72 in which he addresses the “savoir,” or, “knowledge” of the psychoanalyst. Lacan speaks, he tells us, “to the walls,” suggesting that despite his enormous popularity as a lecturer, “no one is listening to him.” The wall is thus the other who listens as well as a limit internal to language, a limit to understanding and “shared meaning.” In this sense it is the opposite of the “shared meaning” of ideological injunctions or national or religious “destinies.” For Lacan, we cannot exit the “wall” of castration, constituted by speech. “Common sense” is a narcissistic ruse, i.e., a form of the refusal of knowledge of the Real of which ideology and religion are prime examples. Far from “filling the void,” Lacan tells us that the void is engendered by speech and refers to Plato’s cave and to the origins of language and creation ex-nihilo. What he calls the Real, the excess of signification that eludes language, is what limits shared meaning, and concerns a “knowledge” particular to the psychoanalyst and particular to each speaking subject in analysis. In these lectures, Lacan tells us that the passion for ignorance takes as its mainspring not wanting to know anything about this “Real.” He adds provocatively that in his lectures he “gives reason, at least, to the walls” (or we could say - he shows that the walls are right, that they have a reason). Playing on the homophony between “reason” with réson,” evoking the walls he speaks to as “echoing,” or resonating, he suggests that walls echo by way of a cave. Via Plato, Lacan refers to the cavernous space of the object a - of the voice in the speech, of the resonance in speech of what is not speech, of the body and the Real. This resonance concerns the analytic encounter in its absolute singularity - a singularity that cannot finally be overcome by way of ideology or conformity. It concerns the origin of language as the cry, the origin of song, of what invents and maintains the void.
So we take leave of Shira at the wall in her new home. Lacan is not talking to her, but to the wall, to what she stands against, only to tremble. Her terror shows that religion and ideology have not solved her dilemma; they have not resolved the problem: what does Shira want? They have only placed her there, married, “up against the wall.” The trembling overtakes her, a jouissance of her body despite the “right answer,” and one that all the praying at the walls in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem can only petrify, if not augment in a regretful, parochial moralism.
Fill the Void shows how the woman is made use of in order to sustain the Other as a source of meaning’s guarantee, the very opposite of the way Lacan theorizes the feminine in his seminar, Encore. There he shows that feminine jouissance concerns the lack in the Other, and that the phallus is a semblance. She doesn’t fill the void, but shows that the Other is “not all.” The film shows how the feminine is sacrificed to make “meaning.” Luckily, the film maker was wise enough to leave us with her protagonist trembling at this sacrifice.