‘Purity’ Director Comes Clean

"Six months after giving birth, and I’m still impure," says Anat Zuria, director of the controversial Israeli documentary, "Purity," as she glumly strides to the mikvah (ritual bath) on a cold, Jerusalem night.

Zuria’s intimate film explores the ambivalence some women feel about Judaism’s family purity laws, which prevent husbands from touching their wives for a proscribed period of time after childbirth and menstruation. Physical contact may resume only after she immerses in the mikvah.

Ha’Aretz magazine called the film a "pioneering expose.’" Just as Sandi DuBowski’s "Trembling Before G-d" provoked dialogue about homosexuality in Orthodox circles, "Purity" has prompted debate about the family laws — often praised as Judaism’s recipe for sustaining spicy marriages.

"It’s a very important movie since it opens discussion on what has been a taboo topic," Bambi Sheleg, the Orthodox editor of Eretz Aheret magazine, told The Jerusalem Post in 2002.

Others worry about its critical point of view. The film has the "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 of Agudath Israel of America wrote in an online essay, "Impure Intentions."

Zuria, 42, describes her intentions as personal. Although she grew up secular, she says she fell in love with Judaism after marrying an observant man in 1982. Yet, she found the purity laws "oppressive, alienating, humiliating" impacting her relationship and her body image. The artist-turned-director sometimes spent hours at the mikvah as the attendant inspected her for paint spots (Jewish law prohibits the slightest barrier between the skin and the water).

Around 1999, Zuria decided to explore her feelings in a movie, interviewing more than 100 women before focusing on three women: Natalie provoked a divorce by refusing to go to the mikvah; Katie is happily married but struggles with the laws; and bride-to-be Shira clashes with her mother’s conservative views.

Zuria also shows herself as so conflicted about the ritual that she visits the bath "in the night, in the dark, so as not to be seen."

She feels "Purity" has shed some light on the subject since winning best documentary at 2002’s Jerusalem International Film Festival. "This was a nonissue, and now it’s an issue.

"Purity" airs on the Sundance channel July 26 at 6 p.m.