November 20, 2018

Connecting With My Roots in “Disobedience”

“Disobedience” is a film about forbidden love in an insular Orthodox Jewish community and about the choice of whether to stay or leave. It’s also a stunning portrayal of the torment nonconformists suffer in a conformist community.

The lovers in question, Esti (Rachel McAdams) and Ronit (Rachel Weisz), were raised in the Orthodox Jewish community in Hendon, London. Ronit’s father was the revered rabbi of the community, and after he discovered Ronit and Esti’s affair, Ronit chose to leave the community. Esti remained and tried to “cure” her “deviant” sexuality by marrying Dovid, the rabbi’s protégé. When Ronit returns home years later following her father’s death, the tryst between the women is renewed and revealed.

Orthodox Jewish viewers will notice inaccuracies and inconsistencies in the portrayal of the community, but there were subtle things that were accurate and awakened a real sense of nostalgia in me.

The way Dovid awkwardly squeezes by a woman standing in a doorway to avoid accidental contact was perfect. I loved seeing Ronit discover the obituary for her father in Hamodia — a real Charedi newspaper — and read that he was childless. As Dovid remarks, factual errors are not uncommon, especially “errors” that hide undesirable information such as an apostate child. I smirked when a discussion about selling the rabbi’s home is halted because “nisht Shabbos g’redt” (“we do not speak about such things on Shabbos”). I smiled when I noticed the keyless entry “Shabbos locks” commonly found in Orthodox homes.

The ritual songs in the film are ones I grew up hearing and singing at shul, home and yeshiva. Ronit left the community but the music did not leave her. It stirs something inside her and she can’t help but hum along. Generally, Esti is melancholy but her face brightens when she hears her students singing Adon Olam.

It was striking to feel my personal nostalgia matching the nostalgia of the characters. It’s partially why “Disobedience” moved me so deeply.

 

It was striking to feel my personal nostalgia matching the nostalgia of the characters. It’s partially why “Disobedience” moved me so deeply.

The struggle between love and nostalgia is palpable in the film. Esti stayed because she loved her community more than her freedom. In a heated moment she yells at Ronit, “It’s easier to leave, isn’t it?” and Ronit yells back, “No, it isn’t!”

The film’s ending represents this struggle beautifully. Nothing is solved by a decision to stay or leave. The nonconformist raised in a conformist community will always be tormented by the tension between the nostalgic comfort of their community and the harsh reality of ostracism. Neither choice is easier because, either way, it is disobedience.

Eli Fink is a rabbi, writer and managing supervisor at the Jewish Journal.