November 16, 2018

Connecting With My Roots in “Disobedience”

Rachel McAdams (left) and Rachel Weisz.

“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.

Orthodox Lovers Shake Up ‘Disobedience’

Rachel Weisz (from left), Rachel McAdams and Alessandro Nivola in “Disobedience.”

Steamy lesbian sex. That explains part of the buzz behind the new film “Disobedience,” in which Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams play lovers reunited after many years.

Such a display has generated interest in a film before, but it might be the first time it has been depicted within the Orthodox Jewish community. It’s almost certainly the first time the women getting it on are named “Ronit” and “Esti,” the latter of whom wears a sheitel — a wig worn by Orthodox wives.

Based on the 2006 novel by Naomi Alderman, “Disobedience” follows Ronit Krushka (Weisz), who returns to the community that she left in order to bury her estranged father, a revered rabbi. Although she is regarded by many as unwelcome, she is warmly received by childhood friends Dovid, her father’s protege, and his wife, Esti (McAdams), with whom she once had a romantic relationship. The discovery of their forbidden tryst savaged Ronit’s relationship with her father and prompted her exit from Orthodox life. So when the women reunite after many years, a long-buried conflict is renewed.

The film is directed by Chilean-born Sebastián Lelio, of 2017’s “A Fantastic Woman,” which won this year’s foreign-language film Oscar. That film, about a young transgender woman ostracized and abused after the death of her partner, hints at the director’s preference for characters that exist outside social norms.

“I love the idea of people who are willing to pay the price to be who they really are, [especially] against a backdrop that can have an oppressive aspect,” Lelio, 44, said during a recent phone interview.

“One of the main ideas of the film is that there’s nothing more spiritual than the power to disobey.” — Sebastián Lelio

Hot lesbian sex aside, “Disobedience” is as much about the tensions implicit in religious life — between belonging and freedom, desire and fidelity, tradition and modernity — as it is a love story. The subtext of the film explores the standards required for membership in the group and the costs of leaving.

Since Lelio is not Jewish (“Not that I’m aware of,” he joked), he said that growing up in a Catholic country taught him about the powerful cultural allure of religion.

“Even though I’m so far away from the [Orthodox Jewish] reality, I do understand the dynamics of a culture where the weight of religion can be strong and influential, and how that can create tension between what the community needs and the personal quest for individual freedom,” Lelio said.

To prepare for the film, Lelio immersed himself in the mores and values governing Orthodox Jewish religious life. He sought to understand what his characters risked by transgressing those rules in a gay relationship. Weisz, the Jewish daughter of survivors and a producer on the film, said in production notes that Lelio approached Orthodox Judaism as “a cultural anthropologist.”

“I feel very lucky to have had the opportunity to be in such a private world,” Lelio said of the time he spent with the North London Orthodox community, in which the film is set. In addition to working with nearly a dozen consultants, Lelio attended worship services and Jewish ceremonies.

“I became really obsessed with the culture in the process,” he said. “I was really moved by the community, the music, the rituals. When they open the ark, when we see the Torah, I was like, ‘This is so powerful!’ And the narrative [the Torah tells] has been refined for centuries. That is so beautiful and effective, and I was attracted to it because I am a narrative person myself.”

McAdams, who plays Esti and is not Jewish, has said she prepared for the role by attending Shabbat dinners with Orthodox Jews in Los Angeles.

Likewise, Alessandro Nivola, who plays Dovid, the heir-apparent rabbi, has said that the research he undertook to play this role was the most interesting and rewarding of his career, and that the friendships he formed over Shabbat dinners produced “friends for life.”

And yet, no matter how much he and his actors prepared, Lelio said the Orthodox community remained enigmatic to them.

“There’s no way to really know it,” Lelio said. “It’s very secretive in a way, and I guess that’s what was really appealing for me — the possibility of creating these portraits that were taking place in an unknown world with such a precise system of beliefs, rules, rituals, aesthetics, traditions and music. [Judaism] is such an old culture that has survived so many challenges and spread all over the world, and yet has preserved its identity even though during centuries [Jews] were spread apart. That was something so interesting to explore. I wanted to know: What was it that [gave Jews] the strength to keep together, to prevail and survive?”

Despite his admiration, Lelio’s film also shows the darker side of a community set in its ways. It suggests that sometimes the same forces that bind can also destroy. None of Lelio’s protagonists emerge from their experience without wounds. The problem isn’t religion, he said, the film’s conflict stems from the messiness of the human heart.

“What I tried to do is not make the community the antagonistic force, but to make [each character] an antagonist,” Lelio said. “They are their own main obstacles.”

Though Ronit and Esti set the conflict in motion, ultimately Dovid — the devout student and rabbi — faces the direst consequences. The fulfillment of his spiritual role ends up demanding a disobedience all his own.

“Everything that he stands for and everything he has prepared for is jeopardized,” Lelio said. “He’s really facing a huge dilemma. And it’s quite moving to see him struggle with having the bravery to be generous.”

Sometimes, Lelio said, the most godly act requires the moral courage to dissent.

“One of the main ideas of the film is that there’s nothing more spiritual than the power to disobey. There is something pure in that. Sometimes we have to disobey in order to transcend, in order to survive,” he said. “And there is violence, and there is beauty in that. And I think the film tries to embrace both aspects — the light and shadows of the price they have to pay.”

The act of disobedience, Lelio added, “suggests that a new order is possible, a new balance is possible. Everything is evolving. And even though the wisdom of tradition is capable of holding great truth, it also has to be challenged. Because even galaxies are evolving, the whole universe is evolving, everything is in flux.

“And the beautiful love story that takes place in this kind of an environment [suggests] that there is always room for expansion and change.”

“Disobedience” opens in theaters on April 27.

That time Rachel McAdams tried to go undercover as an Orthodox Jew

Rachel McAdams attending the “Disobedience” premiere during the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival at Princess of Wales Theatre in Toronto on Sept. 10. Photo by Brian de Rivera Simon/Getty Images

Rachel McAdams had hoped to prepare for her latest acting role as an Orthodox Jewish woman by getting a peek inside the Jewish community. But things didn’t quite go as planned.

The actress portrays a religious woman who has a love affair with a female childhood friend (played by Rachel Weisz) in the film “Disobedience.” The drama film, directer by Chilean filmmaker Sebastian Lelio, is based on a novel with the same name written by English-Jewish writer Naomi Alderman. It portrays the emotional reunion of the two women as adults, one of whom no longer lives a religious lifestyle.

McAdams, who is not Jewish, visited a kosher grocery store in Los Angeles ahead of Rosh Hashanah and attended a Shabbat dinner, but local Jewish residents quickly caught on.

“I tried to go undercover in the Orthodox community in L.A., and that didn’t really work out so well, but people were very warm and helpful,” the actress said at an event earlier this month at the Toronto International Film Festival, where the film premiered.

During her visit to the kosher supermarket, customers explained to her the custom of eating honey cake and pomegranate seeds during the Jewish New Year. A boy ran into the shop and asked to take a picture with the actress.

News of her shopping trip traveled quickly.

“The next day I was invited to a Shabbos dinner, and they said, ‘Oh, we heard you were buying chocolates at this shop at 7 o’clock last night,’” she recalled.

Visiting the Los Angeles community taught McAdams a little bit about the game Jews fondly refer to as “Jewish geography,” in which Jews identify mutual friends and acquaintances, often with surprising ease.

“It is like it’s own little town and everybody knows everyone and everything,” she said.