“KEEP NOT SILENT: ORTHODYKES”
Orthodoxy in the Modern World
“Keep Not Silent” Orthodykes” hits you hard. I saw it first at “Reel to Reel GLBT Movie Festival” in Little Rock last year and still think about it every once in a while. It is one of those documentaries that you don’t just walk away from, you take it with you. It is a film that has been rightfully praised and won major prizes. Among its awards are the Israeli Oscar for best documentary and the Audience Award at the Torino Gay and Lesbian film festival. This is quite an accomplishment for a first film Ilil Alexander, the young Israeli director is making quite a name for herself, not only in filmmaking but also working against the attempt of the government of Israel to gain political control of public television.
“This is a stunning debut film that boldly documents the clandestine struggle of three women” who fight for the right to be themselves in the Orthodox Jewish communities in Jerusalem, The three are devout, pious, deeply religious and lesbians who belong to a secret support group known as “Orthodykes”. They are not content to give up their belief in G-d nor are they willing to sacrifice their sexuality. This duality could cost an expensive and devastating price but the women are committed to it and are not willing to pay. Miriam-Esther feels an aversion for the masculine touch of her husband but fights it for the sake of her family and her ten children. Ruth’s husband, in an attempt to be compassionate, permits her to spend time with her female lover twice and week and Yehudit, a rabbi’s daughter, openly avows her lesbianism because she believes that “lies are the worst thing on earth”.
It is sometimes difficult to watch the pain that these women endure. Their self-suppression hits the emotions but for the sake of their communities, they must remain anonymous. The struggles these women face—for self-realization, for honesty and for acceptance is an extraordinary model for those who search for truth for themselves and for a place in the world. The three women reveal their hearts with candidness as they try to surmount the difficulties that their “forbidden sexual identity” imposes upon them and the communities in which they live.
This kind of strife is unusual—- a struggle for love and acceptance which is armed with belief. It is a struggle that must be conducted secretly and talked about behind curtains and filmed with web cams. The Holy Scriptures, the Pentateuch forbid homosexuality and lesbianism is not only wholly unacceptable and non-negotiable, the consequences are clear—there is no place for women like these in the Orthodox Jewish world. Our three heroes are unwilling to give up the completeness of their identity, their strong religious convictions or their families or communities. The battle they face appears to be self destructive and ravages them day in and day out. Each woman tries in her own individual way to find some shred of acceptance by her family, her community and by her spiritual leaders. The women do not want much; all they really want is to have their sexual identity regarded and accepted as non-reversible.
The true importance and significance of “Orthodykes” is that it transcends the confines of Jewish experience. This is shown by using the depth and richness of religious life as the backdrop of the movie. The heart and core of the movie is the three women and how each must chose between herself and the person she loves. Each of the women is torn—by her need to fulfill a life of love and her fear of the grief and destruction she can cause her husband, her religious parents and the community in which she lives. Thus is a human conflict which raises again and again the issues of responsibility and freedom of choice. Is it possible to be oneself without destroying what one values most? Where is the place in a society for someone who is different? How can a conservative, orthodox community be modified rather than abandoned? The answers are not all here but surely there is a place in the world for individuals seeking truth.
This fascinating documentary exposes with extreme openness the world of these three women and the difficulties they have of accepting their sexual identities in a hostile religious community. Unlike most documentaries, the characters here are not exhibitionistic or interested in publicity. Their identities could not be revealed—they could not give up either identity—lesbian or orthodox Jewess; they are split right down the middle. Anyone who is torn between two poles must ultimately pay a price. This film deals with that price.
A fulfilled Lesbian relationship is not part of the Orthodox Jewish woman’s lexicon. Finding participants for the documentary was very difficult and after a half year of advertising in gay/lesbian clubs, in newspapers and magazines, the director received an email from Miriam-Esther whose face is not shown in the film. Alexander was introduced to the group, a lesbian support group, named “Orthodykes” which had about fifteen members.
In contrast to the prohibition on homosexuality in Leviticus which in chapter 18, verse 22 states, “You (man) shall not lie with a man after the manner of woman: it is abomination.” If read carefully the punishment for this, after witnessing and warning, is death, the reference to woman is unclear. It is only indirectly referred to in Leviticus 18:3. “you shall not follow the Egyptian way” and the rabbinical sages interpreted this to pertain to woman, Relations between women are not deemed sexual intercourse but the great sage, Moses Maimonides, stated\s that women who have intercourse with each other are “worthy of chastisement beating”. It is important to note that the other branches of Judaism—Reformed, Conservative, and Reconstructionist do not have such prohibitions. Many feel, however, that the only Jew is an Orthodox one. This is the way I was raised so you can imagine the problems I had accepting myself and ultimately coming out (see my essay “A Piercing Thought” in the Literary Pride section of this web site).
Discussions of the place of Orthodox women as lesbians are the topic that consumed the meetings of the “Orthodykes”. The heavy conversations bore little fruit however and only kept the women in chains. The movie shows al of this and more and it is a wonderful study of a serious situation. It is interesting to note in closing that secular people like to feel that it is only in a religious society that we need to follow laws and hide certain parts of ourselves so that we will be looked upon favorably by our peers. There are rules in every society, secular society included, and those who disobey the rules, be they religious rules or legal rules or the trend of the dominant society, ultimately pay the price and are punished, chastised, or ostracized. What we see in the film is just a microcosm of the larger society—the ways may be different but the feelings are the same.