Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Can’t help loving that levir of mine

Sunday night's Hallmark Hall of Fame made-for-tv movie, Loving Leah, combined many of my favorite things - Lauren Ambrose (of Six Feet Under), Michael Buble songs, (Everything!) cheesy stories of improbable love, and Jews. The basic plot of Leah, based on the play by Pnenah Goldstein, is that a young orthodox woman in Brooklyn loses her rabbi husband and ends up marrying his brother, a non-practicing Reform Jew (but he’s a cardiologist, so….). Throw in Ricki Lake as the Reform rabbi who counsels them both, Tonye Patano (of Weeds fame) as the wise and sassy housekeeper and you’ve got yourself a Hallmark movie.
Unlike some movies and TV shows (I’m looking at you Seventh Heaven), I’d say this one actually did a relatively good job on the Jewish content. We got an accurate shabbos: motzi in a Reform synagogue, candlelighting, baking challah; home life: kashering the oven (“a man is coming to use a blow torch on your oven today” was one line that had me in stitches), head & hair covering; and funeral customs: rending garments, funeral and unveiling, with a dash of yibum (levirate marriage) featuring the halitza shoe!
The women’s fashion, in particular, was spot-on. Leah transitions from ultra-frum with a sheitel to modern orthodox with a hippy head scarf. Even her choices when dipping her toe into the waters of mainstream clothing and below-the-knee-but-above-the-ankle length skirts seemed totally believable. I have nothing to say about the rebbes and their generous beards.
I only caught a few missteps in their portrayal of Jewish practices and customs. I gasped when they ordered in and ate out Chinese food. I had expected them to make a point of mentioning that the restaurant had a hekhsher, or turning it into another moment of conflict – “I can’t eat those egg rolls! Vey Zmir!” Rabbi Ricki also gave a strange attempt at explaining the afterlife, which no rabbi should ever try to do ‘on one foot.’
The elephant in the room, however, was named Yibum. This biblical commandment is where the movie gets its romantic underpinnings. This custom in which a childless widow must marry her deceased husband’s brother-in-law in order to carry on his family’s name was troublesome even for characters in the Torah. These days, as Loving Leah’s gloriously bearded rabbi appropriately explained is mostly a formality and it is a foregone conclusion that halitza will happen and both parties will be released from this obligation. The romanticizing of this ritual irked me. Jake and Leah could have found themselves in some dangerous, abusive territory. Trapping your sister-in-law into marrying you and moving her away from her friends and family doesn't necessarily end up a smoothly soundtracked love story.
But most of all, I was irritated because, like in so many movies that have come before it, there was a distinct message: people are happier if they are not so darn religious. In Loving Leah, like in Renee Zellweger’s Price Above Rubies and a Melanie Griffith’s A Stranger Among Us, the orthodox world is insular, stifling, and ultimately, wrong for the heroine. The Orthodox Woman, we learn, is secretly yearning to break out of her prison so she can let her hair down, wear brighter colors and date sexy non-rabbis. I do know some folks who did feel repressed and imprisoned and are much happier since they have left that world, but I also know people who have become their best selves since they took on more mitzvot and became part of a religious community. Are there movies that don't present religious women in this way?