La Petit Jerusalem( 2005)
When I sat down with charming French director Karin Albou at a coffee shop across the street from Lincoln Center I was prepared to accuse her of ambushing Orthodox Judaism in her first feature, La Petit Jerusalem. The problem arose however after we spoke for a few minutes and I began to realize that this woman loves Judaism and Jewish tradition and is proud of her adopted heritage. I was prepared to ask her why she shows Simchas Torah to be a drunken unholy mess, why she uses the mikvah ritual to express the sexual frigidity of frum marriages, why she contrasts the rational, beautiful Laura against her awkward, naïve, seheitled sister and tefillin-wearing, adulterer brother-in-law. I was prepared, yes, but Karin Albou claims she did not intend any criticism or insult, and she claims this with her own smiling lips and sincere eyes. So what I was left with was either a director scared to admit the truth to a writer snooping for the orthodox world or a freighting, stark revelation as to my own biases. Was I, because of my personal discomfort with the potential for a public display of our scared customs, finding these acts to be embarrassing and distasteful, and attributing those negative feelings onto Albou’s filmmaking? I would hate to think so, but it is possible.
Regardless of my affection for Ms. Albou and the possible prejudices I may have found within myself, this film remains flawed. The plot revolves around a Jewish family as diverse in hashkafah as our own (the mother is into Sephardic hocus pocus, the older sister is charedi, and Laura, the youngest daughter and protagonist, is modern and a student of philosophy). In a classic free the young sweetheart from the puritanical clutches of a religious environment setup, Albou shows how no one can understand Laura, an alleged student of Kant. Why, her family dumbly wonders, doesn’t she simply want to “listen to Hashem” and why will she not conform and “follow the Torah”? Doesn’t she realize those things lead to a happy life where you can marry a doctor and amass some serious nachas? Why isn’t that enough for her, huh? Well damn, it’s not enough for me either, but you don’t see me getting it on with the Muslim in the locker room. And while that last sentence will only make sense to someone who has seen and was appalled by La Petit Jerusalem’s treatment of its material, it allows you to venture how simplistic the storytelling is.
Interview with Karin Albou
Q: What is your background?
A: I am not religious now. I am Jewish. My father is Jewish. Later I converted and I was married in a synagogue. I became more religious when some of my friends became religious. I have always been interested in Judaism and religion.
Q: What was your intention by your depiction of orthodoxy?
A: I wanted to show a new theme with Jews. They always show in Jewish films a Yom Kippur or a Shabbat. I wanted to show other holidays like Purim and Simchat Torah…to show the joy of those days. I wanted to show things positively with a Shabbat meal where people are laughing and singing. We had a real Rabbi in the Simchat Torah scene. I wanted to show Simchat Torah because I always go to synagogue for it…it’s so special. Those holiday scenes are real, almost like a documentary – real Jews celebrating. We had a religious consultant because Bruno Todeschini (who plays the charedi brother-in-law) is Italian. He was a coach for him and taught him prayer. With the mikvah scenes, I knew how it works...I have gone there.
Q: What was the story with all the superstitious behavior of Laura’s mother?
A: The mother is Jewish Tunisian. All the smoke and talismans is pure Jewish. The mother comes from another world. I know of it. This actress is Tunisian. She is superstitious.
Q: It was very strange for as a Jewish man to see the inside of a mikvah and the process?
A: I love the mikvah. It is very personal and I was worried what the orthodox world might think. Some people find it difficult that you can’t even touch your husband. The mikvah experience itself is very pleasant.
Q: The film centers on a battle between secular philosophy and religion. How do you see it?
A: The problem with the mother is she uses religion to hide. Laura uses philosophy to be cut off from her emotions and reality. The mother uses religion to hide her problems. Her construction collapses and she cannot hide and needs to find another way of being religious and this is especially true with Mathilde (charedi sister). She thought that nothing was allowed because it was convenient for her to think that way. She did not know that she could be free and religious. A lot of the dialogue in the film was inspired by orthodox women. I spoke with a fiend who is orthodox usually but what they do, they are orthodox for all other issues, and their Rabbi said that for sexuality they were liberated. He said the most important thing is to save the marriage.
Q: Explain the tile of the film?
France is little. There are one or two streets where there is a kosher butcher and Jewish concentration and it was nicknamed La Petit Jerusalem. It’s not written anywhere…it’s what they call it.
Q: I heard that Jews can’t live peacefully in France anymore?
A: Now it’s better. Since the Second Intifada there were reports of these people burning Jewish synagogues and Jewish schools. We don’t know who they are… I suppose young Arabs but we don’t find them. The police found Arabs once but at the time there was a raise in anti-Semitism and it was active. Orthodox Jews were the targets because they look like Jews. I was not a target. A lot of Jews from orthodoxy made aliyah. Now it stops. There is less anti-Semitism because the French government reacted against this and there were talks and on television. I think it worked.
French orthodoxy has a future. It better have one. That is my home.