A young man is performing an aria from a well-known opera; his voice a bit shrill but still (kind of) Puccini. Two men dance to the tones, both wearing microscopic swimming trunks. A small group of ultraorthodox Jewish girls approaches. They hesitate, stop, look the other way but can’t keep themselves from glancing, while giggling loudly. This is a real-life meeting in Tel Aviv, happening in Kosher Beach, the latest documentary by Israeli director Karin Kainer. In it, Kainer followed life on a sandy stretch of Mediterranean coastline that has always been less frequented by so-called regular beachgoers. As a result, the municipality has put it aside for special purposes, and Kainer paints this through a number of almost surreal meetings between diverging cultures.
A tall wooden fence to protect visitors from prying eyes has fenced off part of the beach, which has become a popular outing for the ultraorthodox. The vast majority of the beachgoers come from neighboring Bnei Brak, an almost completely ultraorthodox city, landlocked between secular communities. It is a segregated beach, meaning that Sundays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays are for women while men are invited for a swim on Mondays and Wednesdays. «Bnei Brak is extremely crowded,» says one of the women in the film. «From my kitchen window I can stare right into eight other apartments, and I hear every fart from the neighbors. When I go to the beach I get an amazing feeling of freedom. The ocean opens my heart!»
The UN beach
The segregated beach of Tel Aviv has been around for many years. Nobody cares to remember how many. Little by little it became a haven for the ultraorthodox populace that most often is from out of town. But in the spirit of pluralism, the city council took up the task and runs the beach as a municipal offer. The beach is kept clean, and the four lifeguards that are present during opening hours are on the municipal payroll.
A tall wooden fence to protect visitors from prying eyes has fenced off part of the beach.
They are among the eye-openers of Kainer’s film, because even on «lady days» all lifeguards are male, and they are typical Israeli lifeguards. Their naked torsos are dark brown from the sun, and they move around normally among all the ultraorthodox women. Nobody seems to care. On the contrary, the religious women make errands in the lifeguard tower all the time and the mood is light. Some bring them slices of watermelon, and when a baby bottle needs to be heated the lifeguards go out of their way to help.
Actually, this is just one of three special beaches on this bit of coastline. Apart from the segregated beach, there is one for the gay community, and in between, there is one especially for dog owners. One of the lifeguards mentions the one in the middle as «the UN beach» because the canines seem to function as peacekeepers between two groups that are normally at odds.
Conflict is not present on this beach, which is one of the important messages of the film. People come here to enjoy the break from the daily troubles, each and all giving an effort to make it work. In that light, it seems almost natural to see ultraorthodox girls take off their long dresses and heavy stockings to don a bikini while at the beach. The daughter of the Bnei Brak woman with eight neighbors is among them. «It is against my personal taste, but here at the beach we are women with our private space so I choose to respect her choice,» she says.
Naturally, not everybody is enthusiastic about the arrangement. Certain rabbis in Bnei Brak are not happy at all. They are well aware that the women meet another culture that could be a threat to their way of life. One of them describes the beach as a «spiritual Holocaust». In the film we get to see how they are posting pashkevilim – the special wall newspapers that are a typical way of communicating in ultraorthodox communities – warning against the mini busses taking their congregants to the beach. We see a group of women leaving the beach to take the bus home at the appointed time, only to find that the bus has disappeared. It turns out that the assistants of the rabbi have been there to send the bus away, so the women are forced to make their way home on their own.
Conflict is not present on this beach
«I was surprised to learn how much will power these women possess,» says Kainer after the screening at DocAviv, the annual documentary film festival of Tel Aviv. «They are deeply religious, but far from being suppressed by the will of the men. This is how we often see them, but actually, they are strong feminists, and they know exactly what they want. In each case when a rabbi tries to block their way, they find their own creative solution.»
It was no easy task to gain access to the privacy of the beach, and even less so with a camera. In Kainer’s opinion, Bnei Brak is an extremely closed world for any outsider, and it took her several months to establish the first contact and gain a tiny bit of trust. «They do not trust any kind of secular media, so it is huge that I got permission to film them at all», she says.
«If you drink salty water from the sea you get thirsty and want to drink more», says one of the women. She belongs to the older generation and watches life at the beach from a distance. She is sitting in the shadow on a bench dressed modestly and wearing a wig. She is not entirely happy with what she sees. «She is naked. Or rather, worse than naked», she says about one of the bikini-clad girls, but her remark seems to stem from lack of understanding rather than condemnation.
Like several others, she is aware Tel Aviv is a sinful city. As if to underline her opinion we hear the bass tones from the gay beach. But she adds with a rueful twinkle in her eyes, that things are changing as a way of nature, and that you have to keep up. This is a kind of openness that seems to exist in her seemingly closed world, and this is probably what we will find in most communities like that.
There is a lot of humour along the way. We follow the small-talk of the women, and at some stage, a small group of women considers signing up for Zumba – another no-no among the conservative rabbis.
«In later years the girls have adopted a behavior that you do not find anywhere in the Scriptures», says someone, and the underlying message is this might not be such a bad thing after all.
Suddenly the Middle Easters realities enter the scene. There is a red alert, and the lifeguards have already ordered the women to be ready to get out of the water and reach a shelter in 90 seconds. Everybody does as they are told, but as soon as they are on dry soil reaching the shelter becomes less urgent. A lot of them take The Book of Psalms out of their bags and start reciting!
They come from a different world that many find strange, but they are willing to live a life alongside others.
They come from a different world that many find strange, but are willing to live a life alongside others – to give it a try, and respect the world if it respects them. In this way, the film holds a broader message with special importance for the Middle East where it was created.