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Ultra-Orthodox female filmmaker’s unique take on boy meets girl

Rama Burshtein-Shai talks about the relationship between her values, her unlikely career in film and why she calls her new TV series on ChaiFlicks 'sexy'.
Eetta Prince-Gibson
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Scene from Burshtein-Shai's Fire Dance (Image: supplied).

Scene from Burshtein-Shai’s Fire Dance (Image: supplied).

Published: 15 May 2024

Last updated: 7 May 2024

Filmmaker Rama Burshtein-Shai smiles gently and sweetly throughout our interview, as her tone changes from definitive and decisive to serene, almost mystical. Her hair carefully covered in a colourful scarf, she shares a laugh over Zoom, which is taking place in the middle of her Passover cleaning – a particularly stressful time for any ultra-Orthodox woman, which she is.

Yet she is candid and generous with her time and thoughts, even when she is answering questions about her life as an ultra-Orthodox filmmaker that she has probably already answered before in dozens of interviews.

Burshtein-Shai is speaking about her new project Fire Dance, an eight-part TV series streaming on ChaiFlicks, about a troubled Haredi teenager who falls in love with the married son of the leader of the community.

Burshtein-Shai, 57, was born in the United States and moved to Israel as a child. She grew up in Kfar Saba, in a secular home and had what she refers to as a “fairly standard Israeli secular childhood and education,” with little attention to Jewish religion or tradition.

Attracted to filmmaking as a career, she attended the prestigious Sam Spiegel Film School. Together with her graduating class, she travelled for three days to Munich for a film festival, intending to continue onto Los Angeles for graduate work. It was in Munich, she says, that her life began to transform.

“From the moment I set foot in Germany, I was uncomfortable. I felt different, I didn’t feel safe. I felt vulnerable and more Jewish than I had ever felt – and the fact that an openly neo-Nazi guy kept trying to hit on me didn’t help much, either.

“When I came back to Israel, I was depressed. A friend invited me to a Shabbat dinner. She had to give me a skirt to put on over my jeans. By the time Shabbat was over, I had become religious. Judaism had grabbed me in a way I could not refuse.”

She remembers the date. It was “Shabbat Shirah”, during which the weekly portion describes the crossing of the Red Sea and the word, Rama (which means “on high”), is cited three times.

“But it wasn’t just that of course,” she continues. “Everything may have seemed very sudden, but it wasn’t really. I have always thought of myself as a seeker. What is the meaning of this world? What is the meaning of life? What is the meaning of my life? I had been searching since I was a teenager, and I had explored Buddhism, too.”

Filmmaker Rama Burshtein-Shai (Image: supplied).
Filmmaker Rama Burshtein-Shai (Image: supplied).

While some may think that Judaism provides definitive answers for everything, she says, that is not so.  “Judaism – and especially the work of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, whom I follow – leaves you with more questions, that satisfy in a way that answers never could. Judaism is a life’s work, always inviting you to go deeper and deeper. It is an endless process, an always deeper search.”

In 2012, aged 42, with no profile outside her own community, Burshtein-Shai produced and directed her first mainstream film.

Burshtein-Shai quickly adopted both ultra-Orthodox Jewish observance and lifestyle, marrying and having four children. She became a teacher, recalling, “because I never thought that as a religious woman, I would ever do anything connected to cinema.”

Yet Burshtein-Shai found a collective of ultra-Orthodox women in Jerusalem and other ultra-Orthodox cities who create short films exclusively for other Haredi women. After 15 years of working within that collective, she realised that she could work on broader films for a broader audience. In 2012, aged 42, with no profile or familiarity with the film scene outside her own community, Burshtein-Shai produced and directed, Fill the Void, her first full-length film for a mainstream audience.

The film, which depicts the moral struggle of a young girl pressured to wed her dead sister’s widower, won eight Ophir Awards (the Israeli Oscars) and earned acclaim at the Venice Film Festival. Burshtein-Shai followed this success with her 2016 film Through the Wall (released in the US in 2017 as The Wedding Plan), in which a jilted bride takes a leap of faith and decides to go ahead with her upcoming wedding, hoping that God will provide a groom.

“Everything that interests me before I became religious continues to interest me now,” she says. “Men and women, the enigma of love, passion, intimacy. Yes, since I am religious, there are rules. For example, in my films, men and women will never touch, because it is forbidden outside of marriage and, even within marriage, it is forbidden to touch a woman when she menstruates until she has bathed in the ritual bath.

“I accept these rules because, when you understand their depth, you realise that only ‘the Power’ that created you could have given you those rules.

"In my world, marriage is the way you pronounce love. It's not about marriage that I talk; it's about love and partnership. And the minute after they get married, then it's a problem to show it. Yet my movies are about love and passion, and my work needs to be sexy or I’m not interested.”

"Sexy isn’t necessarily about sex. I show passion, not satisfaction."

Sexy seems to be a strange word for Burshtein-Shai to use.

“Sexy,” she explains patiently, “isn’t necessarily about sex. I show passion, not satisfaction, and so in my movies, you don’t see people doing things that religious law does not permit us to do, yet my movies are sexy and attractive to non-observant people, too.”

Does this put a limit on her creativity?

“You mean, like, would I show nudity? Nope, won’t happen in my movies. But that does not limit my creativity – it enriches it. That is the change I went through when I became religious. When I was secular, I thought I was doing whatever I wanted to do, but I was wrong.

“It is like coffee. Without a mug, coffee is nothing more than a stain on the carpet. The mug is boundaries, but it doesn’t stop the coffee. Sexy comes when you search, when you hold back.

“Judaism is my wings, not my brakes.”

Social realism is part of the story in Fire Dance (Image: supplied).
Social realism is part of the story in Fire Dance (Image: supplied).

Fire Dance, her most recent work, is her first for television. It tells the story of 18-year-old Faygie, a troubled teenager growing up with her abusive single mother in an insular Haredi sect, who falls in love with Nathan, the married son of the leader of the community.

Full of fantasy and metaphoric cinematic veils, Fire Dance continues to explore the subjects for which Burshtein-Shai has become known.

“Although the characters are religious, the movie isn’t about religion,” she says. “It’s about passion and satisfaction and asks, what would you choose if you had to choose one or the other. And it’s about power and power over another person. The question isn’t if you feel something, the question is what do you do when you feel it; do you shut yourself down or do you allow yourself to be burned?”

The actors in Fire Dance are not religious. “When I cast an actor, I ask them if I can speak to them in my language,” she explains. “They don’t have to be religious for that – this has nothing to do with religion, it has to do with faith. Do they believe in something that is bigger than they are? If they think they are the biggest thing in the world, we can’t work together.”

"October 7 can be thought of as a woman giving birth – it was a strong, painful labour contraction, and it will lead us to something better."

Burshtein-Shai’s Fill the Void was the first movie to successfully cross over from the religious world, based on an insider’s view, into the mainstream. Over the past decade or so, there has been a spate of movies about the Haredi world. But she says, “I am not part of that". 

“I don’t present anything scandalous or voyeuristic about the Haredi world, although I do think that all voices should be heard. I am not interested in showing the not-nice parts of the ultra-Orthodox world, nor am I interested in convincing people that the Haredi world is wonderful, or perfect, or better than other worlds. I am showing spirituality, questions, depth, living within a community.”

Yet, she acknowledges she has faced push-back within the community. “For good and for bad,” she says.  “My eldest son married a Haredi girl from a very prestigious family, who married him because of what I do and what I have given him. My daughter was not accepted into a prestigious ultra-Orthodox school because of what I do and who I am.

“There have not been any pashkevilim posted against me,” she says, referring to the large signs plastered on billboards throughout ultra-Orthodox neighborhood, sometimes used to call for rejection and even ostracism of an individual; pashkavilim can ruin a person’s, and even an entire family’s standing in the community. "But in my very close-knit community, people always gossip. I am Haredi to the word of God, but not so much to the politics. And much of the Haredi world today is not open to questioning.”

Burshtein-Shai continues to work extensively, currently filming in the United States about non-religious characters. Yet she says that since October 7, her life has changed “in a profound way".

“I believe that a big change is coming to the world, everything is changing. It started three years ago, with COVID, then with the growth of antisemitism, and with the horrific events of October 7. I do not believe our enemy is necessarily Hamas, per se, because I think Hamas is the result of what is happening in the universe. October 7 can be thought of as a woman giving birth – it was a strong, painful labour contraction, and it will lead us to something better.

“It will lead us to the Moshiach. Do I know when that will be? No. Do I have a clue? No. Can I imagine what it will be like? No, but I have a feeling that the change is coming. As Jews, our façade has fallen, we want to be like everyone else, but we are not. Being Jewish is being different, and we will bring change to the world.

“I am sad. I cry and pray for the hostages and the wounded, and yet I feel great at the same time – it is a weird combination of things, and we need to man up, because this is the true way of living.”   

About the author

Eetta Prince-Gibson

Eetta Prince-Gibson, who lives in Jerusalem, was previously Editor-in-Chief of The Jerusalem Report, is the Israel Editor for Moment Magazine and a regular contributor to Haaretz, The Forward, PRI, and other Israeli and international publications.


  • Avatar of Kevin Judah White

    Kevin Judah White16 May at 07:13 am

    I was intrigued by this interview then became nonplussed by her puzzling views that ‘I do not believe our enemy is necessarily Hamas, per se, because I think Hamas is the result of what is happening in the universe. October 7 can be thought of as a woman giving birth – it was a strong, painful labour contraction, and it will lead us to something better … It will lead us to the Moshiach.’ Really?

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