My Battle as a Jewish Woman:
How a film on Jerusalem in conflict leads to personal reflection
by Liz Nord
The night of November 4, 2008, was one of the best of my life. As Supervising Producer at MTV News, I had spent the year leading up to election night training and mentoring a corps of young reporters from across the country to cover this pivotal race through blogs and videos. Our reporting culminated the night Barack Obama was elected President of the U.S. Taking a break from MTV’s frantic newsroom for a few minutes, I stood on the street below our headquarters in Times Square and watched the results roll in with tens of thousands of other people.
Among the flashing billboards overhead was one that MTV had taken over in the thick of it all. There between a Rock Band ad and the Toys-R-Us sign was a humongous screen in which my reporters’ real-time election tweets from the field popped up over a map of the country. What the mass of spectators in Times Square was witnessing was nothing less than the voice of America’s youth in action. What a proud moment!
Election night was so exciting for me because a palpable spirit of change had swept across the United States led, in many ways, by the youth who were engaged in an unprecedented way and had voted in record numbers. I got to witness this movement firsthand and play a part by covering the process all year for the only network doing election coverage specifically for young people. The power of the youth voice – so often ignored in American politics – was heard, and it was inspiring.
I was still riding that high when I visited Jerusalem the following summer and learned about that city’s municipal elections, which had also taken place in November. I noticed that the similarities only began with election dates. Like in the USA, young people had been engaged in Jerusalem’s municipal elections in an unprecedented way. A new wave of youth were committing themselves to staying in the capital city and improving conditions there while many of their peers were fleeing to Tel Aviv due to Jerusalem’s social and economic challenges.
The massive rallying of young people around the elections in Jerusalem helped usher in a new Mayor and gained two of the city’s 31 council seats for fresh new candidates who had formed youth-oriented political parties just that year. The issues at stake in the U.S. and in Jerusalem were very different, but in each case, young people were working to change the direction of their countries through civic engagement.
This particular story of Jerusalem was not one we were hearing much about in the U.S., despite its potential to change the wider course of Israeli politics. Meeting some of the dynamic young Jerusalemites involved in the elections and in the general revival of the city convinced me that it was definitely a story worth telling, and ultimately led to my embarking on the production of a new documentary film, Battle for Jerusalem.
The broad “battle” that I refer to is for control of the city between ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) and non-Haredi residents, which was a driving force for the young people who initially inspired the film. As non-Haredi youth who care deeply about Jerusalem, they feared that the religious policies of the powerful and rapidly growing Haredi community would change the character of the city too much to leave room for any non-Haredi citizens to live freely and comfortably.
As I began to research the project, I met and filmed dozens of people who were working in innovative ways to keep their city vibrant, democratic, and religiously pluralistic. Two of my initial protagonists were the young, recently elected city council members, Rachel Azaria and Ofer Berkovitch. There were also artists, activists, students, young parents, and small business owners, each playing a role in Jerusalem’s complex landscape, yet often excluded from international media coverage of the area.
As with any documentary that covers a broad issue, it is tough to narrow down specific characters to focus on who embody the issue and whose individual experiences can tell the larger story. In this case, I was having a particularly hard time. I met so many fascinating people doing important work in Jerusalem, and the dynamics of the city are so multifaceted, that I struggled with the idea of leaving anything on the cutting room floor. Fortunately, thanks to today’s abundance of media platforms, I can tell all of their stories in one way or another. This has led to the in-progress production of a documentary extension called “Jerusalem Unfiltered,” an immersive website and location-based mobile app that lets visitors explore Jerusalem through video profiles of its young political and cultural leaders.
Even with the creation of Jerusalem Unfiltered, I still needed to figure out which of these important stories could carry the weight of a 90-minute film. In fact, my focus for the film itself has only become clear very recently. One of the biggest points of tension in Jerusalem’s Haredi-secular divide has been religious-based gender discrimination and the exclusion of women from the public space. This issue recently gained international exposure when extremists spit on and harassed an 8-year-old girl in Beit Shemesh for being “immodestly dressed.”
Of all the important facets of the current “Battle for Jerusalem,” this one speaks to me the loudest, and it turns out that one of my original characters, City Councilwoman Rachel Azaria, is right in the middle of it. Rachel is a Modern Orthodox Jew herself and has used her position on City Council to oppose Haredi gender segregation practices to the detriment of her own career. I recently realized that not only is Rachel’s story a great metaphor for the larger story of Jerusalem today, but it’s a story that speaks to women struggling for equality everywhere. Suddenly, the film was not only about the battle of my protagonists, but my battle as a Jewish woman, and one that I’ve been fighting since my Bat Mitzvah in an Orthodox shul where girls weren’t allowed to daven with the Torah and were relegated to leading Havdallah services.
Just as my own experiences with election coverage in the United States originally inspired a project in faraway Jerusalem, the specific direction of that project only materialized when the story hit a very personal note. I am beginning to realize that when the universal becomes personal, it makes for the best storytelling of all.
Liz Nord is a filmmaker and producer living in New York. Her first film, Jericho’s Echo: Punk Rock In The Holy Land, is a critically acclaimed documentary about young Israeli musicians. She is currently at work on her next film, Battle for Jerusalem. She is a member of the ROI Community, which she credits for inspiring her to make her latest documentary.
Connected by the ROI Community of Jewish Innovators.