Judaic Cinecorporeality: Fleshing out the Haredi Male Body in Avishai Sivan's the Wanderer

By Chyutin, Dan | Shofar, Fall 2014 | Go to article overview

Judaic Cinecorporeality: Fleshing out the Haredi Male Body in Avishai Sivan's the Wanderer


Chyutin, Dan, Shofar


Religion, in Judeo-Christianity as well as other traditions, is often seen as a matter of spirituality, first and foremost.1 For many, to enter into dialogue with a divine entity requires a process in which the immaterial is favored over the material; the spiritual becomes the site where interaction takes place, and belief, ephemeral as it is, functions as the sole vehicle for (human) participation. In various sites, the idealized religious life is imagined as one where the believers divorce themselves of worldly attachments, becoming instead a meaningful abstraction, imitative but inherently distortive of the indescribable Holy. To fully inhabit religion, "Mankind" must then, in this context, evolve (and dissolve) into "Spirit."

Yet, as much as this pervasive mode of spiritualization seems to resonate with fundamental aspects of religious sentiment, it nevertheless fails to acknowledge the role the body plays within religious practice and doctrine. Religion is a lived reality, and therefore is shaped by the material-and especially the bodily-conditions that govern our existence. Believers experi- ence transcendence through viscera, exercise spiritual values via corporeal rituals, fashion their physical demeanor in light of religious codes, enter into affective relationships with incarnate figures of religious importance. They seek to understand the godly through their bodies, and their bodies through the godly. Consequently, it becomes clear that, in the words of so- ciologist Meredith McGuire, "the body should be an important component of our consideration of the social aspects of religion."2

If the body is important to religions, then Judaism is by no means an exception; in fact, Judaic tradition has been engrossed in matters of the flesh, offering a wealth of insight into the problematic negotiation of spiritual and bodily concerns. Corporeal terms, as will be explained below, frame the everyday life of observant Jews: each minute gesture carries with it religious meaning, thereby becoming a coded text for others to interpret. Accordingly, to be an observant Jew is to act like one, with bodily behavior emerging as a privileged platform for articulating devotion and asserting social identity and belonging.

The nuances of this Judaic performance are ingrained in religious practitioners from early childhood; to the community of nonbelievers, however, they are largely unfamiliar. Partly to blame for this ignorance has been cinema's general tendency towards depicting Jewish bodies through an ethnic rather than religious lens.3 This particular predilection may po- tentially be linked to the fact that many of the films dealing with Jewish identity originate from national contexts in which Jews are not the dominant force, and in which professing religious particularity could be disadvanta- geous. Yet even in the most Jewish of national contexts-Israel-the pat- tern of marginalizing the religious body has been strenuously maintained. Thus, as handmaiden to Zionist ideology, Israeli cinema has traditionally posed the native "Sabra"-an emblem of virility, forged through combat and manual labor-as the golden standard for all to uphold, consequently excluding those bodies that could or would not measure up to this ideal. Amongst those excluded was the observant Jew, whose religious devotion seemed out of place in Zionism's dream of a modernized, physically ori- ented "New Jew."

For over a decade, however, a change in the attitude towards the Jew- ish body has been registered on the Israeli screen (as well as globally),4 with an unparalleled number of contemporary films turning their attention to the corporeal facets of Judaic practice.5 This shift marks a meaningful cultural attempt at determining what it means to be a Jew in Israel; its sig- nificance, however, has largely been overlooked by Israeli cinema scholars, who rarely engage the bodies of religious Jews, even within the context of corporeally centered studies. …

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