This New Movie Shows How Heartbreaking Life Can Be For LGBTQ+ Orthodox Jews

Element Pictures

Oscar-winning A Fantastic Woman director Sebastián Lelio is back, with a new movie that also delves into LGBTQ+ issues. Disobedience, out April 27, tells a powerful story of Ronit, a formerly Orthodox Jewish woman who returns to the community that shunned her after the death of her father. This gives her the opportunity to reconnect with Esti, a childhood friend she was in love with. After finding out that Esti has conformed to a heterosexual marriage to remain in the community, Ronit encourages her to rekindle their romance and be true to herself, despite the consequences that come with it. The portrayal of what queer Orthodox Jewish people face may seem very realistic, but Disobedience is not based on a true story.

The movie is an adaptation of Naomi Alderman’s debut novel of the same name, and it takes inspiration from the author’s own experiences growing up in an Orthodox Jewish community. In a profile published by The Guardian, Alderman explained that living in New York allowed her to meet Orthodox gay and lesbian people, providing a new perspective for her. She noted that they shared “terrible stories: rabbis who said if you didn’t marry and have children you were completing Hitler’s work”. 

Alderman delved deeper into her inspirations for Disobedience in an interview with Israeli newspaper Haaretz, where she said that the novel was not based on her own experiences but does present a very heartbreaking aspect of the lives of LGBTQ people within the Orthodox Jewish community. “Certainly the book is about places I have been in my life, so I have lived in the Orthodox community in Hendon, I have worked in Manhattan. But the events of the book didn't take place in my life, my parents are still alive, my father isn't a rabbi, and I'm afraid I've never had an affair with a married woman,” said Alderman.

The author also pointed out that it can be far more difficult for gay couples than lesbian couples in the Orthodox community. “Orthodoxy doesn't really have a lot to say about female relations. In a way it makes it easier because lesbianism isn't considered such an avera (transgression) as male homosexuality. I think it would have been a different book if I wrote it about two men, instead of two women,” Alderman told Haaretz.

The film’s trailer shows the battle between tradition and a desire for a sense of individuality, shown in the example of Rachel McAdams’ character, Esti, removing her wig. In the Orthodox Jewish community, married women traditionally wear wigs. According to My Jewish Learning, this practice is not of biblical origin. “[The Mishnah in Ketuboth (7:6)] discusses behaviors that are grounds for divorce such as, ‘appearing in public with loose hair, weaving in the marketplace, and talking to any man’ and calls these violations of Dat Yehudit, which means Jewish rule, as opposed to Dat Moshe, Mosaic rule.”

When Esti removes her wig, it becomes a radical way of rejecting her marriage. She takes it off as she kisses Ronit in private, symbolizing a rebellion against tradition. However, she puts it on when she’s with her husband in public at all times, keeping that other side of herself secret. It becomes part of a bigger conversation about how queer people aren’t granted the same opportunities of marriage and respect within certain communities, forcing them to choose between revealing who they really are and losing it all, or hiding parts of themselves to retain their place within their families and communities.

In the past year, there has been an influx of LGBTQ-centered movies, ranging from Call Me By Your Name to Lelio’s own A Fantastic Woman. In this generation of film, writers are finally being given the opportunity to bring to light realistic storylines that don’t fall under tragic tropes or stereotypes. Movies like Disobedience are vital in showing how not all communities are accepting of LGBTQ people, opening up the dialogue about what still needs to be accomplished for equality across the globe.