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Eroticism and faith merge in a haunting TV series about a married rabbi and a troubled young woman

While frequently implausible, enraging and, more often than not, simply incomprehensible to me, a secular viewer to be sure, Rama Burshtein-Shai’s eight-part TV series Fire Dance is also one of the most haunting, even mystical and, in the end, compelling works that I’ve seen in a long time. 

Like her earlier and much admired films, Fill the Void and The Wedding Plan, Fire Dance is set in a hierarchical and patriarchal Haredi world forged by its rigidly held rules, roles and obligations. But here its mythic tone, dreamlike imagery, and contradictory elements evoke an added layer of complexity. Make no mistake, this series is different from say Shtistel, Unorthodox or The New Black, all of which work hard at being familiar and relatable.

The narrative unfolds in Tiberias, a barren and desolate landscape whose significance dates back to Biblical times. The central themes, equally primal are: desire vs. duty; personal satisfaction vs. the collective good (however, that is defined); in short, deviations vs traditions in all their permutations.

The story’s centerpiece is the unsettling relationship between a troubled, much abused, single young woman, Feigie (Mia Ivryn in a revelatory performance) and her charismatic, guru-like rabbi, Nathan (the stellar Yehuda Levi), who is a married man and the father to a 20-something son, Shalom.

Early on he (and his wife) save Feigie from a bizarre and gruesome suicide attempt. Her attraction for him is enhanced by her gratitude. Like many of the women who flock around him, she interprets his compassion as personal, maybe even sexual, interest. He has a penetrating stare and is strikingly attractive. An erotic snippet features an enthralled Feigie, her eyes fixed on the rabbi as he exercises, punching a punching bag as she peers at him clandestinely from behind a door.

Feigie works in his home, largely as his wife’s kitchen assistant. She also participates in a sewing workshop the rabbi has founded for neurotic and unhappy women. He is a great listener and cares about these lost souls in a world where they are dismissed as undeserving malcontents. 

Women may seek his counsel because they are in wretchedly unhappy marriages; others may want a divorce. Feigie is the victim of her mother’s verbal assaults and facial beatings. Mom, brilliantly played by Noa Koler, star of The Wedding Plan, is a miserable human being, who is an emotional casualty in her own right.

Noa Koler plays a mother who badgers her daughter (played by Mia Ivryn) to get married. Photo by Shlomo Gelber

Known as “the women’s rabbi,” Nathan has a reputation as a womanizer and it’s rumored that he had an affair with one of his female congregants years earlier. As the film progresses, the communal disaffection with the rabbi mounts. Hasidic men protest outside his house and a rock is hurled through his window. 

With his New Age philosophies and his plain old psychobabble, the rabbi is anomalous. In one ritualized game with his younger brother, the two men reveal in turn how much they hate the other; he cajoles Feigi to “visualize” her desires as a stepping stone to achieving them. At the same time, cryptic religious motifs surface. He asks her what she would rather have — “passion or satisfaction.”

He is a seductive, powerful and arguably an abusive figure arousing feelings in Feigie and the other women that he has no business arousing. Consciously or unconsciously he’s enjoying his power — with the possible exception of Feigie he feels nothing romantic for any of these women. 

And precisely what he feels for Feigie is ambiguous too. Either way his detractors view her as a further threat to the rabbi’s already diminished status and by extension a menace to the whole community. In a brutal scene she is taunted by a group of young Hasids, one of whom deliberately trips her on the street, landing her in the hospital battered with a broken jaw. The rabbi savagely beats up the culprit. 

The politics and inter-dynamics, not to mention the pecking order among the rabbis is byzantine. (There’s an involved subplot focused on the selection of a new Grand Rebbe). But what’s clear is that Nathan must free himself from Feigie, bar her from his home, and ideally get her married off as soon as possible. It’s a mandate from the powers that be.

Marriage and, indeed, wedding imagery, recurs throughout. Several of the episodes are prefaced with scenes of Feigie getting ready for her upcoming nuptials, her expression beatific and blissful. We never know to whom she’s engaged or if the whole sequence is a flight of fancy. In Burshtein-Shai’s previous films matrimony is a central theme and a collectively agreed upon ambition especially for single women.

In Fire Dance, Feigie’s mother relentlessly badgers her on the topic, reminding 18-year-old Feigie that her options are limited, particularly if she remains unmarried past her 20th birthday. But Feigie is steadfast in her refusal to tie the knot. 

Mia Ivryn and Yehuda Levi in ‘Fire Dance.’ Photo by Shlomo Gelber

She insists she’s not ready, but it’s clear the only one she’s in love with is the unavailable rabbi, who also urges her to get married. His heart is not in it and his conflict grows exponentially when his wife passes away. The result of a suicide, or possibly an accident, but either way it’s contrived, a tad too convenient. Still, it serves the narrative.

Now he is free to marry Feigie, but knows he cannot because it would only confirm what everybody else has been suspecting  and thus be an ongoing blight on his reputation and hers.

Desperate, he flees alone to the sun-beaten desert where he confronts his demons, not unlike Lear in the raging storm as he prays and cries.

The image of nature in this film is brutish, abrupt and arbitrary. Early on, Feigie hugs a tree, scraping her cheek on its ragged bark. Blood dots the side of her face. Shortly thereafter a feral dog bounding out of the woods, assaults a young girl (Feigie’s nemesis), seriously mauling her. The unexplained events are piercingly primitive, yet also spiritual and in some subrational place, oddly connected. 

The visual artistry is striking: A young Hasidic girl sports a bright red wig and appears costumed like a punk for Purim; Nathan arrives in the desert in a spray-painted graffiti covered van evoking a vehicle transporting rockers in the late 60s. The music composed by jazz musician Daniel Zamir is equally effective in merging a contemporary sound with something resembling liturgical prayer. 

But one of the most memorable and moving elements is the community and bonding of women who support each other through marriage, divorce, disease, attempted suicide and death.

Still, the resolution of the central love story (to reveal it would be a spoiler), is an enigma. It’s unnerving. Nonetheless, it provokes thoughts and raises questions that linger long after the credits have faded to black.

Fire Dance can now be seen on Chaiflicks.

The post Eroticism and faith merge in a haunting TV series about a married rabbi and a troubled young woman appeared first on The Forward.

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