About halfway through The Wedding Plan, the main character Michal (Noa Koler) finds herself on a date with yet another bachelor—this one is an engineer named Assaf—in her frantic last-ditch effort to find a husband. She explains her thinking about life and marriage in a rambling nautical metaphor:
My ship sank, and . . . I’m all alone now. Out at sea. I’m out of breath, I’m tired, I’m exhausted. . . . There’s no time . . . but then I look to the right and see Assaf, you’re here too. Just like me, adrift at sea. . . . We swim and swim and we reach a beautiful island. . . . You and I on a desert island forever. Do we get along? . . . I think if we were on a desert island together we’d become the best of friends. That’s what I call true love and you’d become the most important thing in my life.
Alas, Assaf does not give Michal the chance to test this hypothesis. He is turned off by her intensity, but moved by it on some level as well. Yet as with various other setbacks in the film, this is not nearly enough to make Michal give up, though she never sees Assaf again.
This is familiar territory for haredi Israeli filmmaker Rama Burshtein, who in 2012 released the film Fill the Void, in which a young haredi woman chooses to marry the widowed husband of her deceased older sister. Fill the Void moved international audiences with its delicate depiction of a community prioritizing religious and familial duties above individualistic impulses regarding courtship and marriage. Burshtein cut a striking figure in promoting the film, walking the red carpet at the Venice film festival in an elegant turban and long-sleeved, high-necked gown, accompanied by her Hasidic husband with a long beard and curly sidelocks. Along with the earlier Ushpizin (2004) it was one of the first seriously acclaimed films to depict the haredi community from within.
The Wedding Plan is both looser and more sprawling than Fill the Void and is decidedly quirkier. Michal is a 30-something Israeli ba’alat teshuvah, a formerly secular Israeli who became religious and joined the Breslov Hasidic community. She also owns and operates a travelling petting zoo. After a disappointing broken engagement with a man who decides he is just not “in love” with her, Michal is more determined to find a husband than ever.
Although she lacks a groom, Michal reserves a venue and sends out invitations for a wedding that will take place on the last night of Hanukkah, 22 days away. Burshtein’s film chronicles her grueling, funny, and bittersweet attempt to find and vet a potential groom. One seemingly eligible bachelor proposes to her on the first date, only to admit that he proposes to every woman on the first date, regardless of her character traits, because he is confident that God will ensure a happy marriage with the first woman who says yes. Despite her own desert-island philosophy of courtship and marriage, this is too fatalistic even for Michal. Another candidate is deaf and shows up to their date with a sign language translator. Despite this awkward setup, he is charming and intelligent, but when he asks Michal why she consented to meet him after an initial delay she answers him with chilling honesty: “despair.” He is not interested in proceeding.
Although The Wedding Plan will inevitably be marketed and discussed as a wacky romantic comedy, there is no male lead who engages Michal through the length of the movie. Burshtein’s story is, in fact, closer to a quest narrative, in which the heroine must keep her faith despite all obstacles and trials in order to reach her objective. If there is one steady partner with whom Michal engages, it is God. During a bridal gown fitting with a skeptical dressmaker, in order to explain her confidence that a groom will somehow materialize Michal cites the talmudic aphorism that “the world was created for me.” She neglects, however, to mention a second quotation that often accompanies the first: “I am but dust and ashes.” Although—or because—Burshtein is a deeply religious filmmaker, Michal’s certainty that God will satisfy her highly specific demand is questioned and even challenged throughout the film. Nevertheless, perhaps unsurprisingly, Michal’s optimism is ultimately rewarded and she receives her “Hanukkah miracle.”
Burshtein herself is a ba’alat teshuvah who studied filmmaking before joining the ultra-Orthodox Breslov community in Israel. Breslov Hasidim oriented around the teachings of the late-18th-century Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, and the members of its ba’al teshuvah community in particular, tend to be a little funkier and more au courant than their more button-downed haredi contemporaries. One of Michal’s friends styles her hair in elaborate braids and wears long tribal caftans, and a scene in a mikvah turns into a techno-infused dance sequence. Another haredi character says to Michal that “this wedding plan of yours is like a crazy beautiful startup-venture.” Yet the eclectic, modern sensibility of Burshtein’s film and its characters shouldn’t distract us from the question of faith she places at its center. The techno song blasting in the mikvah as Michal immerses herself for her wedding to a groom who has yet to appear is a remake of a contemporary Breslov-inspired song called “Ve-afilu be-hastara” (Even in Concealment):
Our Father in Heaven says to us,
“Children, I will conceal Myself on that day,”
But Rabbi Nachman, Rabbi Nachman says,
“Even in a concealment within a concealment,
The Lord, may He be blessed, is certainly there
And even behind all the difficult things that stand before you,
I stand, I stand, I stand.”
Burshtein has said that the music for a film comes to her before the script, and one certainly sees how that would be the case here.
Born in New York and raised in Israel, Burshtein currently lives with her family among a small cluster of Hasidic families in the predominantly secular Tel Aviv. Early in her career, she worked in the ultra-Orthodox cottage industry of films made by and for women, but when Fill the Void came out she crossed over to the international film festival and art house cinema scene, without losing touch with her initial audience. It was possible to enjoy Fill the Void as the tale of an unexpected love story amid tragic circumstances in an exotic setting, but it also spoke to her original audience. That film’s soundtrack was punctuated by a modern Israeli rendition of the song “Im Eshkacheikh” (If I Forget Thee O Jerusalem), which is often sung under the wedding canopy. For those conversant with Jewish tradition, the song powerfully expressed the connection between the film’s plot and the tension between joy and tragedy already evoked in the Jewish wedding ceremony itself.
A similarly poignant countertext in The Wedding Plan is the hymn “Eshet Chayil” (Proverbs 31), which is traditionally sung each Friday night before Shabbat dinner. Like the film itself, it sings the praises of a faithful “woman of valor.” Early in the film, Michal confesses her desire for a husband to sing “Eshet Chayil” to her, and the film closes with a rendition of the song. While the traditional performance of the song presupposes a husband to sing it, the woman of valor’s husband is not really described in the hymn. It is she who takes care of all of her family’s needs, engages in complex business ventures, cares for the poor, elevates her husband’s standing, and is, consequently, cloaked in strength and majesty, as well as wisdom and kindness. In incorporating this song, Burshtein places her idiosyncratic heroine in the tradition of great Jewish women, but not without some gentle irony. How far, after all, is Michal from that desperate bachelor who proposed to her, and every other woman, on the first date?
The Wedding Plan is not a perfect film. Burshtein (or her editor) ought to have cut some of Michal’s dates short—one never loses interest, but at close to two hours the film feels a bit long. Furthermore, Michal is an older single woman, at least by haredi standards. Yet she manages to meet a wide range of intriguing and attractive suitors in an impossibly brief amount of time. Her challenge ends up being one of keeping hope alive, rather than dealing with what would likely be a much shallower pool of suitors. Perhaps this abundance is simply part of the enchanting conceit of the movie, its sense of providential serendipity. However, given the commonness of Michal’s predicament, it might not have hurt to depict it with greater accuracy.
For Rama Burshtein, a life of faith means, at least in part, recasting many of the challenges we face as internal ones, as a matter of belief and perspective. Yet one wonders what the film, and Michal’s convictions, would have amounted to absent the happy ending. Or perhaps we just need to have more faith.
The late Michael Wyschogrod may have been the boldest Jewish theologian of the 20th century.
The American religious landscape that Uzi Rebhun sketches out in his new book, Jews and the American Religious Landscape, is marked by virtually boundless freedom and pluralism, as well as increasing fragmentation, due to the growth of “self-searching and religiosity by choice.”
There is more to discuss in the coming weeks and months, but today instead of words we offer images.
S.Y. Agnon was a completely visual thinker. Now his stories have been turned into a comic book.