Let me set the stage: It’s 2016. You know you like girls. You are a girl. You’re scared of what it means for your Modern Orthodox identity. You don’t really have anybody to talk to because God forbid anybody knows this deepest, most shameful secret.
Gay media can be overwhelming. “The L Word” is a lot to handle and you’re paranoid that somebody is going to see what you’re watching and ask too many questions. The film “Disobedience” is still a year away, and you found the book annoying and insincere. You’re floundering in a half-baked identity that feels as though it might self-destruct at any moment.
“Ha-Sodot” (literally “The Secrets” in Hebrew) is a 2007 movie that is, and I say this with all the love in the world, absolutely bonkers. It takes place in Tzfat, Israel (the capital of Jewish mysticism, your first clue that things aren’t going to be normal) and follows two seminary students, Noemi and Michal. They’ve just been made roommates, but they’re not happy about it. They’re complete opposites: Michal is French — we won’t hold that against her — and doesn’t really want to be at seminary. She has a mobile phone (a big deal in religious circles) and she smokes out the bedroom window. Like Addison Rae, she is a bad bleep. Noemi, on the other hand, is the daughter of a prominent Orthodox rabbi, as all good Jewish protagonists are. She has convinced him to postpone her impending marriage for one more year so she can continue her studies.
Now, if you’ve ever read a single fanfic in your life, you’d know that this is the perfect setup. Two girls who hate each other (!), who are forced to spend time together (!!), and who don’t really seem to like men all that much (!!!!!!!!). It would be, by all accounts, a perfect gay film plot.
But the writers, Avi Nesher and Hadar Galron, also thought it would be a good idea to add Anouk, a terminally ill French woman (we’ll hold it against her, just a little) who comes to Tzfat to seek penance for sins she has done throughout her life. As my friend Oli says, it’s not a gay Jewish movie if it doesn’t have parallel storylines about purity and transgression. Noemi and Michal encounter Anouk during their weekly community service and they decide to help her with this mission. Their help involves intense, forbidden Kabbalah study, breaking into a mikveh in the middle of the night, and lots of cool visual motifs. Oh, and palpable, unforgiving sexual tension that makes you sort of feel like this emoji all the time: 😳
That’s all I’ll say, lest I spoil the movie for you. But enough about you.
“Ha-Sodot” is the first time I saw someone almost exactly like me on screen. Sure, the characters are more religious and live in Tzfat and are French and have dads and are hot. But they go through the same processes I went through and sometimes still go through. These are characters who randomly dance and sing through the streets with their seminary, yet harbor secrets without anybody knowing their inner strife. Characters who love learning Torah and love their community and God, and still have these feelings they don’t know what to do with. Characters who seek answers which they know no rabbi or teacher will give them, who are desperate for a piece of paper or a line in the gemara somewhere that would absolve them of what feels not just like sin, but a total betrayal of everything they’ve ever known and been taught.
Here are Jewish women who love other women and don’t know what to do about it.
What’s more, their uncertainty isn’t treated as something to fix, nor their Orthodoxy as a barrier to overcome. To be gay isn’t to stop being frum, and vice versa.
This movie wasn’t just refreshing. It was a lifeline; it was everything I had been hoping to hear. I was going to be OK. I was going to survive.
I am not the same person I was in 2016 when I first saw this film. I no longer hold this particular secret close to my chest, nor do I fear that it will spread across my community like wildfire. The most important people in my life all know, and I’m blessed that they all love me the same.
And yet, sometimes those hang-ups find their way back, crawling under my skin and lodging themselves anywhere they can. Logically, like Noemi, I know my existence is, for lack of a better word, valid. I know that who I am is not inherently sinful. But like Michal, sometimes my emotions get the better of me — after all, unlearning two decades worth of heteronormative life expectations is hard.
At this point, “Ha-Sodot” is comfort food. It makes me feel warm and fuzzy when I watch it, no matter how whacky it gets. My culture club in Sydney is named Hasodot after the film. Started by two of my good friends (I was their first member!), it’s a club that caters to Jewish LGBT+ women and nonbinary people and now boasts almost 80 members. We read LGBT+ and Jewish (jackpot when it’s both!) books, watch movies and TV shows, and just hang out. We watched “Ha-Sodot” in one of the first sessions, when there were only a handful of us. Let me revise my statement: “Ha-Sodot” is not just meaningful comfort food, but has become a symbol of community and friendship, two things I hold in very high esteem.
I won’t pretend the film has a happy ending, at least not a conventional one. But it makes me smile and cry every time I watch it. It reminds me that people like me exist, that the love we hold in our hearts is worthy of being felt. And it makes me hopeful that the years we’ve spent on the sidelines of Jewish life have come to an end.
Ha-Sodot is available to stream on Amazon Prime and Vimeo On Demand.
Late Take is a series on Alma where we revisit Jewish pop culture of the past for no reason, other than the fact that we can’t stop thinking about it?? If you have a pitch for this column, please e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org with “Late Take” in the subject line.