A Profoundly Personal Look at Jewish Divorce

Ma'aleh student and director Pazit Lichtman discusses 2007's Willingly.

Click photo to download. Caption: A scene from Willingly by Ma’aleh School of Television, Film and the Arts graduate Pazit Lichtman. Credit: Ma'aleh.

Nobody knew that when Ma’aleh School of Television, Film and the Arts student Pazit Lichtman was working on her 2007 film Willingly about a religious couple getting divorced, she herself was struggling to keep her marriage, just a year old, from breaking apart.

Willingly, in Hebrew, “Harei at,” are the same words a Jewish man says to his wife under the chuppah and before the Rabbinical Court upon presenting her the get document for a divorce. Both acts must be done out of each party’s own free will.  

The 29-year-old filmmaker from Ashkelon said when it came time for her to choose a subject for her film at Ma’aleh, she had no idea what to do. A newlywed at the time, she says, “I had no idea because my life was perfect.”

But after less than a month, her marriage began to deteriorate. She describes feeling embarrassed and depressed, and not knowing whom to turn to for guidance in her Orthodox community. “It was a huge shock for me because I grew up believing that marriage lasts forever,” she says. “It was like we were the only people this happens to.  I couldn’t tell anyone about the fact that we had problems. It felt like everything around me was shaking.” She was afraid, wondering “who will want me after I get divorced?”

Realizing the risk, she knew this was the film she had to make, and decided to throw herself into the project, researching the divorce process in Israel and the system of the Rabbinical Court in implementing Jewish laws in this regard. She sat in on lengthy court sessions and observed two couples getting divorced. The day was strenuous and emotional, to say the least. “It was like 3,000 years behind closed doors,” she says. “I cried through all this day,” she adds, as it hit home.

Lichtman says in writing the script, at times her voice came through the female character, though she was careful to keep details of her marriage out. “I used my thoughts and gave her to do what I would do,” she says. Certain scenes she says she hoped her ex-husband would read so he could understand her, for instance the scene in which the couple is sitting together eating lunch, as they wait for the Rabbinical Court to see them. She notes, “Even when they are sitting together, they are not really together.” The distance between them is palpable, the dialogue painfully awkward, and ultimately very sad.

“I really wanted my husband to understand it,” she says.    

Determined to save her marriage, Lichtman turned to a counselor and a rabbi, but nothing helped. She decided the couple in her film would break apart, “with a little chance they would come back together.”

“I was sure I could write in my own future,” Lichtman recalls.

After two years of working on the film’s script and production, she screened it at the Haifa International Film Festival. One week later, she got divorced. “No one knew this was my own story,” she says.

Making this film however was therapeutic for Lichtman who says she confronted her fears about moving on with her life, and began accepting that the future could hold happiness (she remarried a year ago). “I wasn’t afraid anymore. [Divorce] was no longer like a monster that will eat me.”

Since then, she has shown her film at the Barcelona Jewish Film Festival, Tribeca, the “Reel Love” festival in Boston, and the San Diego Jewish Film Festival, among others. She has also screened it for students at Jewish schools in Los Angeles and Taglit-Birthright groups as an educational tool for young people.

Most touching, Lichtman says, is that Willingly placed her in a role of counselor to Orthodox women regarding divorce, receiving questions and stories from women who could relate to her experience. For many in her community, she says people imagine the word divorce and not the person, so to connect a face to the event was powerful. “There is a voice that no one has heard before,” she says. “The reality is much more than the image.”

Though the couple is Orthodox, Lichtman is confident that everyone can identify with the characters’ struggle and hopefulness for change that there’s “something better waiting for us outside.”

“Everyone can find himself inside of it, the feeling you are about to lose someone,” she says.

Posted on November 20, 2011 and filed under Arts.