JERUSALEM—Countless battles have been fought to capture her and claim her religious glory. Now, under Jewish sovereignty, a different battle is being waged in the Israeli capital—a battle for her soul, says Brooklyn-based filmmaker Liz Nord, creator of the forthcoming documentary Battle for Jerusalem.
In 2009, when Nord visited Jerusalem to begin shooting and identifying the sides in the city’s battle, she found herself captivated by the story of a young female city council member and the ultra-Orthodox forces in the municipality she was up against.
Rachel Azaria, 34, first elected in 2008 to the Jerusalem City Council, is a modern Orthodox mother of four and native Jerusalemite. She’s also one of the founders of Yerushalmim (“Jerusalemites”), a party made up of secular, progressive and Orthodox members supporting initiatives for families, young people and women. She has been at the center of some of the increasingly ultra-Orthodox city’s controversies over civil liberties and the role of women. Azaria has opposed gender segregation on public buses, separate sidewalks for men and women in haredi neighborhoods, and an Egged bus prohibition against women appearing in advertisements.
Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat dismissed Azaria from his coalition government in 2011 (though she remained on the city council), removing her portfolios for preschool education and community administration after she filed a complaint to the High Court of Justice protesting gender separation in the haredi neighborhood of Mea She’arim during Sukkot. After the High Court ruled in her favor, Barkat dismissed Azaria because, he said, city council members should not lodge complaints against the city.
In next fall’s Jerusalem elections, Azaria is vying to win more Yerushalmim seats and influence Barkat. With dark, curly hair and stylish dark pink glasses, she is articulate in Hebrew and English (her mother is American). Known around town for her outspokenness, Azaria is filmmaker Nord’s ideal protagonist in Jerusalem’s inner battle.
“I’m not modern Orthodox but I am a Jewish woman, and this idea of women being marginalized in a city that I feel is supposed to represent my people on a global scale was upsetting, and she’s there on the front lines,” Nord—who served as supervising producer on the 2008 Emmy-Award winning MTV elections show Choose or Lose, and whose film Jericho’s Echo: Punk Rock in the Holy Land has been screened across the globe—says in an interview with JNS.org. “She’s bold and articulate but also a real person that I think people around the world can relate to because she’s a mother trying to balance her values with her family life and professional life.”
Nord was first drawn to Azaria when she was elected in 2008, and interviewed her during her first filming trip. She decided to focus her project on Azaria’s fight to retain her city council seat in the upcoming election. She plans to return to Jerusalem when Azaria’s campaign is in full swing this winter, and next fall Nord will follow Azaria in the day-to-day operations of her campaign.
“The viewer is really seeing the events unfold,” she says. “That’s the intent.”
Nord suspects that Azaria, during her campaign, “will be the target of some ugly stuff, which I don’t wish on her but could make for interesting film.” After Barkat dismissed Azaria, a mainstream haredi website headlined with “A joyous holiday in Jerusalem: Barkat fires the provocateur.”
Haredi city councilmen condemned her petition, while one, Yitzhak Pindrus (United Torah Judaism), called it a provocation. Some 11 of the 25 members of the current council are haredi men.
In an interview Nord conducted with her protagonist at the Limmud Baltimore conference last summer, Azaria says that as an Orthodox woman she never expected to be involved in gay rights and supporting the community’s right to hold a pride parade. But, she believes in fighting for everyone’s right to do what he or she believes in, haredim included.
“It was basically fight or flight,” Azaria says in the summer interview. “We either know where we’re going and we’re leaving or that we’re staying and we’re fighting. What’s been happening lately is that people in Jerusalem aren’t willing to give up anymore.”
Top issues in Azaria’s campaign include ensuring there are enough preschools in the capital, getting sanitation trucks to collect garbage at night, making sure train platforms provide shade and bike stands and improving playground equipment.
Battle for Jerusalem is only the beginning for Nord, who grew up in Fayetteville, a small town in upstate New York, and attended United Synagogue Youth (USY) events in high school. Ahead of the film’s release, Nord launched Jerusalem Unfiltered, an online collection of short interviews with activists, artists and change-makers she met on previous Israel visits, including hip hop band Hadag Nahash frontman Shanaan Streett, Shahar Fisher, a founder of the youth political party Awakening, and Einat Arif-Galanti, a photographer who helped found Agripas12, Jerusalem’s first cooperative gallery.
“The Jerusalem Unfiltered part of the project is really meant as an outreach and engagement [tool],” Nord says. “That is specifically tailored to people who may not be that interested as a way to show them the city through people on the street who they might be able to relate to.”
Eventually, Nord hopes to create a mobile app for users to watch these interviews condensed into one-minute micro-stories mapped to locations in Jerusalem, or watch them by topic (arts and culture, small business, etc.) on the site. The films will also be available for public screening.
Fisher takes Nord for a walk through downtown Jerusalem and talks about the city’s revitalization, its nightlife and why he won’t forsake the capital for Tel Aviv like so many of his peers do when they finish school at the capital’s Hebrew University or Bezalel art school. Streett, who was born and raised in Jerusalem, is the only member of Hadag Nahash who hasn’t moved to Tel Aviv. “Jerusalem offers the possibility to enjoy the differences between people,” he says, walking through the Mahane Yehuda shuk. “You feel life more in Jerusalem. There’s more real people.”
Arif-Galanti describes why she feels like an art crusader and how her gallery, situated near the shuk, draws in a diverse range of people, even haredim, who pass by.
“I was on my way to Tel Aviv. And I already had an apartment there,” she says in the interview. “And then on the last second I said, no, I’m staying in Jerusalem. And being here and opening a gallery here is a kind of a vision, something like a kibbutz.”
Nord describes her Jerusalem Unfiltered interview subjects as “young Jerusalemites who felt like they were really fighting.”
“It was their language,” she says. “They were and are fighting for the future of Jerusalem as a pluralistic democratic city. Some used the word soul—they’re fighting for the soul of the city. It’s a battle over who is going to set the future path of the city.”