The Arty Semite

Up in the Orthodox Hotel

By Renee Ghert-Zand

  • Print
  • Share Share
Courtesy Iris Zaki

Unlike most filmmakers, Iris Zaki did not have to go out and find a subject for her movie. Instead, it came to her. In fact, it walked right up to her as she sat behind the reception desk at the Croft Court Hotel, in Golders Green, London.

Zaki, a 34-year-old secular, single Israeli woman from Haifa pursuing advanced filmmaking degrees in London, had been working at the Lubavitcher-owned hotel. It soon became apparent that the fascinating conversations she was having with the hotel’s patrons — primarily ultra-Orthodox Jews — would make for an interesting short film.

With the encouragement of her professors and mentors, Zaki focused a lens on these interactions and turned the view from behind the reception desk into “My Kosher Shifts.” The film has been screened at European, Israeli and American festivals, most recently at the Washington Jewish Film Festival earlier this month.

“The hotel patrons would have intimate and interesting discussions with me,” Zaki said. “They would stay for a few days, and start to trust me and open up to me.” She found that lone travelers, and in particular, men, would want to engage in conversation. “They were as curious about me as I was about them.”

With her boss’s permission, Zaki set up a camera behind her post, so that she is seen from the back in almost every shot. “The camera is at the back, so there is no photographer per se,” the filmmaker explained. “I call this methodology ‘the abandoned camera,’ and it leads people to really open up.” She didn’t want a camera between her and her conversational partners. “This way, they don’t feel like there is anyone watching them. People are afraid of photographers, not cameras.”

Sped-up footage (set to humorous, up-tempo background music) of patrons passing back and forth in front of the desk alternates with real-time earnest discussions between Zaki and the guests. One Israeli man bemoans the fact that it is so hard to find a Jewish barber in London. Another tries to explain to Zaki how it is that he is Haredi, but does not always wear a black suit and hat. A British couple try to find the filmmaker a shidduch (marriage match) and lecture her on the pitfalls of remaining single.

One longer exchange involves Zaki disagreeing with a middle-aged Israeli woman about tzniut (modesty), with the former saying that it is men who need to control themselves, and the latter insisting that it is up to women not to sexually tempt them by improper dress. Another has Zaki talking with a young American man with a Mohawk haircut and multiple piercings. It turns out that he was once Haredi, but left the religiously observant lifestyle because he felt constrained and needed to engage with the larger world, including young women. Zaki is more than a little surprised to hear him say that he still feels strongly about wanting to eventually marry a Jewish woman.

In recording these conversations, Zaki feels she is making a statement about how she wanted to portray the ultra-Orthodox community. “Often, when filmmakers deal with a community like this, they either present them as a monolithic group, or they focus on one colorful person who stands out from the group.” In contrast, Zaki lets the audience get to know them as individuals.

Her intention of editing together these interesting and revealing conversations is to show that Haredim are people too, so to speak. Zaki refers to the result as “simple and refreshing.” In many ways, I would agree.

But the film has a deeper and more critical (intended or unintended) level that is easy to miss. There’s more to it than meets the ear. It is important not to lose sight of the fact that film is a visual medium. Therefore, I would advise viewers to watch as closely as they listen, in order to perceive the most powerful — and honest — interactions in the film.

Watch the trailer for ‘My Kosher Shifts’:

Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Renee Ghert-Zand, My Kosher Shifts, Iris Zaki, Film

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • PHOTOS: 10,000 Israel supporters gathered for a solidarity rally near the United Nations in New York yesterday.
  • Step into the Iron Dome with Tuvia Tenenbom.
  • What do you think of Wonder Woman's new look?
  • "She said that Ruven Barkan, a Conservative rabbi, came into her classroom, closed the door and turned out the lights. He asked the class of fourth graders to lie on the floor and relax their bodies. Then, he asked them to pray for abused children." Read Paul Berger's compelling story about a #Savannah community in turmoil:
  • “Everything around me turns orange, then a second of silence, then a bomb goes off!" First installment of Walid Abuzaid’s account of the war in #Gaza:
  • Is boredom un-Jewish?
  • Let's face it: there's really only one Katz's Delicatessen.
  • "Dear Diaspora Jews, I’m sorry to break it to you, but you can’t have it both ways. You can’t insist that every Jew is intrinsically part of the Israeli state and that Jews are also intrinsically separate from, and therefore not responsible for, the actions of the Israeli state." Do you agree?
  • Are Michelangelo's paintings anti-Semitic? Meet the Jews of the Sistine Chapel:
  • What does the Israel-Hamas war look like through Haredi eyes?
  • Was Israel really shocked to find there are networks of tunnels under Gaza?
  • “Going to Berlin, I had a sense of something waiting there for me. I was searching for something and felt I could unlock it by walking the streets where my grandfather walked and where my father grew up.”
  • How can 3 contradictory theories of Yiddish co-exist? Share this with Yiddish lovers!
  • "We must answer truthfully: Has a drop of all this bloodshed really helped bring us to a better place?”
  • "There are two roads. We have repeatedly taken the one more traveled, and that has made all the difference." Dahlia Scheindlin looks at the roots of Israel's conflict with Gaza.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.