Filming the chasidic sirens of 93Queen
Local filmmaker’s documentary on all-female EMS group in Brooklyn looks at change and pushback in chasidic world
There is some change going on in the chasidic community, filmmaker Paula Eiselt of Teaneck thinks.
It’s subtle and it’s slow and it’s coming from the inside.
It is, moreover, coming from within a community that is not only insular and misunderstood, but also widely disliked by the outside world — in fact, a community that is seen as one of the few that it is still safe to dislike.
And it is coming from within a community that is exactly like every other community in the world in that it is made of people. People with idiosyncrasies and foibles and creativity; people who might seem to be completely like everyone else, total conformists in a culture that demands total conformity — but in truth no one ever is exactly like anyone else. Not in any community.
Ms. Eiselt’s documentary, “93Queen,” follows a group of chasidic women in Brooklyn as they attempt and then succeed at starting an all-women’s EMT service, Ezras Nashim, both to take care of women who feel more comfortable getting medical care from other women than from men, and because the ever-present, wildly successful EMT service Hatzollah decided that the religious precepts that guide it did not allow them to include women among its volunteers.
“93Queen” — the name is what emergency dispatchers call Ezras Nashim — also follows the extraordinary Ruchie Freier, the force of nature who inhabits the body of a chasidic wife, mother, and now grandmother.
Before the film begins, Ms. Freier already has taken the extremely unusual step of becoming a lawyer, at 40, following a college education begun at 30, when she already was a mother of three children. “She worked as a secretary, and she decided that she didn’t want to be a secretary,” Ms. Eiselt said. “So she went to Touro, and then to Brooklyn Law.
“That was a controversial decision. She got blowback from her husband at first — he didn’t think that was who he was marrying. But since then he has really evolved.”
During the film, we see Ms. Freier — who is aided not only by her obvious strategic and intellectual brilliance and powerful will, and what seems to be a fair amount of money, tastefully spent, but also, perhaps ironically, by genuine and compelling physical beauty — not only start Ezras Nashim but also run for election as a Criminal Court judge. When she won that seat, she became the first chasidic women in the country to be so positioned. We also see her husband, David, an accountant with whom she shares an office, as beamingly proud of her.
Ms. Eiselt, 32, filmed “93Queen” over the course of four years; much of that time, she worked alone. She never is present in the film, but many of the women — there are some men in the film, but overwhelmingly it’s peopled by women — talk directly to her, and to us.
The film — which will be released in New York City theaters on July 25 — is both a logical and a risky step for Ms. Eiselt.
And it also was a long time in coming.
Ms. Eiselt knew that she wanted to be a filmmaker since she was in high school — HAFTR, the Hebrew Academy of the Five Towns and Rockaway — on Long Island’s South Shore. “My friend and I ditched a few classes — it’s funny, all these years later I don’t want to get anyone in trouble by saying this! — and we went to Blockbuster, and we got a film and went to her house and watched it,” she said.
“We didn’t know what we were getting into.”
The film was Darren Aronofsky’s “Requiem for a Dream.” “It was very intense, and I was stunned by it,” Ms. Eiselt said. “The power of what he did with it, with all his films.” The way Mr. Aronofsky was able to marry images to story spoke powerfully to her. “I always had an interest in writing and journalism and storytelling,” she said. “I saw this, and I was like ohmygod, I’m going to make movies.”
Her parents, Sheila and Mel Finkelstein, Orthodox Jews as she is, also were avid movie watchers, Ms. Eiselt said. “I grew up with cinema and good TV.” She knew what she was looking at. “But how do you become a filmmaker in HAFTR high school?
“So I created a film club.” She was in tenth grade.
Her mother had gone to school with Bernard Telsey, who became a Broadway casting director. So her mother asked Mr. Telsey if her daughter could intern with him, and Mr. Telsey said yes. “Before that point, I hadn’t interacted with non-Jews,” Ms. Eiselt said. “I had gone to all-Jewish schools in the Five Towns,” which are overwhelmingly Jewish. “This was my first experience with diverse people. It was formative.”
For the summers after 11th and 12th grades, Ms. Eiselt interned for Mr. Aronofsky. Again, it was her mother who made that happen. “My mom somehow found his agent online, and she wrote and said ‘My daughter really loves him.’” Ms. Eiselt already had written a script, and Ms. Finkelstein sent it on to the agent.
It worked. Ms. Eiselt got the job.
“It was really amazing,” she said. “I got to read film scripts, and to see really how everything works. It was so cool!”
Next, she got into the film program at NYU’s Tisch School. That was a bit of a coup — the path from HAFTR to Tisch wasn’t particularly well-trodden. “It was such a profoundly happy moment,” Ms. Eiselt said. “I was on my school trip, in Montreal. That’s when we all found out. And I spoke to my mother, and she said that there was mail from NYU. That I had gotten in. And then I started screaming, and then all my friends started screaming. People said they could hear us on the floor below.”
Living and studying at NYU was another transformative experience for Ms. Eiselt. It was where she really began to live in two worlds — the Orthodox world of her childhood and family and upbringing, and the secular, artistic, if not irreligious world of the people with whom she was going to work. And then there was her lack of film background. “So for the first time I was at a secular school and also I was at a film school, with kids who had gone to film school every summer,” she said. Her response “I double majored, in cinema studies and in film production,” she said. Film production is about the practical side of actually making movies, while cinema studies is more academic and theoretical.
It was during this time, too, that Ms. Eiselt came to terms — or at least realized that she had to begin the process of coming to terms — with the balance of life as an observant Jew and as a filmmaker. Film students have to make films. Most of that work is done on weekends, but Ms. Eiselt had only Sundays. She figured out how to make that work.
She also developed a strong relationship with Marco Williams, who is a professor of documentary filmmaking at Tisch. He became her mentor and close friend, and is “93Queen’s” executive producer. Among other lessons, he taught her to navigate the contradictions of her life. “He was impressed by the things I was embarrassed by,” she said. “The things that could have been viewed as shortcomings he saw as cool and strong.”
During the summer after her junior year at NYU, Paula Finkelstein married David Eiselt. “I was very much trying to have it all,” she said. “To do everything I should do as an Orthodox person. My NYU friends came to my wedding.” She and her husband, who works in finance, moved to Queens; they had three children, Avinoam, 9, Yoli, 7, and Libby, 2 1/2. Recently the family moved to Teaneck.
During that time, Ms. Eiselt worked in the movie industry. She made documentaries. “I did work on fiction films in school, and it was a great experience, but then you have to be on set, and that is incompatible with family life,” she said. The hours it demands are impossible. And then there was her love of journalism and storytelling, which she’d had for as long as she could remember, and that had never gone away.
So there she was, a young Orthodox woman trying to balance everything. She decided not to wait until her children were older to start her career in earnest, because she feared that if she were to wait, she’d never find the right time to start. There is, after all, no right time. So she decided to try anyway.
“My 20s were really hard,” she said. “My pregnancies were hard. You are trying to build a family and a career. Can you be an artist and a mother? If you try to do everything, something falls through the cracks.”
It was with that understanding — that it is not possible for one life to hold everything, but also if you are driven it is not possible to stop trying, only to try your level best for balance — that Ms. Eiselt found herself reading Vos Iz Neias?, the New York-based website aimed at the Orthodox and even more specifically chasidic communities. That’s where she ran across the story of Ezras Nashim, the story of women doing what they thought was right, even if in their world it was at best unconventional and controversial. “I had never seen chasidic women not take no for an answer,” she said. “I knew that this was an extraordinary story, and that I had to tell it.
She was also uniquely positioned to tell it.
The chasidic community is insular and it is easy for the outside world to misunderstand it, Ms. Eiselt said. It’s not been helped by the stories of people who have left it. Those escape stories are gripping and have the sound of desperate truth to them, but they are not the community’s full truth, she said.
Ms. Eiselt not only is Orthodox, she also had an uncle who was part of the chasidic community. She had started working on a film about him — “Following Boruch” — so she had many personal and professional connections, as well as a bone-deep understanding of how her uncle’s world worked.
In making “93Queen,” Ms. Eiselt was able to combine two of her passions — for using the medium of film to make art, and for social justice. She feels strongly that the chasidic community is misunderstood, although she understands why and also is able to see that it, like all communities, has many problems.
“Part of the goal is to get the chasidic community and the media community to trust each other more,” she said. When she pitched the story to Ms. Freier and the other members of Ezras Nashim, she told them that “I am the bridge. We can all work together. I know that often it is contentious, but if you don’t tell your own story, if you don’t let the media in, they will tell your story for you, and you won’t like the way they tell it.
“All we outside the community see are the negative stereotyping religious stories. If that’s not who you are, then tell it your way.
“There is real diversity in the community,” she continued. “It is not monolithic, and it is dangerous to think that. Because I am in both worlds, I see that.
“The chasidic world is under-represented, and I knew that this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
“93Queen” is not only about chasidic Brooklyn, it specifically is about that community’s women.
“When I first met Ruchie, I saw that she was special,” Ms. Eiselt said. “It took time to build trust. But what really ended up convincing her was that I said that I could give her a voice and a platform, and a chance to control some of the representation of the community. She said that the people we see represent just a small fraction of the community. I said, ‘If you don’t show that, how will people know?’”
Ruchie Freier is “the Hillary Clinton of Borough Park. She is complicated. And you need to have complicated people to prove that it is possible. To inspire other people.
“It really is inspiring to know that somebody doesn’t have to shed her culture to be successful. And she doesn’t help only women. Before she started Ezras Nashim, she founded a program called B’Derech, which helps at-risk young men get their GEDs and then get associate college degrees. B’Derech helps them find different ways to stay in the community. She accepts whoever she gets. And she opens her home. She has tangibly helped so many people.
“Ruchie is someone who is working on the inside to make a difference,” Ms. Eiselt said. “You have to speak the language. She does. She walks a fine line.
“If she were to be too radical, no one would listen to her. At the end of the day, she gets it done. You don’t necessarily like what she does, but she does it within the system. She makes real change.
“By the end, you see the issues that these chasidic women deal with, and the chasidic identity drops away, and you see them as issues that all women deal with. This is not just a Jewish story, but a universal story of feminist and of change from within.
“You take away the particular, and you see that this story is playing out all over the work.”
Just as Ms. Freier has to balance what the community will tolerate with what she thinks the community needs, so too does Ms. Eiselt.
The film industry, she said, mainly is “far left. It is an activist community.” To go from the chasidic community to the film industry “is like watching Fox News and then reading the Intercept.”
She is at home in both worlds.
She hopes that the film world will understand the risks that the chasidic women in “93Queen” are taking, and will be supportive rather than dismissive of it. “It’s the stepping stone to change in the chasidic community,” she said “It would be unfortunate if the progressives don’t embrace it, because everything has to start somewhere. Evolution has to start from somewhere.
“Ruchie Freier is an icon. History is being made, and she is a historic figure. This might be a drop in the bucket, but there is something moving. Change might be slow, but if you want sustainable change, support these women. Don’t tell them they’re not good enough.”
Making films, even smallish-scale documentary films, takes money. You need money to begin making them, and you need something to show if you want to get money to spend for the basic supplies you need to make them. But you need money to create something you can show. But…
Many new filmmakers get around that by using their own personal credit cards at the beginning of their careers. So did Ms. Eiselt. But then she started getting funding. She got a grant from ITVS, public broadcasting’s funding arm, which became a co-producer. That was a big deal; it allowed Ms. Eiselt and her business partner, Heidi Reinberg, to set up an office, hire people, and run a business. “Now we have a full production company,” Ms. Eiselt said. It’s called Malka Films. (Remember that Malka’s first film was “93Queen”; “malka” means queen.) The film also got funding from the Hot Doc pitch forum; that was a “terrifying experience,” involving making a quick pitch in front of a large, formidably credentialed audience. “We got the First Look pitch prize,” Ms. Eiselt said. “We were in.”
She finds all of this heartening. “If you want to change, you have to have grit,” she said. “Making real change isn’t sexy. It comes from the bottom up. It comes from people who are living in the community, people who recognize a void or a need. It can’t come from outsiders telling you that you are backward.
“Everyone should tell their own stories.
“And change is messy. Some people don’t want to stay and try to make change. They want to leave.” She understands that too although her film focuses on the people who stay.
Ms. Eiselt knows that as much as it was a risk for her to make the film — she was staking her own money, her time and emotion, and her family’s needs — it was a far greater risk for the women who allowed themselves to be filmed, and whose presences fill up the screen. There has been blowback. Many people in the community — men and women alike — think that they have gone too far, and that the EMS services the women provide are not Jewishly acceptable. Some believe that Ms. Freier has no business running for judge, much less winning that job. There have been insults, both on social media and in person, there have been prank calls to Ezras Nashim, there has been venom directed and the women and their supporters — and she knows that there will continue to be.
“There are two conflicts, the internal and the external,” she said. The external conflicts are noisy and visible; the internal ones center around “the women themselves. How do they reconcile their roles as they change or don’t change?
“The whole thing was risky. People outside don’t necessarily understand the stakes. They don’t realize what it takes to stay.”
But outsiders who watch “93Queen” are likely to come away with a more firm understanding of why people stay, and of the humanity of the community.