Five years ago, I uncovered a shocking act of defiance in an unexpected setting. As I was perusing a Yiddish website, I came across a photo featuring Hasidic women in lab coats. I read in the accompanying text about Ruchie Freier, a Hasidic woman who was leading her Hasidic sisters from Brooklyn in creating America's first all-female volunteer EMT corps, called Ezras Nashim, or "women helping women."
While an all-female EMT corps is remarkable in itself, I was even more intrigued by the context surrounding Ruchie's effort and its implications in Hasidic Brooklyn. As an Orthodox Jewish woman myself, I immediately understood that the formation of Ezras Nashim would pose a significant disruption to cultural norms in the gender-segregated Hasidic community. By claiming EMS as a male-only space in the Orthodox/Hasidic world, Hatzolah had actively prevented women from participating in emergency care and made it known that they were not going to allow space for the women's solution that is Ezras Nashim.
Until that moment, I had never heard of proud Hasidic women challenging the status quo of their own community and refusing to take no for an answer from the all-powerful patriarchy. Their courage and persistence in demanding progress from within their own community--even in the face of fierce opposition--inspired me to make 93Queen.
Over four years of filming, I operated as a one woman-crew to capture subtly the highs and the lows of forming Ezras Nashim, from its inception through its launch and, finally, Ruchie's surprise run for Brooklyn Civil Court judge.
In many ways, the making of 93Queen mirrors the radical formation of Ezras Nashim.
In Hasidic culture, secular media is taboo and women shy away from any sort of public attention. In fact, Hasidic publications do not print photos of any women at all. As an insider who understands the laws of modesty and promised to follow them in the making of the film, I was granted unprecedented and exclusive access to the David-and-Goliath story of Ezras Nashim. The result is the first documentary portrayal by an insider of Hasidic women who actually live inside the Hasidic world adhering to that lifestyle.
In addition to being silenced within their own community's media, women like Ruchie and her sister EMTs are seldom, if ever, given a voice in mainstream secular media. The few documentaries about the Hasidic community that do exist dangerously exploit stereotypes and present the culture as monolithic. Aside from simply perpetuating ignorance, these unchallenged depictions not only feed anti-Semitism, but force the members of the Hasidic community to isolate themselves further.
Our commitment to allowing minorities to tell their own stories extends to our music as well. The vocals interlaced into Laura Karpman's masterful score are sung by Hasidic singer Perl Wolfe. Perl is the former lead singer of the first all-female Hasidic band, Bulletproof Stockings. Women are forbidden to sing publicly in mixed company in Hasidic communities, so Perl's riveting and raw vocals literally give Hasidic women a worldwide voice. The vocals consist largely of traditional Hasidic melodies known as niggunim that are almost always sung by men, but also include an original song built with lyrics from a Jewish prayer that highlights the power of women. Perl's vocals reclaim another male-dominated space and serve as a "Greek chorus" for our story.
93Queen is a game-changing film: It neither demonizes nor sanitizes the Hasidic community, but rather introduces viewers to the type of complex and nuanced Hasidic human beings many don't believe exist. Our story provides an intellectually and emotionally honest portrayal of what female-driven progress looks like in the oft-misunderstood Hasidic community.
93Queen is a universal story in a very particular setting about what happens when we empower women to make progress on their own terms rather than shaming their customs.
No one embodies the confounding dichotomy between tradition and modernity quite like Ruchie Freier. While toeing the blurred line between redefining traditional roles and merely updating them, Ruchie takes matters into her own hands to move her community forward--first with Ezras Nashim and then with her political campaign. Ruchie's personal evolution from community activist to community leader presents a thought-provoking--yet challenging--model for progress.
Whether they recognize it or not, Ruchie and the women of Ezras Nashim have laid the groundwork for a lasting and sustainable forward movement in the Hasidic community that can be mirrored nationally. And like women all over the globe, they have proven to be the most potent force their community has to combat injustice and fulfill societal needs.
-- Paula Eiselt, Director