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Hats of Jerusalem

by Nati Adler
First Run/Icarus Films, New York, 2005
Video-DVD, 52 mins., col.
Sales, Video-DVD: $298; Rental/video: $125

Distributor’s website: http://www.frif.com

Reviewed by Jonathan Zilberg
Independent Scholar

jonathanzilberg@gmail.com or jonathanzilberg@yahoo.com

Nati Adler’s documentary film is a quixotic and artistic combination of image and sound that often reminds one of Rembrandt and French Orientalist paintings because of the quality of the light and the otherworldly scenes. Following one hat after another, he leads us through ancient alleyways and up and down narrow cobbled streets through Jewish, Christian, and Muslim neighborhoods, utterly separate social spaces. By simply asking what hats mean, he reveals the diversity of the Holy City as a microcosm of the Abrahamic world.

In a beguiling and impish way, Adler deftly captures the powerful emotional and symbolic significance of hats as identity markers. Stitched together from interviews with both those who wear and make these hats, with images and accounts from the art historical and historical record, this documentary is important on two counts. First, it shows how religious identity is embodied. Second, it sensitively explores the veiling of Jewish and Christian women, a vital issue considering the heated contemporary debates over the hiljab.

From the Ashkenazi shtreimmel, to the Moroccan fez or tarbush, from the Armenian cone as a symbol of Mount Ararat to the Palestinian kfir as a symbol of resistance, this documentary is a marvel in terms of how deeply significant historical, political, and religious events and markers can be so successfully approached through such a simple tactic. Not infrequently, when he asks his usual question as to why wear one kind of hat and not another, he is treated contemptuously as some kind of idiot outsider. But his informants would be surprised at the results of his research as they would learn something of their own histories and of others. For example, in delving into the history of the shtreimmel, we revisit Brueghel’s paintings of 16th Century Holland which evidence Pope Innocent’s 13th Century decree that Jews, beggars and lepers wear foxes’ tails upon their jackets. Hence we learn that this symbol of collective belonging, of Jewishness, is the transformation of a marker of an oppressed minority. From shame to pride, from disguise to donation, the documentary gets increasingly interesting scene by scene. For instance, we see mounted Jewish settlers disguised as Bedouin warriors, learn how the Israeli Defense Force’s signature Castro-like hats were donated by the American Hat Association and that the Syrian priests’ white folded hats recall Antonius, the first Christian monk, and his struggle with Satan in the 3rd Century.

Though Adler is himself Jewish, he finds it virtually impossible to penetrate his own society in his search for meaning. Ironically, the first time that he strikes ethnographic gold is when two Greek Orthodox priests invite him into their dormitory where they entertain him with hard driving Christian rock music and draw his attention to the lyrics which for them memorializes the Armenian genocide. Suddenly the barriers between Adler as a profane secular outsider are breached and the distinction between self and other which marks the documentary up to that point falls away as a veil to the floor. From this point on the documentary moves into even more remarkable territory as he enters both sacred and private contexts which would have appeared unimaginable at the

start of the documentary.

For example, he meets a Russian Orthodox nun who is willing to talk to him. But her Bishop refuses to allow it. This critical event completely re-sets the stage for the last half of the film. Adler begins this complementary part by providing us a brief insight into the world in which the opulent and colorful bishops hats are made, extraordinary hats of silken cloth, dazzling with jewels and brocade. Though he is not allowed to interview the cloistered sisters, he is allowed to film them practicing their hymnals. Inadvertently, he has struck an even richer seam of ethnographic gold and enters into a deeply numinous and beautiful space. The camera’s gaze focuses on an attractive young Russian novitiate whose stray wisps of blond hair escape her veil. Ever aesthetic, Rembrandt-like at times, the intensely sensitive combination of sound and image shifts across starkly different contexts of prayer and cultural space again and again.

For the rest of the film, Adler explores an issue of exceptional contemporary sensitivity with an ingenious twist by looking into the world of Orthodox Jewish women and the pleasures and frustrations of being veiled. From the austere black robes of the nuns and their bishops, to shrouded shapeless Muslim women in black, we make the acquaintance of a formerly orthodox Jewish woman liberated and dressed in black leather, her radiantly red long tresses free. She takes us inside the world which Adler at first could not penetrate and there he

strikes an even richer, sexier vein — a hair salon in which Orthodox young Vogue like Jewesses have their wigs cut, blow dried, and permed — platinum blond today, eager brunette tomorrow. And then the most stunning image of all, an exquisitely beautiful woman posing movie star-like with her serpentine coils of hair tightly bound in dark blue cloth talking about the relationship between her hair and her sense of identity and sexuality. Then, evoking the fear religious men have of the figure of the femme fatale, of the peculiar concept of women as the source of all evil, we learn that Eve was not Adam’s first wife, that first there was a redhead named Lilith whom God had expelled from Eden for being insufficiently submissive.

Adler does not disappoint us. He moves to closure with a scene of hatless children playing and shares with us his Dr Seuss-like wish that a wind would blow

everyone’s hats off so that no one would know who was who or what was what. Yet he ends appropriately with the image of two robed Orthodox Jewish men walking into the sunset, their big black hats bobbing and peyotim swinging to wistful music evoking the time of the ghetto.



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