Documentary Review: “93Queen”

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Here’s a “feel good” film that puts us through our share of feeling bad before it delivers its triumph.

“93Queen” is the call sign of a Brooklyn EMT service, an American and perhaps Jewish first. They’re an all-female, all-volunteer team of first-responders drawn from and catering to the largest Orthodox Jewish community in America. The movie is about the baby-steps march towards progress and equal rights that this service represents.

In a rigid, patriarchal subculture where the divide between the sexes is Torah law, a lone progressive, Rachel “Ruchie” Freier, realized that with Orthodox women like herself giving birth at home, having medical emergencies and recoiling at the realization that only men were coming to their aid, this was a need that needed a New York solution.

“No woman should ever be too embarrassed to call for help,” she says in the film.

Great. Make it so. Is this a “win win” situation, or what?

Try “Or what.” Because even though, as one of her EMT recruits says, with an Orthodox woman, “no one’s ever seen her named legs but her husband,” where heads are shaved and wigs are worn to further insulate these women from the gaze of men, the menfolk don’t like it when women, “whose sole purpose is motherhood,” show signs of independence.

Freier and her first recruits endure community shunning, online shaming and endless name-calling. “Radical feminists,” the guys in the beards, white shirts and black suits and hats kvetch. Because their women are kvelling. 

“The worst thing to tell me is that I can’t do something,” Freier declares. She’s a lawyer. She dreams of becoming a judge. She dresses fashionably, drives and hustles like the stereotypical New Yorker. If the famous Orthodox all-male Hatzalah volunteer ambulance service won’t have them, if rabbis won’t endorse the idea, if this many men are getting their Orthodox undies in a twist, they must be onto something.

Ezras Nashim (“Helping Women”) was born.

“If you can’t join’em, beat’em,” Freier says.

 

“93Queen” is about that birth, the recruitment and training, the endless blowback and nasty infighting that accompanied its arrival in Brooklyn’s Borough Park.

“You are challenging the Torah and playing with fire,” Freier is told, one of the nicer threatening emails she received. People go after her reputation, hammer and tong.

Selected “Mother of the Year” at the Orthodox school she attended? We’ll see about that.

Women who join have daughters in schools and start to look up to their moms as different sorts of role models? Call her in for a “meeting.”

An African-American male EMT consoles them, other Orthodoz women secretly email “You go girls,” or its equivalent. But it’s a steep hill to climb and that may make the outsider viewing “93 Queen” ask, “What millennium is this?”

Poor Ruchie has to distance herself from the “feminist” label — “I also pray, bake challah.” Every Tamir, Dov and Hillel on the street feels male privileged enough to scold the women as they hand out fliers.

You can be forgiven for shaking your head and thinking that for a country that frets endlessly over “Sharia Law” being practiced here, we’re awfully blind to the retrograde enclaves of ultra-conservative, law-unto-themselves patriarchies already tolerated in America — in Brooklyn, rural Pennsylvania, Utah.

Anybody who doesn’t live in or around this world day-to-day — I remember stumbling into this neighborhood once and thinking, “Boy, was THAT the wrong subway stop.  I got off in the Middle Ages!” — will be fascinated by director Paula Eiselt’s sympathetic weaving of rituals into her account of the slow-to-change “bubble” that this community dwells in.

In presenting this story as an overcome-all-obstacles march towards progress, Eiselt skirts the depth of the rift Ezras Nashim has created in Borough Park. Google the name, and right below their website are community forums and Jewish newspaper accounts of mishaps and growing pains that the movie avoids.

Genuine competence issues among the EMTs, or just haters hating in English (and Hebrew)?

Then we see teen girls gathered at the dinner table, chattering about becoming doctors, and the real point is hammered home. It’s hard to stay myopic after those first pioneers have peeled the blinders off.

MPAA Rating: unrated

Cast: Rachel “Ruchie” Freier, Yitty Mandel, Tvzi Dovid Freier

Credits:Directed by Paula Eiselt. An Abramaroma release.

Running time: 1:25

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