On a picturesque hilltop between Jerusalem and Hebron stands the settlement of Bat Ayin, home to around 200 families. Since its establishment in 1989, Bat Ayin has frequently found itself on the wrong side of the news, partly for the extremist ideology of its founder, Rabbi Yitzhak Ginsburg, and partly due to some of the more extremist members of the community.
Ginsburg gained notoriety for a pamphlet he distributed after the killing spree of Baruch Goldstein, describing his murder of 29 people praying at the Cave of the Patriarchs in 1994 as a “mitzvah.” In 2002, extremist members of the settlement were charged with attempting to blow up an Arab girls’ school, after their van packed with explosives was intercepted enroute, hours before it was intended to go off.
Now, however, one documentary maker is attempting to portray a different side to the community. Elad Nehorai, one of Jewish Week’s “36 under 36” for 2016, who is best known as the writer behind the Pop Chassid blog, has launched a crowd-funded documentary series simply titled “Bat Ayin,” which he said is intended to make the residents of the community “human.” The series consists of six episodes, each one an interview with one family from the settlement. The first episode was released last week online.
The human element to “Bat Ayin” is what makes it unique, according to Nehorai. The political context is not explicitly discussed, although in an interview with The Jewish Week he stressed, “I don’t mean to say that we avoided it, there’s no question that it’s impossible to separate the politics from the story.”
“Anything that is political is also personal,” continued Nehorai. “In almost all the interviews we talk about the politics of the situation, but people are complex, so much more than we give them credit for. When it becomes solely political, it makes them seem inhuman. The goal with this is to become a window into their lives.”
The first episode, which tells the story of Rina and Shlomo Shoshana, is a classic case in point. On the face of it, it’s the simple story of a couple who fell in love with Bat Ayin whilst on a visit and decided to sell their home in Chicago and move there, but even this one, “which seems very non-controversial, talks about why he’s settling in the land,” pointed out Nehorai. “It really is political, what he’s talking about, but it’s also not.”
As to the political leanings behind both the series and Hevria, the media collective which Nehorai founded, which produced the series? Simple, said Nehorai, “I have a complicated view, and a lot of people in Hevria have complicated views. You’re not going to be able to get an agenda out of us.”
The style of the program is simple, “stripped back” to the essentials. Nehorai himself is not in shot at any point, the only people who are featured in the first episode are Rina and Shlomo Shoshana; Rina out picking wild herbs, Shlomo praying on his front porch. The only concession to this being a documentary is the fact that, on occasion, they talk directly to the camera. There isn’t even any music. All of this is deliberate, according to Nehorai. The goal of the series is to make the viewer feel like he or she is really there.
The first episode of “Bat Ayin” has already garnered over 4,000 views, which Nehorai said he was “very happy with.” Filming has concluded on the series, and the remaining five episodes are set to be released once a month, with the next one due in early August.