Devout Jews and Muslims here, particularly in Queens and Brooklyn, are like next-door neighbors who see each other every day yet remain strangers. But for a quick hello as they enter the same apartment building or rub elbows at the local fruit stand or discount store, most members of these communities have virtually nothing to do with one another.
The new movie “Arranged,” however, shows an unlikely friendship developing between two young, female public school teachers. Rochel is a fervently Orthodox Jew dressed in an appropriately conservative style, and Nasira is a strictly religious Muslim with her head covered by the hijab.
Both women, in their early 20s, come under pressure from their families to find husbands, and are set up with men who their parents (and the matchmakers) consider good prospects. And both chafe at their choice of suitors.
When Rochel and Nasira bring the other to her family’s home to visit, each is met with suspicion bordering on hostility by the parents.
“Arranged” is the almost-true story of Yuta Silverman, who lives in Borough Park and teaches remedial reading in public schools. Silverman became close friends with the mother of one of her former students from a religious Muslim Pakistani family.
When she first met her friend, in reality a young mother named Asma, “we were a little leery of each other,” Silverman says. But “once I was taking off from teaching on a Jewish holiday and she was telling me about one of her holidays, and we discussed them.”
The relationship grew, and they were soon sharing more personal thoughts. “I remember her telling me that ‘you Jewish people seemed like strange scary people and now I see we’re not that different,’ “ Silverman said.
“We’d talk about our religions and compare the shidduchim [dating for marriage] processes; she told me about herself and her sisters. There are a lot of similarities,” she said.
She made the movie because “I want people to be able to relate to other religious groups as people, and not make judgments based on assumptions or myths or whatever it is that catches your eye first,” Silverman said. “It’s about stripping away the outside and getting to people on the inside.”
The dubiousness that her mother conveys to Rochel when she brings Nasira home is based on Silverman’s own experience.
“My family thought it was a little odd that I befriended her. But I’m kind of a strong-willed person, so they thought it was typical Yuta. They would make jokes like asking me ‘you’re sure you don’t want to become Muslim?’”
At the same time, her family was sufficiently supportive of the movie that her parents opened up their Borough Park home to the filmmakers, and it is used as Rochel’s family home in the movie. School scenes were shot at the Elizabeth, N.J., yeshiva where Silverman’s father works.
Though she saw few movies growing up, and always at a synagogue or other private gathering rather than at a theater, Silverman thought her family history would make an interesting film, so she cold-called small movie companies. She eventually found her way to Cicala Filmworks, whose principals, Stefan Schaefer and Diane Crespo, developed the idea for “Arranged” based on stories Silverman told them.
Neither of the filmmakers is Jewish, though both of its female leads are. But whatever their religious background, those who worked on the film say that making the movie was a learning experience about unfamiliar worlds.
“I knew very little about the Orthodox community before this project,” said Crespo, who was raised in a Catholic family.
“Yuta allowing us into her life and world, insisting that we come in and giving us a window into this community was amazing. We all probably have preconceived notions of the roles of women in an Orthodox community.
“Before I knew better it seemed oppressive and lacked any equality. As a woman, as a feminist, you always want to free women from that. But meeting Yuta and her mom I really saw the freedom, that they don’t feel limited in any way, and it was nice for the women on set to see that,” said Crespo, who co-wrote and co-directed the film with Schaefer.
“The closer I got to the community the more I understood,” she said. “And that’s the message of this film, that when we meet each other and have conversations, everything becomes less strange.”
Zoe Lister-Jones is a Brooklyn native raised in an egalitarian liberal synagogue in Park Slope. She had little contact with the fervently Orthodox world before she was cast as Rochel in “Arranged.”
She managed to fully inhabit Rochel, integrating the contained way that fervently Orthodox women often carry themselves when they are outside of their community, and even speaking with the unique cadence and syntax that could be called “New York frum patois.”
“I never even practiced the Borough Park dialect, but it flowed out of me naturally,” said Lister-Jones. “It was waiting to come out of my body.”
She did find aspects of the experience challenging.
When they filmed in Borough Park, at the Silverman home, many people stopped to stare and question the non-religious people making the movie. “It was as though the aliens had landed when we were there,” said Lister-Jones.
“My biggest challenge was probably really reconciling my judgments of the [fervently Orthodox] community, which I still struggle with. People want me to say that after this movie I have no judgments, but I still do,” she said.
“Yuta is an amazing woman, and that has always brought me to the other side. Her friends are amazing, too. All these bad-[expletive] Jewish girls who are totally outspoken. But I still do have issues.”
Francis Benhamou plays Nasira, the young woman from a Syrian Muslim family.
In reality, Benhamou is Jewish, born in Uruguay to a Moroccan-Jewish family, and raised in Miami, though currently a Brooklyn resident. She kept the fact that she is Jewish a secret from the filmmakers until their work was over.
Benhamou prepared for the part by reading up on Islam. “I realized I didn’t know anything about it. It’s really a very beautiful religion and I felt very inspired by it,” she said.
“Arranged” has been making film festival rounds, and won awards at the Berkshire International Film Festival in May and the Brooklyn International Film Festival in June.
Its creators are currently screening it for audiences at Jewish community centers and at upcoming Jewish film festivals in Atlanta, Miami, San Diego and Harrisburg, Pa.
But finding ways to bring it to Muslim audiences has been harder, said Crespo.
“It’s been a bit more difficult to get it out to the Muslim community because they don’t have the same infrastructure for cultural events,” she said. “We’ve reached out to Muslim student communities and gotten a very good response. It is also harder to penetrate that community because we don’t have the same kinds of connections. But when we’ve invited Muslims to the general screenings it’s gone over really well.”
Asked if “Arranged” has been shown in Borough Park yet, Silverman chuckles. “It probably has not shown in my neighborhood. I guess it depends on how it’s perceived. We’ll have to wait and see.” n
“Arranged” has its commercial premiere Dec. 14 at the Quad Cinema on 13th Street in Manhattan for an initial engagement of at least two weeks.