Israeli filmmaker Ori Gruder knew that when he chose to become an ultra-Orthodox Jew, there would be times when he would need guidance. Secular for most of his life, he was prepared for the initial confusion of not knowing what to wear or eat, or which Hebrew words to chant for specific benedictions.
What he wasn’t ready for, he admits, was having to enlist his rabbi’s help to include the subject of masturbation in discussing the birds and the bees with his son. So he brought his camera along to the rabbi’s study, documenting his quest for answers about the ultra-Orthodox attitude toward sex in “Sacred Sperm,” an 80-minute docu that became a sensation in Israel when it aired on HOT’s Channel 8 (which did not release ratings). Now it’s headed for a summer U.S. theatrical release via Menemsha Films, as well as dates in arthouse theaters in Israel. The pic has played in several Jewish film festivals, as well as London’s Raindance fest.
“Sacred Sperm” is both a personal odyssey and fact-finding mission for Gruder, who became religious 14 years ago, and the film offers one of the most intimate looks at Israeli religious life ever seen onscreen.
Armed with his camera and a healthy arsenal of humor, Gruder pulls back the curtain on Israel’s ultra-Orthodox, taking the viewer into ritual baths, chaotic schoolhouses and kosher homes. More surprising, however, are the subjects that Gruder coaxes into onscreen interviews: His weathered rabbi, all long beard and sparkling eyes, jokes off-the-cuff about penises. And Gruder’s close friend, Yisrael Aharon Itzkovitch, opens his own underwear drawer and shakes out a long, white garment — ultra-Orthodox boxer briefs — while he and Gruder laugh.
He may have become religious, but Gruder admits he still has the insatiable curiosity of a journalist.
“I knew that I was dealing with a very delicate subject here, and I was always wondering, ‘What can I show?’ But I was making a film about sex. And in the film, you can see how I was struggling with it,” Gruder says. “So I told myself (to) both cover things, and uncover things. We covered most things, but we also showed a little bit.”
Gruder’s life change came while he was on the job. He had graduated with honors from the Tel Aviv U. School of Film and Television, and had later directed some of the nation’s top TV documentaries. On one of those gigs, he was sent to Uman, the tiny Ukrainian city that once a year becomes a mass pilgrimage site for Hasidic Jews visiting the gravesite of a renowned rabbi. It was there, filming the droves of devotees quaking with religious fervor, that he first considered plunging into Jewish observance.
“I felt something opening inside of me,” Gruder says. “It was like, wow, I want to be here in this community.”
In less than a year, he got married and moved from Tel Aviv to Elad, a central Israeli city populated almost entirely by religious Jews. His wife also was newly religious, and together they began to navigate the maze of customs and rituals that would circumscribe their lives: Prayer three times a day. Special clothes, limited foods and, perhaps most surprisingly for Gruder, firm laws on sexual conduct, including a ban on male masturbation that views the act as tantamount to killing. There is also strict segregation between men and women.
“I took on everything, all the customs,” Gruder says. “But I was shocked by some of the things I was told (to do).”
Despite the fact that Gruder had his rabbi’s blessing for the project, he has had blowback from within the religious community, who felt his film steps far outside the bounds of modesty. Yet, Gruder says, many ultra-Orthodox have seen the film, accessing it online or via smart phones because of the community’s ban on going to the cinema.
But he is most proud, he says, that secular audiences are clamoring to see the documentary. He hopes they learn something in the process.
“I feel like I have to be a bridge between the two worlds, because I myself am between those two worlds,” he says. “I like being in both places — being religious and raising my family in a religious city, but still not disconnecting from the other world.”