“The Guys Next Door” Celebrates Family, Friendship and Gay Rights

When award-winning documentary filmmaker Amy Geller opened her 2011 Bates Alumni magazine, she was blown away by a story about Rachel Segall, a Jewish alumna from Newton in her 40’s with three teenagers who had recently volunteered to be a surrogate so her gay friends could become parents.

Not once, but twice within two years.

“Rachel had seen a television program about how expensive and difficult it is for gay men to have kids. So she called up Erik, her good friend from college, and said, ‘whenever you want to have kids, I’m your gal,’” said Geller. “I was so inspired that I thought, ‘This could be a film!’” She contacted Rachel through a mutual friend. Rachel was on board and reached out to Sandro Sechi and Erik Mercer, the biological gay dads, who were equally excited. “The Guys Next Door” was a go.

Geller and her filmmaking partner, Allie Humenuk, started shooting in 2011. Geller served as artistic director of the Boston Jewish Film Festival from 2012 until 2014. Her productions have been braoadcast on PBS, the Documentary Channel, the BBC, Yes (Israel) and Turner ClassicMovies.

When shooting began, Erik and Sandro were living in Bedford-Stuyvesant in New York City. Rachel and her family were there visiting. ‘We went down to New York, where both families were staying together in this one-bedroom. It was total chaos. We started filming and we just totally fell in love from the get-go,’ Humenuk said.

Humenuk is an award-winning filmmaker and cinematographer whose films have been broadcast nationally and internationally.

Geller and Humenuk have been shooting on and off for over three years. They started filming when Rachel was eight months pregnant with Eleonora, the second child, who is now three years old.

They have wrapped principal photography, edited a trailer and launched an early Kickstarter campaign, running through April 11, to help raise money for post production.

‘We’ve built a mutual trust and respect with our characters which enabled us to film some very personal moments, like the birth of Eleonora. It seems ironic that filming something so intimate ends up being very public. But it’s those moments that make documentaries so powerful,’ said Humenuk.

The story starts with Rachel, who was raised in a Jewish family and married her Bates College sweetheart, Tony Hurley. They remained friends with fellow alum Erik Mercer and his husband, Sandro Sechi.

‘I am Jewish and my parents raised me to believe in equality and giving to others in whatever ways we can. As a mother now, it is important for me to continue living the foundation of those values and teach them to my children,’ she said.

‘My experience in helping my good friends Erik and Sandro be able to have children symbolizes to me the notion of Tikkun Olam (repair the world) — my little part in helping to heal the world,’ she added.

Rachel said that it struck her as unfair that she and her husband could so easily have children and that for two gay men to have children was such a hardship, especially financially.

‘By helping her gay friends to have daughters, Rachel makes a deeply personal decision that has political implications,’ Geller said. ‘It’s the ultimate tzedakah (charity).’

Because Rachel was in her 40’s, each child had a separate egg donor. It wasn’t important to either Sandro or Erik who the biological father would be. They had some eggs fertilized by Erik’s sperm and some by Sandro’s sperm. ‘They had the DNA test and have the results in a sealed envelope, ‘ Geller said.

In addition to helping her friends have a family, Rachel also saw her surrogacy as a way to create an extended family for her own children. Maddie (now 17), Jordie (now 15), and Zeke (now 13) consider Rachel Maria (now four and a half years old) and Eleonora (now three years old) to be their cousins.

‘I believe that being able to help Erik and Sandro have their daughters not only benefits them, but also benefits my family and, really, benefits the world around us,’ said Rachel.

‘I think that a wonderful gift that has come out of this whole thing is that Rachel’s kids are very invested in this family. So even though there’s no biological connection, they feel very intimately connected,’ said Geller.

Co-director Humenuk thinks a film like ‘The Guys Next Door,’ which chronicles a gay family’s life, can help combat discrimination. ‘The film highlights intimate moments which reveal the beauty, challenge and complexity of being parents. If people see what a loving gay family looks like, it changes minds,’ she said.

Rachel agreed. ‘My hope is that the film helps people see that family can look like many different and wonderful things, and how two gay men, given the opportunity, can create a beautiful home filled with love and strong values, just as well as a heterosexual couple can,’ she said.

To view thefilm’strailer and learn more about the Kickstarter campaign for ‘The Guys Next Door,’ visit asquaredfilms.com.

Pictured at top: A Squared Films (L to R): Daughters Rachel Maria and Eleonora with their dads Erik Mercer and Sandro Sechi

New Haggadah is A Feast for the Senses

We Erica Brown fans are in for a special treat this Passover. The gifted columnist has penned “Seder Talk” with her usual flair for combining the sensitive, scholarly and practical. The result is a Haggada with a fresh approach that is as imaginative as it is traditional, as educational as it is emotional; in short, it is a book with something for everyone.

Brown’s book is really two books bound as one. “Seder Talk: The Conversational Haggada” is a commentary on the Haggada text that opens as a Hebrew text, from right to left. Chockful of poetry, songs and rabbinic readings, this Haggada also explains the meaning of the various seder rituals in a simple, informal style. The most engaging and distinctive, however, are the conversational cues interspersed throughout the text that, in signature Brown style, provide moments and roadmaps for celebrants to pause, reflect and share aloud. This is the stuff memorable seders are made of. There are also more personal life-homework exercises that promote greater mindfulness, intention and inner freedom.

The second book-within-abook, which opens from the other cover, contains eight essays, one for each of the eight days of Passover. Only Brown would think to start her first essay, “All Who Are Hungry,” with this perfect seder icebreaker, a quote from Oscar Wilde: “After a good dinner one can forgive anybody, even one’s own relatives.” Other essays are titled, “The Four Sons, the Right Question,” “Slave Wealth” and “Pour Out Your Wrath, Pour Out Your Love.”

Brown is a deep Judaic thinker and a respected author and educator. She has created a delightful new Haggada that belongs on the bedside reading pile, long after Passover has passed.

Pictured at top: Seder Talk The Conversational Haggada by Erica Brown. Maggid Books and OU Press, 2015

Too Many Unanswered Questions in Marblehead

The Jewish and Catholic communities of Marblehead dodged a bullet at the March 19 School Committee meeting. The Marblehead School Committee did not fare as well.

The state mandates 180 days of school, and teacher contracts dictate that school end by June 30. Traditionally, a calendar that plans for five snow days satisfies these terms.

This February, after a sixth snow day, the School Committee decided to revisit the 2015-2016 calendar it had just approved at its January meeting. Its goal was to trim days off to create a bigger cushion in case next winter turns out to be as harsh as this year’s.

The Superintendent emailed a survey to parents to find out if certain days off really “mattered” to them. The only days the School Committee put on the potential chopping block were the two days of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Good Friday.

When the committee posted the March 19 meeting agenda, it included discussion about the 2015-2016 calendar, presumably based on the results of the survey. After 150 people showed up to express their dismay and displeasure, the School Committee apologized and took no action, leaving both the High Holidays and Good Friday intact as days off by default.

Not only does this end not justify the means the committee used to gather its data, but there also remain too many unanswered questions.

Who drafted the survey and who approved it?

Why were Jewish and Catholic holidays the only days off considered?

Why wasn’t consolidation of February and April vacations an option?

Why wasn’t the Friday before Labor Day an option?

Why were all restrictions on the calendar that are based on teacher collective bargaining contracts not listed and addressed?

Why was a longer school day or shorter summer vacation not an option?

Most importantly, what might have happened had the Jewish community not rallied and showed up in force to protest?

The School Committee members apologized for the survey’s poor drafting and stated that their intent was not malicious and their action not based on religion. We want to believe them.

We hope they will prove that by reopening the calendar discussion and putting everything on the table, including February and April vacations (despite the inconvenience some student athletes might suffer) and that last Friday before Labor Day (when Marblehead Harbor is a sea of sailboats). Until that happens, the only real result of the March 19 meeting is the bad taste left in everyone’s mouth.

This originally appeared in the Jewish Journal on March 26, 2015.

“Gett-ing” Divorced Israeli-Style

By the time Viviane Ansalem receives her gett (divorce) in the 2014 Israeli film, “Gett: The Trial of Viviane Ansalem,” she and the audience have been through a five-year wringer of humiliation, frustration and relentless stonewalling. The 2014 Ophir (Israeli Oscar) Best Picture-winning film, directed and written by siblings Ronit and Shlomi Elkabetz, casts an unflinching eye on the quagmire created by Israel’s religious laws for those who want to live a secular life.

In Israel, there is no separation of “church” and state when it comes to domestic law. There is no civil marriage and no civil divorce; only Orthodox rabbis can legalize a union or its dissolution, which is only possible with the husband’s full consent. This structure is based on a patriarchal system of justice that relies on charging the rabbinical judges with upholding the sacred biblical law to preserve Jewish households (the commandment of “shalom bayit,” or peace in the home).

The law applies to all Israeli citizens, whether they are religious or not. In its application, however, observance and domestic harmony may be mutually exclusive. In that case, it is observance that trumps.

A woman who desires to end her marriage must prove her case in a courtroom (“Beit Din”) presided over by three male Orthodox rabbis who have complete and essentially unchallengeable power over the proceedings and their outcome (appeals are possible but rarely successful). Essentially, despite the fact that she is the “plaintiff,” that is the one seeking the divorce, she is put on trial, forced to defend herself in a Kafka-esque legal proceeding with opaque and arbitrary rules of procedure that seem purposefully stacked against her.

Added to the unfairness is the fact that the husband has the law and power on his side; the rabbis cannot legally grant the gett without his consent.

Viviane (Ronit Elkabetz), Carmel (Menashe Noy) and Elisha (Simon Abkarian) in the Beit Din courtroom in “GETT.“

“The Trial of Viviane Ansalem” opens with funereal music in a claustrophobic, windowless room where Viviane has tried without
success for three years to end her 30 year marriage to Elisha, a man her parents arranged for her to marry when she was 15 years old. The setting is more prison-like than judicial. Her lawyer, Carmel, and Elisha speak about her to the three-judge panel. Symbolically, Viviane, whose fight this is, is relegated offstage until the moment the judges deny her a gett.

“Given the visual language we have chosen for the film, we are supposed to see her when her lawyer and husband are looking at her,” director Ronit Elkabetz, who also plays the role of Viviane, said in a press release. “We wanted the audience to see her for the first time when she hears that she is refused her gett. The word ‘no.’ From that precise moment, faced with this refusal, and the denial of her being, she starts to exist on screen.”

For the next 100 minutes, the audience is let through the keyhole of the closed doors of the rabbinical courtroom as Viviane and her secular lawyer battle her intransigent and religiously devout rabbi husband and his brother and lawyer Shimon (also a rabbi) for Viviane’s freedom. We feel as trapped and frustrated as she does, as court appearance after court appearance and setback after setback whittle away the years. Ultimately, it all comes down to a battle of wills between Viviane, who wants her freedom, and Elisha, who wants her by his side.

Because Viviane is asking the judges to order a man to grant his wife a divorce, the judges must hear witness testimony to determine whether she meets one of the narrow grounds that would allow them to do so. These include inability to clothe the wife, to fulfill her dietary needs or to satisfy her sexual needs. These do not include compatibility, which is at the heart of her claim. It is also irrelevant that she left the marital home years ago.

Although the essence of the story is tragic, the parade of witnesses lends an air of comedy and farce to the otherwise absurd proceedings. The realistic members of the couple’s community find ways to turn their testimony into an opportunity to talk about themselves.

Like the film’s Elkabetz directors, Viviane and Elisha come from Israel’s Moroccan Sephardic minority, and the testimony of their witnesses sheds light on the customs of that culture. The neighbor’s own marriage takes a brief spin at center-stage, as does the contrast between Viviane’s brother and sister, both invited to speak on her behalf.

“How should I know if they’re compatible? What does it matter? I make my wife good for me,” the neighbor attests. Her sister, a secularized modern woman, comes to court wearing peacock blue and is ultimately thrown out mid-sentence as she rails against the hypocrisy and prejudice that are the bedrock of the rabbi’s questions. Her brother, on the other hand, admonishes her and pleads Elisha’s case.

As Viviane, Ronit Elkabetz is a spellbinding mixture of steely determination and restraint with a barely submerged undercurrent of seething rage. Although she is silent for most of the film, her body language speaks volumes. Simon Abkarian, as Elisha, speaks even less, but his posture and eyes leave no doubt that although he too suffers, he will never yield.

Eventually, Elisha does offer Viviane a gett with strings attached; he will grant her a divorce if she promises to remain sexually faithful to him forever. She accepts, and therein lies the film’s richest food for thought.

After five years of victimization at the hands of an unjust and unfair patriarchal system, the tables have turned and Viviane is finally empowered. She is free to choose her own moral and ethical destiny. What will she do? Will she honor her promise and forgo romantic happiness, or will she discard the integrity of her word and treat the deal as a necessary deceit to have achieved her deserved freedom?

“Gett: The Trial of Viviane Ansalem” is the third in a trilogy that started in the 2004 “To Take A Wife” with Viviane’s brothers trying to talk her out of seeking a divorce. One can only hope that the Elkabetz siblings will follow up with an epilogue set in 2019. I, for one, would love to catch-up with Viviane five years post-gett.

Pictured at top: Viviane (Ronit Elkabetz) learns of another setback to her case.


Moshav: You Can Go Home Again

“Moshav,” the internationally acclaimed American/Israeli group, began when Yehuda Solomon (vocals, percussion) and Duvid Swirsky (vocals, guitar) met as youngsters growing up four doors apart on the Moshav Mevo Modiin. The religious communal settlement in central Israel was founded by Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach and attracted a group of eclectic individuals, including Solomon’s and Swirsky’s parents.

“My parents were living in a hippie commune in northern California and they moved to the Moshav and never left,” said Solomon, who is in his late 30’s and lives in Los Angeles with his wife and three young children.

Swirsky arrived at the Moshav on Shabbat when he was ten years old. “I remember Shlomo as a Santa Claus-like character,” he said. “Everybody danced and sang, banging and screaming and jumping up and down. It was a very accepting and comfortable environment.”

“A lot of us kids from the Moshav are singers, spread out all over the world. We run into a lot of them when we travel,” Swirsky added. He also lives in Los Angeles with his wife and two-year-old son Lev (“heart” in Hebrew).

The duo was singing at the Moshav when they were discovered by some American students traveling in Israel who heard their band play and raised money to bring them to the United States to play for a college tour in the 1990’s. “Moshav” was born and relocated to Los Angeles, where they recorded their first album in 1998.

“Shabbat Vol. 1, released in November 2014, pays homage to the many Sabbaths they spent with their beloved Reb Shlomo in the small synagogue packed with family and friends dancing late into Friday nights. “This record brings us back to our childhood,” said Solomon.


Moshav 2014 Moshav Music

The 15 tracks include original, traditional, and Carlebach compositions that the two recorded at their home studio in Los Angeles. “We tried to give it a raw vibe, like we’re all just hanging out again and jamming on the Moshav,” said Solomon.

“This record feels like home,” said Swirsky. “Shabbat is music. Shabbat is roots. Shabbat is open. Shabbat is no judgment.”

Among the songs are “Lecha Dodi,” “Adon Olam” and “Havdallah.” With its mixture of reggae, middle-eastern and traditional styles, and instruments that include bouzouki, banjo, cello, trumpet and oud, the album is an exciting and refreshing way to celebrate Shabbat. “It shows all our colors,” said Solomon.

Standout tracks are a meditative “V’shamru” with its overlay of cellos, the lively reggae-middle eastern styled “Boi Beshalom,” and the catchy, folksy “Shiru.”

“We try to make music that we really love and connect to. We draw from our Jewish roots and heritage, but hopefully the result is universal, something that also sounds really interesting and cool to someone who isn’t Jewish,” Solomon said.

Pictured at top: Duvid Swirsky (left) and Yehuda Solomon met as kids growing up at Shlomo Carlebach’s Moshav commune in Israel.

Civil Discourse Needed About an Uncivil Matter

The upcoming nationwide general release of “Gett: The Trial of Viviane Ansalem” (see review on page 14), a 2014 niche film festival movie about an Israeli woman trying to get a divorce (“gett”), has shone a spotlight on the division between religious and civil law in Israel when it comes to domestic issues. We think this attention is positive for many reasons.

Facts always aid discourse. The film illustrates how the Israeli legal system separates marital status issues (i.e. whether one is legally married or divorced) from the rest of civil law for Jews. Special religious courts, under the control of the Prime Minister’s Office and the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, have exclusive jurisdiction. Civil family courts exist for non-Jewish citizens and to handle other domestic matters, such as alimony and property division.

These religious courts use biblical law (“halacha”) as guidelines. Under this law, divorce cannot happen without the husband’s consent. The rabbinic judges have very narrow conditions under which they can impose a divorce against the husband’s will. All conditions hinge upon the wife’s ability to prove fault on the part of her husband. Many Arab states (Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Iran, Brunei, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates) also impose religious domestic law on their citizens. These laws, or Sharia, are based on the Koran, the Islamic bible. Civil domestic law does not exist.

In the United States, by contrast, all marrying couples must file a document with a civil court to be considered married, even if they have chosen, in addition, to have a religious ceremony. Since 2010, every state is a “no fault” divorce state, meaning that “irreconcilable differences” are adequate grounds for dissolution and that a judge can grant a divorce even if one party does not agree.

This fundamental right does not exist in Israel, where Jewish couples cannot choose whether they want a secular or religious marriage or divorce, and therein lies the core of the matter, both for the couple and for Israel’s global image as a true democracy.

While Israel rightly prides itself on being the only democracy in the Middle East, it more closely resembles its Arab neighbors than the United States when it comes to imposing religious law on its Jewish citizens.

It is time to have a civil conversation about the uncivil way Israel treats marriage and divorce.

This originally appeared in the Jewish Journal on March 12, 2015.