Rama Burshtein Is the Queen of Complicated Haredi Love Stories – Kveller
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Rama Burshtein Is the Queen of Complicated Haredi Love Stories

The ultra-Orthodox Israeli filmmaker tells us about her hit show, "Fire Dance," and seeing the good and bad in everyone.


via Gideon Sharon

Just like watching her work, including movies like “Fill the Void” and “The Wedding Plan,” and “Fire Dance,” her first TV show premiering today on ChaiFlicks, talking to Rama Burshtein is a deeply spiritual experience.

She is warm, open and sage-like, as if you’re talking to a great Jewish mystic. The ultra-Orthodox creator is the reigning queen of onscreen Haredi romance, a winner of two Ophir Awards, and someone who makes every shot of her films and shows feel haunting and holy.

The series “Fire Dance,” which first came out in Israel in 2022, brings us into her magical, spiritual world more deeply than ever before. It’s also Burshtein’s most risqué work, dealing with the relationship between a young girl, Feigi (Mia Ivryn), 18, and Nathan, played by Israeli heartthrob Yehuda Levi, a rabbi who leads a women’s sewing shop in an insular religious community in Tiberias. Nathan is a contender to become the community’s spiritual rabbi after his father dies, but his reputation as a “woman’s rabbi” threatens that. Noa Koller, who played the protagonist of “The Wedding Plan” and is now one of Israel’s most beloved TV actresses, plays Feigi’s haunted, abusive mother, Raizi.

The title, “Fire Dance,” alludes to the kind of dangerous, fiery interactions in this closed-off community. Yet making this show was a fire dance itself, seeing Burshtein deal with a veritable minefield of topics that, when handled inelegantly, could really blow up in a creator’s face. Yet she proves to be a master of that dance, lighting a fire in the hearts of viewers.

Kveller spoke to Burshtein about how she made the show, what she’s working on next, her life post-October 7 and how her faith colors everything that she does. At certain points, I wasn’t sure if this was an interview or a spiritual counseling session, but I ended up more charmed than ever by this mysterious, marvelous creator.

How did the story of “Fire Dance” come to you?

This is how it works with me, up until now anyway — when I do a project, I already know my next project. So this thing was in my head right after “Fill the Void.” It’s not even a question of religion — it’s more about someone that has power over you. How did that person act with that power? Whether it’s your teacher, professor, your therapist, your rabbi — doesn’t matter. I wanted to portray a character, in terms of [Nathan], who knows what to do with confusion, with mixed feelings, with passion, which is a natural thing. The question isn’t if you feel it, the question is: What do you do when you feel it? I wanted to deal with that. I think it’s important.

Nathan is a man who has worked with women, who has been in this kind of dynamic for so long. Suddenly with Feigi, he’s in a situation where he feels like he doesn’t know how to handle himself.

If you work with women, and you go that deep, then someone will come along this way that will wake you up. And the question is, what do you do with it? Do you lie? Do you make her feel that something’s wrong with her? Do you take responsibility for what you feel? It’s complicated, yet you see it all the time. It was important for me to portray a person like that, who is very honest. He’s not a righteous man in terms of not feeling — he’s a righteous man in terms of what he’s doing with that feeling.

What was it like working with Yehuda Levi? From an Israeli secular perspective, he’s such a heartthrob — maybe one of the dreamiest actors around…

He is a dreamy actor because he’s, I think, the best actor in Israel of his generation. He was 16 years old when he started acting. So he’s got a whole personality that starts when you say action, and ends when you say “cut.” It’s a thing that developed with cameras for years.

He’s 44 [now]. All his sensibilities, all his intelligence, is very, very strong when you say action. We would rehearse, and he doesn’t know the text… but when you say action, he knows the text. It’s a bit mystical, the way he’s so talented. He understands characters in such a deep way that I could really speak to him in my terms and he understood it, which is not easy.

He’s so perfect for this role, this very handsome guy who isn’t full of himself. You’ve also worked with Noa Koller before, on “The Wedding Plan,” which is such a beautiful movie. What made you think Noa was the perfect person for the role of Feigi’s abusive mother?

First of all, Noa is the person perfect for everything! She is really out of this world. When we shot “The Wedding Plan,” it was her first major cinema role. She was 36 years old and she never really made it until then.

I said to her then, “Every project I will do, I will find something for you that will surprise everyone. ” Nobody would cast her to be an abusive mother. It’s not her “type.” But she’s amazing. She can do everything she wants — all the characters in the world.

Talking about someone who has power over you, she has so much power over Feigi. Part of Feigi’s coming-of-age is her standing up to that power and finding her own. Was that a subject you were interested in exploring?

What I like to explore always is that characters are not good or bad. Characters are complicated like we are. We’re good and we’re bad. The complication gives you another perspective of how to see life and people. So for me, she’s an abusive mom, but not only an abusive mom, right? I mean, your heart goes out to her… she’s just sick.

The show is set in a very other-worldly looking Tiberias. Can you tell me a little bit about how you chose that setting?

In the scriptures, it says there are five holy places in the world, and one of them is Tiberias. Yet, when you walk into Tiberias, it looks like… well, there’s nothing nice about Tiberias. It has all the potential, but it looks like it’s stuck in the ’80s. But when I became religious, which was like 30 years ago, I looked at Tiberias differently. It could never be Tuscany, because there’s so much holiness in this place. Since then, I love Tiberias in a deep way. So I knew that I want to be there. And I know that I’m looking for how to show the place the way I see it, which is like a fairy tale. It’s this holy place that not everyone sees.

Where do you draw inspiration for a project like this? What other pieces of art or stories inspire you?

I always make sure [before] I start writing a project that I have the one-liner. And the one-liner of “Fire Dance” was “passion versus satisfaction — what would you choose if you had to choose one?” I knew that this is the discussion — not between numbness and passion, between passion and satisfaction. For me, in terms of inspiration, I always go back to my Jewish heroes. I go to King David, I go to King Solomon, I read Rabbi Nachman from Breslov — this is where I go, this is where I get my inspiration. This is my world. Joseph, at 17, when the most beautiful woman in Egypt wanted him and he had to deal with it — these people are my inspiration. These are my superheroes.

I had a bible teacher in high school who really led me to realize that there’s so much romance in the Tanakh.

For a romantic like me, Judaism is the best laboratory for testing that.

And yet, these stories are about people. Religion has a place in these people’s life, but “Fire Dance” is not purely a religious story, right?

Well, it’s not so much for me about the mitzvot, it’s about the belief. Do we believe in good? Do we believe we should taste that good? What moves us? Because otherwise, you know, if you’re not a believer, it’s very hard to come out of bed today. Right?

Especially today. For you, there’s no tension in working with a secular cast, as long as there’s a sense of shared spirituality?

They need to understand the language. My language is the language of believers — all my characters and the actors I work with: They need to feel a little bit small against a big thing. If they don’t have that humility, then it’s very hard for me.

Music has such a beautiful place in this show. How did you think about the soundtrack?

I cast the musician before I cast the show. I just knew I was doing it with Daniel Zamir. He’s a genius. He’s a jazz musician, he’s an international musician. He’s amazing. He read the script and already wrote the music without even knowing [what the show would look like]. He got it. Every challenge, when we said maybe we’ll go to another musician for this, he said, “Give me a chance. Maybe I can do this too.” And he did the whole thing. The music, the songs — everything is him.

You make working on these projects sound so easy — everything happening in a kind of symbiosis, with this natural connection, flowing. Is that really how it is? 

This is not hard. This is fun. This is gladly waking up in the morning and doing our work. Raising kids is hard. This is a vacation — creation is a vacation, even when it’s hard, it’s a vacation.

I think the way I want to live my life is that every encounter you have with a person is an important one. It can bring to life many new and beautiful things. It’s crucial. When you meet a person, it’s a crucial meeting. That’s the way I want to live my life. My team that I’ve been working with for years, everyone I cast, is part of that. I meet them and I see — is this something meaningful? Is this a meaningful relationship? Is this a crucial encounter between two people? I need it to be that way.

Would you say this is your darkest project?

It’s dark and light, it goes together. This is what interests me. I think the project I’m doing now is very, very heavy, but dark and light at the same time.

Is there anything more you can tell us about that?

It’s not a religious show. I can’t say what the show is about, but in general, it’s inspired by Rabbi Nachman. One of his teachings is this very weird equation, and yet I tell you, it works. The equation says that even if someone is really, really evil, if you’re going to look for something good in this evil person, it will change him completely. If he was utterly evil, he could be totally good, just by the act of going to look and finding something good about him. So my whole show is about this philosophy. When you see evil, true evil, can you disconnect yourself from that thought and look for something good there? And what’s the impact when you do? It’s a game-changer. It’s a world changer.

We talk a lot about justice and punishment of evil right now, and you’re not really interested in that, in your work. 

It doesn’t work. Even what we’re going through right now…. There’s a person who will say this and interpret it that way, and the other person will interpret it the other way. We think we’re good. A lot of people in the world think we’re not. So are we good or bad? If someone thinks we’re bad, are we bad? Maybe we are. Maybe we only think about ourselves as good. I think it’s not about that. It’s about knowing that everyone is good. It just needs to be explored. And it is easier to explore the bad. It takes a lot of courage and an open mind to say I can look and find good there.

And before I even go to look someplace else, can I see it in me? Can I find the good in me? Can we? It’s very hard.

It’s hard.

Even in “Fire Dance,” the last episode where they sit and take turns with everyone saying something good about themselves, and how hard it is for this young boy to say something good about himself — if we can’t do it for ourselves, wouldn’t it be great if someone would do it for us?

Has this current moment in Israel changed your thinking about that? Wanting to see the good in the bad?

I think it’s changed everything. I think we still don’t know how it changed us. There’s nothing to process right now. It’s still an experience. But it changed everything.

Nothing about what happened on October 7 was good. But how do I look at what’s happening to me as a person? I’m changing. I’m evolving. I’m developing.

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