June 30, 2012
My mother once told me that she refused a marriage that had been arranged by her father and uncle. I gave her credit for her chutzpah, because I knew how stern and single-minded those Lebanese gentlemen were. Of course, given the possible consequences for me, I was also grateful for her decision.
Mom took that stand sometime in the 1930s. I don’t know if arranged marriages were more common then, but they are still practiced now, even in the United States, and they are increasingly an anomaly in an era in which couples as often as not dispense with marriage itself.
The practice of this tradition in the 21st century — specifically among observant Muslims and Orthodox Jews — is the subject of Arranged, a 2007 movie based loosely on the personal experience of executive producer Yuta Silverman.
The story concerns Rochel Meshenberg (Zoe Lister Jones) and Nasira Khaldi (Francis Benhamou) who begin their teaching careers the same fall at a school in Brooklyn. Rochel wears the conservative clothing expected of an Orthodox Jewish woman and Nasira wears Muslim garb. These outward signs of their religious identities lead their students to openly express the expectation that the teachers hate each other. The students’ open expression of this assumption, and the teachers’ means of addressing it prompt the school principal, Mrs. Jacoby (Marcia Jean Kurtz), to make some very inappropriate observations about the way the teachers dress and in general how they adhere to the religious traditions of their families.
While the young women are dealing with issues in their new careers, their families are busy trying to arrange marriages in keeping with centuries-old practices. Nasira takes this in her stride, but Rochel’s rejection of a series of unappealing prospects creates tension in her family, and especially between her and her mother, Sheli (Mimi Lieber), who is determined to settle Rochel’s future and protect the family’s image in the Jewish community.
These circumstances have the effect of creating a bond between Rochel and Nasira — a bond their parents don’t appreciate. As a function of this friendship, the mischievous Nasira decides to directly intervene in the selection of a spouse for Rochel.
This low-key film, which was shot in about two weeks, is laced with attractive characters and talented actors. From my perspective as neither Jewish nor Muslim, it seems to be respectful of the traditions of both peoples even while it comes down on the side of cultural openness and personal freedom.