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Reviewed by:
  • Hats of Jerusalem
  • Jonathan Zilberg, independent scholar
Hats of Jerusalem directed by Nati Adler. First Run/Icarus Films, Brooklyn, NY, U.S.A., 2005. VHS/DVD, 52 min, color.

Nati Adler's documentary film is a quixotic and artistic combination of image and sound that often reminds one of Rembrandt and French Orientalist paintings because of the quality of the light and the otherworldly scenes. Following one hat after another, Adler leads us through ancient alleyways and up and down narrow cobbled streets through Jewish, Christian and Muslim neighborhoods, all utterly separate social spaces. By simply asking what hats mean, he reveals the diversity of the Holy City as a microcosm of the Abrahamic world.

In a beguiling and impish way, Adler deftly captures the powerful emotional and symbolic significance of hats as identity markers. Stitched together from interviews with both those who wear and those who make these hats, with images and accounts from the art-historical and historical record, this documentary is important on two counts. First, it shows how religious identity is embodied. Second, it sensitively explores the veiling of Jewish and Christian women, a vital issue considering the heated contemporary debates over the hijab.

From the Ashkenazi shtreimmel to the Moroccan fez or tarbush, from the Armenian cone as a symbol of Mount Ararat to the Palestinian keffiyeh as a symbol of resistance, this documentary is a marvel in terms of how deeply [End Page 506] significant historical, political and religious events and markers can be so successfully approached through such a simple tactic. Not infrequently, when Adler asks his usual question as to why wear one kind of hat and not another, he is treated contemptuously as some kind of idiot outsider. His informants, however, would be surprised at the results of his research, as they would learn something of their own histories and of others. For example, in delving into the history of the shtreimmel, we revisit Brueghel's paintings of 16th-century Holland, which evidence Pope Innocent's 13th-century decree that Jews, beggars and lepers wear foxes' tails upon their jackets. Hence we learn that this symbol of collective belonging, of Jewishness, is the transformation of a marker of an oppressed minority. From shame to pride, from disguise to donation, the documentary gets increasingly interesting scene by scene. For instance, we see mounted Jewish settlers disguised as Bedouin warriors, learn how the Israeli Defense Force's signature Castro-like hats were donated by the American Hat Association and that the Syrian priests' white folded hats recall Antonius, the first Christian monk, and his struggle with Satan in the 3rd century.

Though Adler is Jewish, he finds it virtually impossible to penetrate his own society in his search for meaning. Ironically, the first time that he strikes ethnographic gold is when two Greek Orthodox priests invite him into their dormitory, where they entertain him with hard-driving Christian rock music and draw his attention to the lyrics, which for them memorialize the Armenian genocide. Suddenly the barriers between Adler as a profane secular outsider and the priests as religious insiders are breached and the distinction between self and other that marks the documentary up to that point falls away as a veil to the floor. From this point on, the documentary moves into even more remarkable territory as Adler enters both sacred and private contexts that would have appeared unimaginable at the start of the documentary.

For example, he meets a Russian Orthodox nun who is willing to talk to him, but her Bishop refuses to allow it. This critical event completely re-sets the stage for the last half of the film. Adler begins this complementary part by providing us a brief insight into the world in which the opulent and colorful bishops' hats are made, extraordinary hats of silken cloth, dazzling with jewels and brocade. Though he is not allowed to interview the cloistered sisters, he is allowed to film them practicing their hymnals. Inadvertently, he has struck an even richer seam of ethnographic gold and enters into a deeply numinous and beautiful space. The camera's gaze focuses on an attractive young Russian novitiate whose stray wisps of...


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pp. 506-507
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