A New Film Takes on the Jewish Case for Abortion Rights
Paula Eiselt’s new documentary Under G-D, which premiered at Sundance on what should have been the 50th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, is a short masterpiece. Within the span of 24 minutes, Eiselt gives us an overview of the legal landscape in the post-Roe world and the major role that Jews are playing in shaping it.
Many “Red” states that have banned abortion in the new Dobbs era have Religion Freedom Restoration Acts (RFRA) on the books. Rather than separate church from state, RFRAs are used to protect religious folk from anything that smacks of inhibiting religious freedom. However, in practice, the rights of fundamentalist Christians are the only ones protected.
Given that Jewish law prioritizes the life of the mother and doesn’t subscribe to the idea that life begins at conception, radically restrictive laws on abortion violate the religious freedom of Jews. So Jewish groups are using RFRAs and establishment clauses that prohibit a state religion to win reproductive justice for all believers—and non-believers. Audre Lorde famously argued that the “master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” However, these efforts to turn the master’s legal tools against reproductive theocracy suggest otherwise.
Some of the most compelling material in this film is footage of Elly, a leader in Hoosier Jews for Choice. The presence of swastikas in her town and neo-Nazis at her farmer’s market make her “not super comfortable publicizing [her] Jewishness.” Nonetheless, her own abortion story—needing a medical abortion at 17 weeks upon discovering a serious chromosomal abnormality in the fetus she was carrying—made her a staunch opponent of SB1, a restrictive abortion law heralded by a state senator who was super comfortable proclaiming his “love for Jesus” in the halls of state government.
The day before HB1 became law, Elly brought her 4-year-old daughter to witness democracy in action and to see the Jewish ritual of Havdalah mobilized to mark the separation between having abortion rights on June 30, 2022 and not having them on July 1 (Traditionally, Havdalah separates the Sabbath from the rest of the week). By September, Hoosier Jews for Choice was part of an interfaith coalition that filed and eventually won a lawsuit based on a religious freedom argument.
Under G-D also features Rabbi Barry Silver, of Congregation L’Dor Va-Dor in Boynton Beach, Florida. Silver, a lawyer as well as a rabbi, initially filed a suit on behalf of his congregation; however, it turned into an interfaith effort after he was contacted by Maya Malay, a Buddhist leader. Silver’s determination to honor Jewish law and to legally talk back to those who would “push fundamentalist Christianity on everybody” makes for satisfying watching. And lest we think that being pro-choice is for liberal Jews only, Rabbi Jeremy Wieder, PhD, who is affiliated with Yeshiva University, makes it clear that while Jewish law is a “dynamic process” with minority and majority opinions, “No one believes that life begins at conception.”
Under G-D places Elly, Hoosier Jews for Choice, and Barry Silver in a long line of Jewish reproductive rights activists: Emma Goldman, Fania Mindell, the first president of Planned Parenthood, as well as the Jewish women involved in Jane, a pre-Roe collective devoted to providing safe access to abortions.
Eiselt is now herself part of that righteous lineage. Prior to directing Under G-D, she co-directed (with Tonya Lewis Lee) Aftershock, a brilliant look at the Black maternal mortality crisis in the US and the activists who refuse to accept that Black women’s lives don’t matter. Eiselt also directed 93Queen, about the founding of Ezras Nashim, a women’s Hasidic EMT corps in Brooklyn that often serves women in labor while preserving their modesty.
Like 93Queen and Aftershock, Under G-D is activist cinema at its best.
Helene Meyers is the author of Movie-Made Jews: An American Tradition. She can be found on Twitter @helene_meyers and at https://helenemeyers.com/