Unorthodox’s insight into the World of Chassidic Jews

A few weeks ago I watched Unorthodox on Netflix. At first I did not have high hopes. Chassidic Jews do not have a good track record of accurate representation in film. But I did like Shira Haas in Shtisel. So I figured I would give it a go.

The series is based loosely on the life of Deborah Feldman, who left the chassidic community (after marriage and children) at age 23. Esty is the stories protagonist, and in a nutshell, her life in New York recounts Feldman’s life; and her life in Germany is a fictionalized account.

The series has started trending on Netflix and from what I see, there is a lot of acclaim from outside the Orthodox Jewish world; and a more mixed reaction from within it. Even Modern Orthodox Jews (myself included) bristle at the ignorant liberties that outsiders take with the chassidic community. But Unorthodox is a bit different. Similar to Arranged, there was creative input from former chassidic Jews. Several of the actors spoke Yiddish as a native tongue, so they were former chassidim themselves.

Does the Series Give an Unfair Portrayal of Chassidic Jews?

What prompted me to write this was the widespread net of criticism from many people (most of them Orthodox Jews) who said that the series shows an inaccurate view of the Satmar chassidic community. First of all it is not a documentary. It is simply one woman’s experience; and a greatly embellished one at that. For eons, you did not get accurate portrayals of African-Americans in the media either. On TV you were shown poor, broken African-American families that were hardly representative of the majority of Black homes. Why do you think the Cosby show was such a groundbreaking venture in the 1980s?

Additional criticism of the series picks apart at its logic and plot holes — some of which I agree with. But come on now; we live in the age of big budget action movies that completely disregard geography. Netflix is looking to hook your interest; not promote cinematic excellence. And in all honesty, this film was made for the masses, and not for Orthodox Jews (although it could have been a bit more savvy about it, like Ushpizin was; but that was an Israeli film…and was made for the Israeli audience, which is largely Jewish).

Chassidic Men

Moshe and Yanky (Esty’s husband) at the airport

Not all chassidic Jews are as insular as the Satmar chassidim portrayed in this series — and of course, the most extreme groups draw the most attention. I’ve had some personal dealings with Satmar men, and I wish I could say there were better experiences. In spite of living in one of the most diverse areas in the United States (most are clustered in either NYC proper or enclaves in the suburbs of the city), they are generally quite ignorant of outsiders. Not that the ignorance bothers them. Secular education is minimized. They learn English for the purpose of parnassah, but are generally not exceptionally skilled in writing or reading it on even a high school level.

Also in my experience the view that some Satmar men have in regards to sex is very unhealthy. Most Orthodox Jews provide what is called kallah classes to soon to be married women. It is basically a crash course on sex since there is no sexual education provided by either the schools or families. To my knowledge (not that I’ve ever been married), some Modern Orthodox Jews do provide a male counterpart to them; but I have not heard of such a concept in the more strict sects of Orthodox Judaism. To make it worse, some Satmar men view non-Jewish women as zonot, or sexually loose women. So they frequent Asian nuru massage parlors for pre-marital (and sometimes post-marital) sexual stimulation. And even worse, view non-Jewish women as opportunities to exercise sexual curiosities and fetishes. Not that I’m an expert or anything, but in my personal opinion, this gross ignorance of sex and the rigid mentality of separating non-Jews from Jews helps to breed this dysfunction and promotes the men to also separate sexual pleasure from sex for procreation (much to the loss of the wives).

Orphans, Widows and Converts

Esty’s aunt and grandmother

One thing that I thought the series got very right was to highlight Esty’s broken family. She was referred to as an orphan, because her mother left the community and her father was a non-functional alcoholic. So she was mainly raised by her grandparents. Her aunt would dip in and serve as an additional guardian figure, but it was clear that they didn’t have a particularly close bond.

It can’t be stressed enough that in insular communities where there is constant stress on ‘fitting in’, a family setup like Esty’s immediate introduces more stress factors. Girls especially from such families have this omnipresent fear in the back of their minds that they will not find a marriage partner (shidduch). The families feel this pressure too. So when Esty is offered as a match, and the family approves, everyone can let out a big sigh of relief.

Sadly when Esty’s marriage began to hit snags, her mother-in-law brought up her ‘weird’ family situation. Not only is this horrible, but it is actually in violation of the Torah — which is such blantant hypocrisy that I personally have no tolerance for. The Torah says to love the orphan, widow and convert. But for some bizarre reason, chassidim and other ‘ultra-Orthodox Jews’ (dare I say, all Orthodox Jews?) shuck off this Torah commandment for the sake of conformity.

Marriage as a Milestone Instead of an Option

Chassidic Jews marry young — usually between the ages of 17-22. Men may marry later, especially if they are establishing themselves in business; but it is not common at all to find an unmarried woman past the age of 25 in chassidic circles.

All Orthodox Jews celebrate and promote marriage. This definitely is not wrong. But to impose a timeline on everyone is. To give people a hard time and stress if they aren’t married definitely is. And then there are those individuals who struggle financially, mentally or socially…who really have no business being married (especially if it ropes in another innocent person into their tumultuous life). I’m not even touching on those who are homosexual or transgender…because the Orthodox community does not really have any healthy path for them to take within the community. I personally know of several Orthodox Jews who are homosexual but married heterosexual partners anyway — thanks to community pressure.

Orthodox Jewish women are hit especially hard in this regard…since they have a shorter timeline to deal with. Let’s say even a Modern Orthodox woman wishes to become a medical doctor. You are looking at 8 years of rigorous post-secondary education. So unless your are Doogie Hoosier’s sister, 25 or 26 is the earliest you’ll be finished with school. But now, you are already ‘over the hill’ marriage-wise. It is slightly more common for Orthodox women to become nurses. But I have several Orthodox friends who are nurses, and most had their children either during school or shortly after. And it was hard.

Speaking of children, that’s another community pressure that not everyone is equipped to deal with. The halacha (Jewish law) of procreation mandates that a Jewish man (not a woman) is obligated to try to bring at least one male child and one female child into the world. But many Orthodox Jewish communities gently frown on birth control. Chassidic communities in particular seem eager to replenish their numbers post-Holocaust. So you couple early marriage with no birth control and low levels of sexual knowledge and you have the recipe for families of 6+ children.

Your Business Is Really Everyone’s Business

The series highlights how Esty’s mother-in-law becomes a thorn in her side when she sees that she has trouble conceiving. This might seem shocking to those outside the chassidic community, but again, really just par for the course within it.

There are great benefits to the sense of communal responsibility within the Satmar community. If a man is having a hard time finding a job, or with his credit, someone will help him out. If a woman needs childcare or even clothes, there are plenty of resources for that. Of course, the bad side is that everyone feels comfortable being in your business. This may not be so bad if you conform well. But if you are struggling…not so much.

It is easy to point fingers at the chassidim and highlight their intolerance for those who are different. But in my life, intolerance is really much more common than people admit. One thing that many converts and baalei teshuvah (non-religious Jews who became Orthodox) have said about the series is that it failed to show the beauty in chassidim/Orthodox Judaism. That for sure is true. Because if it did, then that would be a picture of the outside audience’s intolerance; and that is not what the series was shooting for. But yes, it is true, those of us who choose to live a more religious lifestyle…and be unapologetic about it catch a lot of flack from many secular people. If I only had a nickel for every time someone grilled me about why I believe in God!

Fiction versus Reality for Those Who Leave

Esty at the lake in Berlin

Watching Esty make her inroads in Berlin was interesting and made for a nice story. But the reality is that so many of those who leave the chassidic community struggle for a long time before they get their footing. One of the main reasons is because of lack of education. The other big reason is because of children.

Going through a child custody battle myself, I shudder at what a mess you could find yourself as a woman who is trying to uproot herself and her children from the community. In fact, many either can’t, or if they do, they have to leave their children behind. Unfortunately those same communal resources in the Satmar community that serve as a safety net from within can also snarl up minors and prevent them from getting out. The political and financial clout of the entire community is a forced to be reckoned with.

As I mentioned before, I don’t see Unorthodox as Emmy material. But overall the series was well done and intriguing. Shira is an amazing actress and more than compensates for the clumsy plot. Also I do not think the harsh view of the Satmar world is particularly damaging or inaccurate. I hope that if there is a second season, they get more into the issues Esty might face in retaining custody of her baby and learn a bit more about her mother’s backstory.