Unorthodox gets Chasidic life — and music — wrong

The trouble begins the moment the film leaves Williamsburg, at which point it suffers a reality fail so severe as to make all that follows utterly unbelievable

August 27, 2020 10:36

Like many a frum male who holidays beside the sea, I quickly committed a transgression. Alone in a room, I turned on the television and, if that wasn’t bad enough, I went looking for the thing they had all been talking about after shul and no-one mentioned by name.

The Netflix mini-series Unorthodox has been lauded to the heavens for its vivid take on Chasidic life. The core story rings true enough. A 19-year-old bride, Esty, flees the Satmar sect in Williamsburg and catches a plane to Berlin to seek out her mother, herself a Satmar fugitive. The film is based on a real-life 2012 memoir by Deborah Feldman.

“A thrilling story of rebellion and freedom”, according to the Guardian, it was nominated for no fewer than eight Emmys. The New York Times called Unorthodox “stunning, thrilling, probing”, as if it uncovered a heart of darkness on the newspaper’s own doorstep. “The thin eruv wire that surrounds the Satmar Hasidic community,” wrote the Times, “might as well be an Iron Curtain.”

I don’t intend to deconstruct the reviews, nor to deprecate the immense efforts that went into creating genuine Chasidic interiors. The sheitls were not cheap, the shtreimels were real fur and the American-Yiddish mumbled by the actors was rich in euphemisms for all things unspoken, starting and ending with sex. One shot I shall never forget is a wide-angle pan around a Satmar kitchen at Pesach time, covered in silver foil from floor to ceiling as if it were a decontamination chamber for newly-landed astronauts. So authentic, you could cut your finger on it.

The trouble begins the moment the film leaves Williamsburg, at which point it suffers a reality fail so severe as to make all that follows utterly unbelievable. Runaway Esty lands in Berlin and falls in with a bunch of music students she meets at a coffee shop. On the strength of three years of piano lessons, she decides to apply to one of Europe’s premier music conservatoires. Far fetched? Just wait.

Deflated by an Israeli student who tells her she’ll never be Evgeny Kissin, Esty pleads with the audition panel to let her sing to them instead. After all, she’s a poor Charedi girl and the Germans should cut her some slack (they owe us, after all). Tears glisten in the judges’ eyes. Yeah, right.

Let’s be clear: I may not be an expert on sheitl prices, but I know a thing or two about music academies. The admission rules are roughly as rigid as a rebbe with a broken eruv wire. These schools won’t look at a student without years of exam passes or a testimony from Daniel Barenboim. They certainly won’t switch an audition from piano to voice to suit a half-baked dumpling off the kosher menu who claims she is a special case. Trust me, I’ve seen really gifted kids trying to break into music college and winding up with nothing more than bruised knees and a battered ego. Esty, with her lack of qualifications, is going precisely nowhere.

Now that would have been a film worth making: one that showed how, by starving children of a modern education, the Charedi world disables them from embracing science and art, locking them for life in a mental ghetto. Deborah Feldman escaped Williamsburg by reading library books under her bedcovers; I’m sure someone has since blocked off that outlet. In Berlin, Deborah was delighted to find how easy it was to convert her vernacular Yiddish into everyday German.

Unorthodox has an agenda to portray religion as limitlessly oppressive and western music as liberally permissive. It is a profoundly dishonest piece of storytelling on both counts. I know people who have attained complete freedom of mind by submitting to religious laws, and others who are reduced to cowering servility at the sight of a musical score.

Music can be far more tyrannical than Moses. It makes huge demands on one’s time, longer hours of study than any yeshiva. To pretend, as Unorthodox does, that being a musician is a more carefree than being a Satmar Chasid ignores the personal confidence that is granted by a community of faith and the dry-eyed terror that stalks a pianist who steps on stage, reliant on ten fingers and a fallible memory. Remember the Wim Wenders film The Goalkeeper’s Fear of the Penalty? That’s musical liberation for you.

Switching off Unorthodox I went down to the sea to find a young man in long white undergarments — gatkes — bobbing happily in the waves, side-curls akimbo, while his teenage wife waited with their baby on the wharf. They were part of a group who had taken over a nearby school for a week. Only the men got to swim. The women waited. Nothing’s perfect.

August 27, 2020 10:36

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