Josh Glancy

Unorthodox is just the same old story

'The show’s popularity tells us something quite pernicious about the way the Strictly Orthodox are portrayed in modern life'

May 27, 2020 11:32

Admittedly there are a few good things about Unorthodox, the most overrated show yet about Chasidim and their discontents. Esty, the show’s protagonist, is played in the Netflix hit with poise and depth by Shira Haas. Her defiance in the face of bullying and quiet but unquenchable determination to reach a different world are an inspiration. It’s nicely shot and set to gorgeous music too.

That’s about it though. The rest of Unorthodox is, despite its undeserved critical acclaim, hollow and one-sided. I’ll put some of this down to pandemic hype, which has also driven the elevation of the good but far from great Normal People into the Iliad of our age. Beyond that though, the show’s popularity tells us something quite pernicious about the way the Strictly Orthodox are portrayed in modern life.

If you haven’t watched it, Unorthodox follows Esty’s journey away from the dark, cloistered world of Williamsburg, New York’s Satmar community and towards the light-drenched freedom of life as a cosmopolitan hipster amid the musicians of Berlin. It is based —fairly loosely — on the experiences of Deborah Feldman, who recounted her story in a best-selling 2012 memoir: Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of my Hasidic Roots.

First, the show, which hits many strange notes. Weirdly, Esty’s visit to Berlin is suffused with Christian imagery — a 'baptism' in the lake (at Wannsee, no less), an awestruck visit to a church, where the choir is singing Mendelssohn (a Jew who became a Christian, of course), with Esty playing the shaven role of Joan of Arc, fending off the evil, galumphing patriarchy with her waifish resilience.

Unorthodox is also stacked with clumsy Shoah references, leaving the firm impression that Chasidic Judaism is little more than a Holocaust cult, trapped in a mental Auschwitz and frantically flogging its womenfolk to reproduce and “replace the six million”.

And the Chasidim themselves, oy. Endless stereotypes: cretinous mamalehs, sinister rebbes, simpering mummy’s boys and greedy landlords; painful, oafish sex and weirdo rituals. Aside from Esty’s bubbe, who eventually cuts her granddaughter off, there isn’t a single remotely sympathetic Chasidic character. They are all just obstacles to Esty’s eventual triumph, not least her husband, the hapless cuckold Yanky, who is sent to Berlin to recover Esty with his cousin Moishe, a parodically clownish thug whose not-quite-Chekhov’s gun becomes an absurd plot device.

In an interview, the show’s creator Anna Winger said that it was important for her “to inhabit the ideas of these characters [and] worlds in a way that felt authentic”. I’m afraid she failed utterly, if she tried at all. Unlike in the excellent Shtisel, an Israeli show also on Netflix, nowhere in Unorthodox is there a serious attempt to inhabit the spirit or meaning of frum life. The Satmars are presented almost uniformly as mindless drones, robotically programmed to follow their rebbes.

Which brings me to my second problem with Unorthodox: this relentless focus on telling the stories of people who leave Strictly Orthodox communities. Stories told in films such as Disobedience or Eyes Wide Open, documentaries such as Netflix’s One Of Us or books such as Shulem Deen’s All Who Go Do Not Return, Hella Winston’s Unchosen: The Hidden Life of Hasidic Rebels and Leah Lax’s Uncovered: How I Left Hasidic Life And Came Home.

Please don’t get me wrong, I think these tales are courageous and important. I lap them up and am outraged at the emotional toll exacted upon those who leave the community. I couldn’t live like the Satmars and disagree with them endlessly, on feminism, on Israel, on freedom, all of it.

Yet the hunger for this off-the-derech porn among irreligious Jews and the wider world tells its own story. Why the fascination? Partly it’s voyeurism, to peek inside the closed and bizarro world of the frummers, which is why these stories are almost about Chasidim, who among the many different types of Orthodox Jew live the most differently.

But these shows also resonate because they flatter our liberal vanity. Unorthodox is built on the implicit assumption that of course anyone with a hint of soul, spirit and freedom inside them must long to unchain themselves from Chasidic life. Yet, of course, most do not. I wonder why? Maybe some enterprising western filmmakers could endeavour to tell us.

And where, I wonder, are the great Netflix dramas about the Jews who convert to Orthodoxy each year? The ba’alei teshuvah. There aren’t many firm stats on this, but a survey last year by the Nishma Foundation reported that 42 per cent of America’s Modern Orthodox community is comprised of baalei teshuvah.

This is a huge, multi-generational story of returning to the faith, raising many questions that apply well beyond just Jewish life.

Why do so many thousands give up all the privileges of modernity, the freedoms, the casual sex, the bikinis, the equality, in order to heed the call of our ancient tribal creed?

Instead of just gratifying our smug assumptions about the joys of modern life, perhaps someone could challenge them for a change and make a show about those who return.

Now that would be unorthodox.


Josh Glancy is Washington Bureau Chief for the Sunday Times


May 27, 2020 11:32

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