‘Unorthodox’, Netflix’s recent drama mini-series, has been well-received by critics who’ve applauded its acting and production value. Viewers may take this as a mark of authenticity, but the series’ representation of Orthodox Judaism is fundamentally flawed.
Loosely based on Deborah Feldman’s 2012 bestselling book, the mini-series tells the story of a young Satmar Hasidic woman who leaves her husband, her community, and her religious observance to find herself in Berlin.
‘Unorthodox’’s problem is that it can’t escape the cliched stereotypes of its genre. It’s one of an ever-growing number of films and television shows that chart the lives of a visible minority of Jews who choose to leave Orthodoxy for a secular life, which is known as going “off the derech” (meaning “off the path”). It posits that if one does not fit into a given niche within Orthodoxy, the only way to go is to leave it – an all-or-nothing proposition. This perpetuates the myth that there is only one vision of Orthodox Judaism.
Nothing could be further from the truth and yet this narrative has been repeated again and again over the years. Take ‘A Price Above Rubies’ (1998), which depicts a passionate but frustrated Orthodox woman whose preoccupied husband cannot satisfy her and whose conniving brother-in-law sexually assaults her. More recently, ‘Disobedience’ (2017) deals with a bisexual woman who leaves her rabbi father and Orthodoxy and moves to New York after her romantic relationship with another Orthodox woman comes to light. These are just the tip of the ex-Orthodox cultural iceberg.
This preoccupation with ex-Orthodox Jews also extends to the media. The New York Times Sunday Magazine had, some years ago, published a cover story on young men and women who “defected” from Lubavitch (a far less cloistered group than the Hasidism depicted in ‘Unorthodox’) and left Orthodox Judaism for secular lifestyles. In the same magazine, Taffy Broedesser-Akner tracked those in an “off the derech” support group. Other media outlets, including the BBC, have published stories featuring young people who have made radical departures from what they have perceived as extreme and untenably restrictive lifestyles.
A monolithic perspective
Deborah Feldman, whose own life story inspired both the book and mini-series, deserves respect for the very personal choices she has made in the years since her departure from the Satmar community. However, ‘Unorthodox’ falls into the same trap as many films that came before it. It presents a monolithic perspective on Orthodox Judaism, when in reality, there is a continuum of approaches within the realm of Jewish law. There are alternatives other than going OTD, but they do not provide as much sexy copy.
It is precisely this sort of misrepresentation that prompts viewers to generalise about Orthodoxy and conjecture about the extreme repression that compels adherents to leave the fold. Films are not made about those born in the Hasidic community who have shifted to the “center” or “left” of the Orthodox spectrum and maintain healthy relationships with their birth families.
And what of those Orthodox who do not fall into the “ultra” category, who were not raised as Hasidic, and face up to challenges, often quite daunting, within their communities? There are just as many, and probably more, of these Jews who have chosen to stay.
As heart wrenching as their circumstances may be, they manage to find a path within the continuum of approaches that makes Orthodox life work for them. It doesn’t mean that they don’t struggle on a daily basis, that they don’t grapple with precepts and laws that are, at times, difficult for them to accept, and that they don’t sometimes think about how much easier their lives might be if they went OTD. They sometimes wrestle their way through crises, so much so that they may temporarily be blindsided about the ultimate trade-off they made in staying Orthodox. That is, on the big balance sheet of life, they have exchanged one set of satisfactions for another that is more meaningful for them.
Such Orthodox Jews stay within a broader lifestyle that strikes a chord within them, and allows them to function well, and even happily. For women, their position as the Akeret HaBayit (foundation of the home) means that their struggles and choices are often more pronounced and potentially self-sacrificing, but they do have choices, in both personal and professional realms.
It is about time the mainstream media and discerning publics started to recognise that the monolithic, distorted, and misleading way Orthodox Judaism has been represented in their publications and audiovisual creations is just that. Further, media stereotypes based on flawed depictions of Jews and of “extreme” Jewish communities exacerbate an environment where increased anti-Semitism is further fueling hate crimes.
Journalists, scriptwriters and directors could better serve themselves and their audiences by recognising that the sizable, diverse demographic of Orthodox Jews deserves more accurate and balanced representation. Orthodoxy is definitely not an all-or-nothing deal.