By Miriam R. Kramer
Not only is this the time of COVID-19, it is also the time of escape through TV binging and reading. I recently came across an unusual series on Netflix called Unorthodox. Based on the book written by a former Hasidic Jew from Brooklyn, it offers more than a peek at the world of a closed society most of us know nothing about: the ultra-Orthodox Hasidic Satmar sect in New York. Deborah Feldman, who wrote Unorthodox, escaped from her very insular community in which rigid rules are prescribed for the roles of both men and women. To follow up I read the book Unchosen by Hella Winston, a book about the lives of New York Hasids who test the boundaries of their fundamentalist communities or find a way to leave them altogether.
Unorthodox is only four episodes, so you can zoom through it. As an adaptation of Deborah Feldman’s book, it does not follow her story precisely. Esty, or Esther Schwartz, is a young Satmar Hasid. She must follow precise rules in growing up as a young woman whose future is already written: that of a wife and mother who must not sing in front of men or practice the music she loves. Her role is to respect her husband’s wishes and produce as many children as possible. Esty’s mother, who is gay, escaped the sect and her husband, early on. Therefore, she lives with her grandparents. Her aunt has contacted a matchmaker who sets her up with Yanky Shapiro. As is traditional, she only meets him briefly before her wedding is arranged.
Shira Haas plays Esty beautifully. The series starts with Esty’s escape, as she takes only the minimum with her and buys a ticket to Berlin, traveling on a German passport validated through her German ancestry. Her estranged mother lives there. She wants to inhabit a completely different world and find out why her mother left her so long ago.
Haas displays her discomfort eloquently with even the slightest shift in expression. As a tiny, elfin figure, her intellectual rebellion makes more of an impression than it might if she took up more physical space. She warns Yanky “I am different” to let him know subtly that she questions her boundaries as a woman within the community. Amit Rahav, who plays Yanky, also does well as a shy, sheltered young Hasid, peering uncomfortably at Esty during their courtship ritual and floundering to be a proper husband and live up to the Satmar sect’s expectations.
Esty secretly reads books in English, a proscribed activity, and speaks English better than most of her fellow Satmar Hasids, since the men in particular only learn English up to the state-required fourth-grade level in school. With her artistic leanings and broader perspective, she chafes against all the guidelines she must follow.
Filming mostly in Germany, the series used former Hasidic Jews and Yiddish translators to ensure the most verisimilitude on set. The director cuts between Esty’s tentative modern life in Berlin and her old life, which could have been set in a different century. Unorthodox’s cinematography feels both real and a little unworldly, done in a documentary style that juxtaposes the darker tones of the Satmar community with the lighter, swooping post-World War II architecture featured in Berlin scenes.
Perhaps the most fascinating scenes show the rituals leading up to and including Esty and Yanky’s wedding, generally unseen by outsiders. Almost all the scenes in Brooklyn are filmed in Yiddish. The Hasids’ clothing is based on Eastern European clothing from the eighteenth century. These frozen-in-time rituals create a surreal picture in the context of the twenty-first century, while also somehow touching in the way they can create joy for many who perform them. The filmmakers show the happiness inherent in such rituals along with the highly conservative and stifling pressure to keep up appearances and adhere to strict conventions.
After an unhappy year of marriage, Yanky threatens Esty with a divorce. Secretly pregnant, she cannot take her restrictions any more. She escapes to Berlin, seeking new friends and a new life.
As Esty’s life progresses in Berlin, she finds a secular view on the outside world, which is characterized by diverse people and musical exploration. She finds her voice and ability to express herself artistically in a city that has moved on from the trauma it created in her own former community, which was founded by Holocaust survivors.
The series is gripping from beginning to end. Esty’s development runs from darkness to light, restriction to independence, and voicelessness to expression. While her adventures in Berlin wrap up a little too neatly for my liking, you can still enjoy the series. I relished the story and artistry inherent in this cinematic journey into two different worlds, one strictly defined and ironically ensconced within modern New York City, along with the other based in contemporary Berlin.
Finished with the series, I read Deborah Feldman’s book. Esty’s journey parallels her own in many respects, and it was as compelling as the series, and more realistic, as it should be, in terms of the book’s ending. Her journey diverges somewhat from the fictional one, however. She discusses her reactions to the rules and proscriptions within her community more deeply. Feldman’s writing is intellectually honest, vivid and fast-paced, and you can easily read it in one sitting. If you want to learn more about Hasidic philosophy and rules, you will find her experiences within these guidelines compelling, if sometimes highly dramatic.
After deciding to dive deeper into the subject, I read Unchosen by Hella Winston, a sociologist who chose to study rebellion within different Hasidic sects in Brooklyn. She interviews a woman who, like Deborah Feldman, broke free of her community altogether, founding a group to help other Hasids who seek to find a life on the outside, despite having no official high school diplomas or the ability to speak English well.
Winston also follows a Lubavitcher Hasid as he cuts off his payos (sidelocks) and goes back and forth between sneaking to Manhattan in jeans and then donning traditional garb back in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. While the Lubavitchers have more contact with the outside world than the Satmar sect, since their philosophy includes recruiting unaffiliated Jews to their community, they still have rigid rules of their own. Yossi’s psychological difficulties greatly increase as he seeks modernity and freedom in a secret life while remaining unable to break free entirely from his community.
Hella Winston writes also about a respected religious Hasid figure who is a secret atheist. She discusses those who still consider themselves Orthodox but need a broader intellectual perspective to question and compare their faith to that of others. Some of her interviewees buy TVs and computers in secret. They covertly read books in English and Hebrew or the anonymous blogs written by other rebels within their communities to feel less alone and discuss their changing identities.
Some of her subjects live psychological double lives without the hope of stretching their parameters in reality, knowing that they cannot leave the community without damaging the marriage prospects and reputations of their family members. Others know they cannot find a job without help, since their community leaves them with no academic, professional, or linguistic qualifications that would allow them to leave and establish lives elsewhere.
I found reading this sociological book saddening but also hopeful in the sense that many Hasids want to return to the roots of Hasidism, founded in the eighteenth century ironically to get away from Judaism’s then-rigid conventions and create a more ecstatic, emotional connection to God. Some want to abandon their religion altogether, and many want to debate their faith and remain Orthodox if not Hasidic.
Her conclusion is that there are more people seeking progress than has been previously known; people who are creating changes not only as struggling Hasids but also in Orthodox Jewish communities. In essence, modern Orthodox Judaism is more fluid and perhaps even more potentially progressive than previously understood. These changes have the potential to enrich Orthodox Judaism, regardless of rejection or obstruction by those Hasids who cling to the comfort and warmth of their communities, happy in adhering to their strict conventions.