Ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities exist in nearly every state in the union, but they are—mostly by their own design—seldom in the news. The coronavirus pandemic has changed this dynamic in two ways. First, the media have noted unusually high rates of infection and mortality from COVID-19 within several Haredi communities, including the Hasidim and their large subgroup, the Satmar, in Brooklyn and in Rockland County, just north of New York City. Second, Unorthodox, a four-part Netflix mini-series, has become a streaming favorite among pandemic-induced stay-at-homes. The show follows a young woman as she flees an unhappy marriage in Brooklyn’s stifling Satmar enclave and ends up in Berlin.
Neither the news reports nor the series are particularly flattering to the ultra-Orthodox, and both have generated considerable debate. When it comes to the striking impact of the virus on ultra-Orthodox Jews, journalists report that their communities regularly flout public health regulations about maintaining social distancing and limiting the size of gatherings. Members persist in coming together in person for religious services and rituals as well as weddings and funerals—all practices that serve to exacerbate the risks already inherent in their crowded living conditions. Most recently, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio denounced a large funeral gathering in Williamsburg as being “absolutely unacceptable,” suggesting that the entire Jewish population of the city was responsible. The Anti-Defamation League’s Jonathan Greenblatt objected that “generalizing against the whole population is outrageous especially when so many are scapegoating Jews.”
Those more familiar with ultra-Orthodox customs find such practices understandable. Yiddish writer Meyer Labin told the New York Times, “These activities play a social role for people who have fewer ways to blow off steam.” Explaining the resistance in historical terms, Dartmouth Jewish Studies professor Susannah Heschel contends that, for many Jews, the restrictions “brought to mind times when religious persecution closed down synagogues.” In this sense, she said, the Haredi response “is a sort of defiance and affirmation of Jewish identity combined.”
Reviewers of Unorthodox tend to view these communities less charitably, calling them “oppressive” and “unjust,” particularly when it comes to women and the young. Taking the mini-series at face value, they readily empathize with the main character, Esty, and her determined search for personal freedom. Eric Kohn, in Indiewire, calls the series “a riveting thriller, rich with the struggles of a young woman seeking her individuality, and the unnerving efforts of men convinced they can stop her.” Critic Nick Allen writes that the show has “a touch as sensitive as it is respectful, but with the same overwhelming feeling as an observer: ‘Get out of there!’”
To be sure, a few of the reviewers detect at least some sympathy on the filmmakers’ part for Esty’s community. According to James Poniewozik in the New York Times, Unorthodox “extends its curiosity and understanding to those who find Hasidic isolationism to be a refuge from a world that has continually been hostile to Jews.” And The New Yorker’s Rachel Syme speculates that “watching Yanky [Esty’s husband] davening—performing his Jewish prayers—or Esty’s grandfather presiding over Passover Seder, the viewer is made to appreciate how such traditions can bolster and sustain a historically persecuted community.”
The most negative critiques of the series come from two writers in The Forward: Frieda Vizel, herself a defector from the Brooklyn Satmar enclave, and Eli Spitzer, an educator and current member of a London Hasidic community. Vizel takes the series to task not just for what she sees as its many small inaccuracies, but also for failing to capture the basic humanity of community members. The show makes Hasidic women look as humorless as “foreign Disney-witches in odd costumes,” she complains, adding, “I don’t recognize the Unorthodox world where people are cold, humorless, and obsessed with following the rules. Of course, bad people exist in the Hasidic community . . . but that doesn’t mean everyone goes about muted, serious, drawn, fulfilling the rules and mentioning the Holocaust.” Vizel’s objections are not merely aesthetic but also political; the series, she fears, “just sinks us a bit deeper into our biases.”
Unlike Vizel, Spitzer praises the filmmakers for their attention to small things. “Not every detail is perfect, but I—a Hasid born and raised—was genuinely impressed by details like the plastic-covered rococo chairs, the foil-plastered Pesach kitchen, and the size of the Rebbe’s gartel [belt] that accurately conjured up my world,” he writes. But it is precisely this level of authenticity that makes the series’ main distortion seem all the more egregious: its depiction of Esty and Yanky’s fraught sex life, which, according to Spitzer, implies that the entire Hasidic community is “sexually aberrant” and turns the series into “a vehicle for a salacious, voyeuristic libel.”
In Spitzer’s view, many of the distortions in Unorthodox derive from the 2012 memoir of the same title (subtitled The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots). Spitzer reports that it was the memoir’s author, Deborah Feldman, who first approached two Berlin filmmakers, Anna Winger and Alexa Karolinska, about turning her book into a mini-series. Feldman, like the character Esty, grew up in the Satmar community and also fled, leaving a constricting marriage.
Feldman’s memoir was widely acclaimed when it was first published. ABC News commentator Susan Donaldson-Jones called it “powerful,” while the New York Times’s Marisa Mazria-Katz found it “a stirring account of her struggles with and ultimate rejection of her Satmar community in Williamsburg.” In the book, Feldman recounts her gradual awakening, beginning with clandestine readings of Anne of Green Gables, Jane Eyre, and Little Women—stories that not only provided her with strong female role models but also helped her understand that there was a world outside the ultra-Orthodox enclave. Feldman also describes how she, like Esty, suffered through painful sex in the early days of her arranged marriage, felt completely stifled not just by her husband but also by his intrusive family, and finally managed to mobilize the resources and wherewithal to leave.
Clearly resonating with feminist readers as well as reviewers, Unorthodox the book became an overnight bestseller, but it also generated a great deal of controversy. Critics, most of them from the ultra-Orthodox community, pointed out many inaccuracies in both fact and description, even creating a blog where such charges could be posted. Feldman, along with some of her supporters, defended the book, claiming not just poetic license but a desire to protect the privacy of certain individuals. They also argued that Feldman was being “smeared” for criticizing Hasidic Jews.
The controversy over the book evidently did not deter Winger and Karolinska from adapting it for a mini-series—indeed, it was probably a selling point. In any event, the filmmakers were happy to interview Feldman for a short follow-up documentary (Making Unorthodox, also on Netflix), in which the author expresses gratitude and great satisfaction in how the series turned out. And except for Vizel’s and Spitzer’s dissents, reviews of the mini-series have been glowing. It is worth asking why this might be so—and how the show fits into a larger history of art treating this fraught subject matter.
Unorthodox is just the latest in a series of recent films and TV fare about young people fleeing orthodox Jewish communities. These include two other dramas, The Awakening of Motti Wolkenbruch (a Swiss film from 2018) and the long-running Israeli TV series Shtisel (first aired in Israel in 2013, arriving on Netflix in 2018); and two documentaries, the American One of Us (2017) and the Australian Code of Silence (2014).
Awakening, like Unorthodox, also portrays a young Jew chafing against the restrictiveness of ultra-Orthodox customs, this time in Zurich. Here the protagonist is male, yet despite the implicit patriarchal bias of the culture, he finds its rules and rites just as intolerable as Esty does. Esty determines to leave after a year or two of unhappy marriage but Motti never gets that far, seeking escape after being subjected to a series of failed shidduchs (matchmaking meetings) arranged by his mother, a meddlesome woman who makes Sophie Portnoy look like a model of permissiveness. While Unorthodox portrays Esty’s dilemma with an earnest seriousness, Awakening assumes a rather ironic tone, with Motti narrating his situation from a jocular remove that seems intended to invite the audience’s skepticism toward, if not total rejection of, his community.
Akiba, one of Shtisel’s main characters, is also fed up with a parent’s persistent efforts to marry him off, but instead of fleeing, he falls in love with an older woman who already has a child, setting off an extended struggle with his disapproving father. Unlike the other disgruntled characters mentioned here, Akiba does not leave his community (Ge’ula, an area of Mea Shearim, the ultra-Orthodox quarter of Jerusalem), but by remaining only deepens his conflict with his father. It is Lippe, the feckless husband of Akiba’s sister Giti, who flees. Heading to Latin America, supposedly to pursue a job opportunity, he indulges in all manner of forbidden activities, only to return to Ge’eula and a distraught Giti and their five children, offering the feeble excuse that he had just “needed time to himself.”
The other two films, though both documentaries, manage to convey the dire situations of their young subjects with dramatic intensity. Code of Silence follows the case of Manny, a young adult member of the Melbourne Chabad-Lubavitch community who was sexually abused as a yeshiva student and who now, having left the fold, wants to expose the crime. His highly observant father at first tries to deter Manny from going public, fearing the wrath of the community, but eventually decides to support his son and, as he had feared, ends up being expelled. The Chabad elders are not only determined to cover up the crime but also accuse both men of engaging in mesirah—turning over a member of the Jewish community to outside authorities—an act that is not only forbidden by rabbinic law but appears shameful within the context of Jews’ long history of being victimized by Gentile police.
Arguably the most gripping of all these productions, perhaps because it presents heartrending situations that viewers assume are not fictional, is One of Us. Filmed over three years, the documentary follows the struggles of three young Jews, two men and a woman, to separate from the Brooklyn Hasidic community. Luzer, a young man who began his acting career by making a screen test of himself as an ultra-Orthodox youth, ends up scraping by in Hollywood, living in an RV, and supporting himself by driving for Uber. In early interviews, he displays a certain bravado despite his humble existence, but toward the end of the film, he allows the camera to capture his tear-stained face as he goes through a cache of old letters and photographs that remind him of the loving family he has left behind.
Ari, a younger man, explains, “I didn’t feel like the person I looked like” with his sidecurls (peyos) and fringed undergarment (tzitzit), and he recalls coming to the realization that he no longer wanted to “live the lie,” though it took him a year before he got up the gumption to exit. Part of his difficulty lay in the fact that he had only attended Jewish schools and was never taught even the basics of subjects like mathematics and English. He moans that he doesn’t know “how people live, how stuff works”—for example how to Google. Ari also reveals that he, like Manny in Code of Silence, was a victim of sexual abuse but was also denied any form of redress by community authorities.
But it is the third subject of the film, Etty, a young mother of seven, whose dilemma appears most touching. Trapped in an abusive marriage, with mandatory sex every Friday just one of the humiliations she must endure, Etty knows that if she tries to leave, she will risk losing her children. Especially dear to her is her only daughter, whom she is secretly grooming to become an independent-minded young woman. Etty turns to Footsteps, an organization that supports ex-Hasidim and whose leader, a female rabbi named Chani Getter, provides crucial assistance when the community indeed sues her for custody of the children. Her husband, armed with more money and a team of crackerjack lawyers, wins the suit, and at first Etty is denied even minimal visitation. This is later softened, but not before Etty must bid a wrenching, tearful goodbye to her little ones.
The theme of separation from orthodox Jewish communities is an old one in European Jewish literature, extending back at least as far as the Enlightenment and its parallel movement, Haskalah (the Jewish Enlightenment). Probably the earliest, and one of the best-known, accounts of Jewish flight is The Autobiography of Salomon Maimon, first serialized and then published as a book in 1792-3. Maimon, a Polish-Lithuanian Jew who grew up poor in a highly traditional Jewish enclave, received only the limited education prevalent in such communities at the time. Speaking Yiddish at home, he learned Hebrew so he could study the Torah and Talmud but, like Ari in One of Us, was exposed to nothing so practical as mathematics or science, much less any of the local or classical languages he would later need to participate in secular European scholarly circles.
Nevertheless, Maimon was a precocious child, curious about science and philosophy, and he managed to find a few secular books while ransacking his pious father’s library. Drawn especially to a tome on astronomy, he even built himself a crude sphere armillaris—a device that allowed him to visually grasp the structure of the solar system. It was not this knowledge, of course, but his gifts as a Talmudic interpreter, that rapidly gained Maimon recognition as a wunderkind, with the result that, starting at age 11, he became much sought-after as a husband for the daughters of wealthy status-seeking Jews. He was quickly married off and, after a delay of several years, finally managed to consummate the union, soon becoming the father of two. Struggling to support his young family by engaging in the same kind of Talmudic tutelage he himself had found so stifling as a boy, Maimon yearned to pursue his secular intellectual interests and finally determined to leave his family and go to Berlin, with the aim of studying medicine.
While often cited as an ur-text of defection from orthodoxy (according to Hannah Arendt, Maimon was the first modern Jewish intellectual to adopt the role of the “conscious pariah”), the Autobiography is, in fact, just as critical of secular and Christian East European society as it is of Jewish tradition. In particular, Maimon singles out the Polish aristocracy for its profligacy, ignorance, and corruption. Here he recounts an anecdote about a Polish aristocrat named Prince Radziwill:
He once sent for a respected Jewish barber. The latter, having surmised that he was going to be asked to perform a surgical operation, appeared before his lord with his medical instruments. The prince asked: “You have brought your tools?” “Yes, your most eminent majesty,” replied the barber. “Good,” said the prince, “give me your lancet; I will open up a vein for you.” All the poor barber could do was cooperate. The prince picked up the lancet, which he didn’t know how to use. Because of his complete lack of training, and also because his drunken state was making his hands shake, he wounded the barber atrociously. Yet the prince’s courtiers smilingly applauded him, praising his great surgical talent.
The theme of defection or flight from traditional Jewish enclaves continues in the work of other European Jewish writers who followed, not only structuring their narratives but taking on metaphorical dimensions. In his classic but never-finished novel The Rabbi of Bacharach (published in 1840), which was set in the Middle Ages, Heinrich Heine follows Rabbi Abraham and his wife Sara as they are forced to flee their hometown on the Rhine after being framed as complicit in a ritual murder (a classic instance of blood libel). The couple ends up in Frankfurt-am-Main, where they come face-to-face with modern culture in the form of the city’s bustling fair—a sight the rabbi deems so disturbing that he forces his wife to cover her eyes lest she be tempted by the baubles on display, not to mention glimpses of prostitutes soliciting openly and priests making the sign of the cross. Disillusioned, Abraham and Sara seek refuge in the Frankfurt ghetto, which does not welcome them at first.
Here, the couple confronts the paradoxical fact that ghettoes are locked from both without and within. External authorities restrict Jews to specific quarters, but inside those confines, the Jews themselves set strict laws for belief as well as conduct. As Jonathan Skolnik, a professor of German Jewish Studies at UMass-Amherst, puts it, “Frankfurt represents a modern metropolis in contrast to ‘medieval’ Bacherach, and the temptations of its marketplace seem to be a projection of the fears of those aspects of modern society which threaten to dissolve traditional Jewish identity (conversion, sensualism, and materialism). Yet the Jewish world that Abraham and Sara find on the other side of the ghetto wall is no idealized refuge from these pressures.”
Other Jewish authors writing in German during this period also explored the tension between tradition and modernity—the potential for assimilation, its rewards and risks—but without relying on the metaphor of flight. Indeed, the fact that opposing characters remained in situ may have served to heighten the tension (as it does later in Shtisel). In a series of short stories published around mid-century, the Bohemian Leopold Kompert lovingly depicts life among the traditional Jews he knew as a youth but still urges them to take up useful occupations, particularly farming. At the same time, he deplores the cultural and spiritual losses he believes inevitably accompany assimilation. Writing somewhat later, Karl Emil Franzos presents the Galician village Chortkiv, his birthplace, in a warm light but does not shirk from simultaneously depicting its narrowness. Like Maimon, Franzos points out the backwardness of the Gentile society surrounding the village, especially the decadent landed gentry, which, in his view, contributes to the Jews’ lack of progress. In one of his final works, the novel Der Pojaz (The Clown, 1893), Franzos takes on a more pessimistic tone, concerned that the denizens of these self-enclosed communities will never be able to assimilate.
The tension between tradition and modernity persisted in European Jewish literature and, inevitably, emerged in American Jewish literature as well, arriving with the wave of East European Jews who immigrated to the United States around the turn of the 19th century. Early works like Abraham Cahan’s The Rise of David Levinsky (1917) and Anzia Yezierska’s Bread Givers (1925) explore how, for some immigrants, adherence to tradition blocked the path to Americanization, while for others, a rapid embrace of modernity led to sterility and soullessness.
Perhaps the most famous novel about the flight from orthodoxy is Chaim Potok’s The Chosen (1967), a complex tale of two youths, Reuven, who is Modern Orthodox, and Danny, a Hasid, who begin a long friendship after competing against each other on a high school baseball field. Both boys are struggling against their fathers’ wishes for them—in Danny’s case, the expectation that he will become a sage and tzaddik (spiritual leader) like his father; in Reuven’s, that he will not follow his father’s path as a Talmudic scholar but instead take up a secular profession. Naturally, Danny wants to become a psychologist, while Reuven’s ambition is to study the Talmud. Though The Chosen is set against the backdrop of emphatically secular mid-century America, parts of it might have come directly from Maimon’s Autobiography—for example, when Danny’s father forbids him to read science books, forcing him to find and study them surreptitiously in the public library.
The Chosen ends on an upbeat note, as Reuven pursues his Talmudic studies and Danny reconciles with his father, despite choosing to earn a PhD in clinical psychology at Columbia. But there are no happy endings in the recent film and TV narratives of escape from ultra-Orthodoxy. In part, this is because the communities being abandoned—at least as presented by the filmmakers—appear to be so implacable, in part because most of the young people taking flight seem to flounder, ill-prepared as they are for work, relationships, or everyday life in secular society.
Why are these films and series being made now, and why are they so popular? One explanation comes from Shuly Rubin Schwartz, provost of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City. Speaking of Shtisel, she told Joseph Berger of the New York Times, “There’s something very attractive about a community with strong values we share: respect for parents, respect for elders, close knit families, modest lifestyles. We may not live that way, but we admire it.” But, she warns, programs like Shtisel reinforce “the views of many Jews about the claustrophobic nature of that society, the conformity, the regimentation.”
For Jews who have suffered from that claustrophobia, however, these programs offer a lifeline by drawing attention to the excesses of ultra-Orthodoxy and the harms they cause. As Abby Stein, an ex-Hasidic transgender woman, put it in a recent web panel on Unorthodox organized by The Forward, such exposés are “necessary” for people like herself, who are, at best, ignored or ostracized by the Haredi. “We can’t silence people in our community who are suffering,” Stein said, calling these films and programs “a matter of life or death.”
It is, of course, not only Jews who view the ultra-Orthodox in a negative light. For liberals of all religions (or none), and especially feminists, the ultra-Orthodox have become convenient whipping boys, their communities the embodiment of all the values and practices liberals reject. While hardly idealizing their own societies, riven as they are with persistent inequalities and prejudices, liberals can still see them as preferable to fundamentalist religious enclaves and therefore celebrate those who manage to escape. In other words, they are perhaps engaging in a certain Schadenfreude.
This same kind of liberal outrage was probably the main fuel for the popularity of another narrative of flight published around the same time as Deborah Feldman’s, this one by a Gentile. Carolyn Jessop’s 2007 bestseller Escape, which vividly recounts her entrapment in a polygamous Mormon sect, was widely praised for its candor, earning the author much sympathy for abuse she had suffered and a contract for a sequel. But the pattern did not hold for a third woman’s escape narrative, Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s Infidel. The story of her flight from childhood in a strict Somali Muslim family followed by an unwanted arranged marriage sold well but was widely denounced by a number of critics—secular as well as Muslim—as “Islamophobic.”
In certain respects, Hirsi Ali had more advantages than many of the other escapees from fundamentalism. Though strictly controlled as a Muslim woman (she endured genital mutilation at the age of five), she was relatively well-educated and had traveled widely with her family; thus, when she was forced into marriage in Canada, she managed to engineer an exit and reach the Netherlands, where she was granted asylum, learned Dutch, earned a master’s degree, and went on to a successful political career. Even before becoming fully established, she used all available platforms to speak loudly about the need to abolish practices such as female genital mutilation and honor killings and call for an “enlightened Islam” that would respect women. As part of her campaign for women’s rights, in 2004 she made a short film entitled Submission, working with the filmmaker Theo van Gogh. The collaboration unfortunately made van Gogh the target of a radical Muslim assassin who also threatened Hirsi Ali.
This tragedy brought international attention to Hirsi Ali, and when the English-language edition Infidel was published in 2007, it initially met with high praise. But Hirsi Ali soon found herself in the midst of a political maelstrom, denounced not just by Muslims across the political spectrum, including the Islamist academic Tariq Ramadan, but also by secular critics, many charging her with betraying the Islamic faith. According to Maria Golia, an American journalist based in Egypt, “Hirsi Ali seems far more interested in indicting Islam than helping damaged women, whose horror stories she conveniently trots out whenever she needs to bludgeon home a point.” Two prominent leftist male intellectuals spoke of her condescendingly: Ian Buruma suggested that her experience had left her “traumatised,” while Timothy Garton Ash described her as a “slightly simplistic Enlightenment fundamentalist.” Hirsi Ali rejected all of these critiques, asserting that the white liberals, in particular, were suffering from “the self-censoring effects of post-colonial guilt.”
Given the left’s predilection for giving radical Islam a pass for its misogyny, one can’t help but notice the double standard when it comes to criticizing Orthodox Jews. Thus one can’t help but speculate that, mutatis mutandis, many of these recent Jewish flight narratives may be feeding into the present upsurge of anti-Semitism. As Eli Spitzer warns, Unorthodox “does not merely claim to be an individual story set in the 21st century ‘period-dress’ of Williamsburg, but rather bills itself as the ‘first realistic portrayal’ of Hasidic life, while presenting a horrifying portrait that does not even rise to the level of a caricature.”
This kind of specificity may give the mistaken impression that it is only Jewish fundamentalism that has such effects. Unfortunately, it is these ultra-Orthodox narratives that are now appearing in an environment marked by double standards and a disturbing rise in anti-Semitism, where they risk being swept up into its currents. Something to ponder as we continue to indulge our pandemic-induced hunger for tales of escape.