The recent Netflix show “Unorthodox” has brought my former community, Satmar, into the limelight. The show is about a young woman feeling trapped in that ultra-Orthodox, Hasidic community and making her way out. It is not about the community, but about one woman’s journey, and the series shows you the community through her eyes, the eyes of someone who is finding it intolerable and needs out.
But this article is not about “Unorthodox.” In this article, I want to give an insight into the community of my upbringing from the perspective of someone who lived it and breathed for most of his life, rather than from the perspective of someone who left. Given that this is a community that rarely interacts with the media and with outsiders, it is natural that most of our information about it comes from people who have left and from their perspective. How might we try and understand the community from the inside? What does it feel like to be Satmar?
To do this we will have to let go for a moment of our Western values of individualism and liberalism. We cannot understand a community that functions by a different set of norms, using the lens of our values. Let us understand Satmar through the lens of its own values.
In Satmar, there is no “I.” It is not about you and what you want. It is not about “being who you are,” “self-actualisation,” or “following your dreams.” You are not an independent individual, but part of a greater, living organism. That organism is your family and your community. You as an individual do your part in bringing honour to your family and ensuring the continuity of the community and its ways.
If you are a Satmar woman, you have been raised all your life to be the loyal and supportive wife of your husband and the mother of the next generation of Hasidic kids. It is not about whether you find this fulfilling or if you have other aspirations in life. This is the part that you play in the community’s future: you learn to find it fulfilling. Or you don’t.
If you are a Satmar man, you know your place too. You will be in the synagogue three times a day, you’ll dedicate some time for study daily, you’ll give to charity, support the rebbe’s institutions and, someway or another, you’ll put bread on the table.
Daily life revolves around fulfilling religious commandments and obligations, but that does not mean that your average Satmar person thinks about religion or God consciously throughout his or her day. These just form the framework and vocabulary of life, but underneath it, life in Satmar follows the same patterns as life across our species.
There are meals to be cooked, children to be entertained, friends to be visited. You need to make ends meet, look after your elderly mother, avoid that shul member with whom you don’t get along. There’s worry for a loved one who is ill, grievance over a death, love for a child who hit a milestone in his or her life. The whole spectrum of human emotion is here on display from love to hate; joy to pain; anxiety and compassion.
I am the last one to make excuses when the community breaks the law, or for the way in which it treats those who do not toe the line. I myself have suffered, and continue to suffer, tremendous pain from the way the community has shunned me and treated me for questioning and carving out my own path. But underneath, all of it is a very imperfect, but very human community. A community that is very different in its values, but just as human as the rest of us.
This humanity is what I found missing in “Unorthodox.” We got shown a caricature of a community that is eternally bitter, austere and one-dimensional. That is not the daily reality of Hasidic Jews. I think that what we saw is a community through the eyes of someone about to leave it. But Satmar looks very different for those on the inside. That story is yet to be told.