‘Unorthodox’ is a Netflix miniseries that portrays a young woman who flees her Hasidic community and lifestyle in Brooklyn to rediscover herself in Berlin. As a Jewish woman who also explored living outside an Orthodox framework I was raised in, many of the show’s scenes hit especially close to home.
‘Unorthodox’ is not just a trendy show; it is a narrative, and we internalize messages from stories whether or not we are aware of it. While the series meticulously illustrates the inner workings of an Orthodox Jewish lifestyle, it also promotes harmful messages that young, impressionable women in the audience may unintentionally internalize.
In the narrative, the protagonist, who felt isolated from her Hasidic community and constricted in a sexually unfulfilling marriage, rediscovers herself upon her departure from her community by confronting her past and engaging in seamless, detached sexual experiences. The show ends with the protagonist entering a sun-lit cafe and being joined by an adoring, supportive musical community in Berlin.
There are two problematic narratives at play here:
1. Having left her sexually unfulfilling marriage, suddenly the protagonist seamlessly experiences sexual fulfillment through one-night stands.
Initially, the series gives a brave and laudable exploration of women’s sexual issues. Yet this nuanced exploration is cheapened by the fantastical depiction of a one-night stand.
Firstly, the one-night stand does not align with the storyline. It is hard to believe that the protagonist’s sexual problems disappear the moment she leaves her marriage.
More importantly, though, the media’s encouragement of one-night stands in place of committed long-term relationships is a repetitive, hurtful narrative to women. Putting aside Jewish day school-imbued guilt, or rabbinical texts dictating sexual behavior (I have trouble at times accepting that scholars from hundreds of years ago could understand or guide a modern-day woman’s sexual experience), I have seen way more women (and men) get hurt by detached sexuality than benefit from it. The mainstream media repeatedly depicts women as sexually and emotionally fulfilled with sexual partners who are not held emotionally accountable. The media implies this behavior is empowering for women, when in reality it is often the opposite.
This narrative hurts women, no matter their religious backgrounds, age, or sexual orientation. Yet show-makers at times convey harmful messages if it helps serve a storyline.
2. Once you leave your community, a ready community will be waiting for you in its place in a foreign city. Your former, restrictive community will pale in comparison.
Having enjoyed the benefits of close-knit Jewish communities – and having also felt the growing pains of setting aside those communities at times – I would urge young Jewish people to approach this message with caution.
One review especially concerned me, written by a Huffington Post critic who hopes that Hasidic girls will learn from this story and one day find ‘freedom’ from the community themselves:
“No doubt girls all over Brooklyn are buying this book, hiding it under their mattresses, reading it after lights out—and contemplating, perhaps for the first time, their own escape,” the reviewer wrote.
In encouraging young women to leave an Orthodox Jewish community that has taken shape over thousands of years, what alternative community could one possibly offer that has a fighting chance in taking its place? The office? A yoga class? Team sports? Happy hour? Very few frameworks are nearly as encompassing or reliable as a caring Jewish community, especially in the Diaspora. Even for young people who did not leave a religious community, it is very difficult to recreate the sense of community one grew up with, especially in large cities.
What the show doesn’t illustrate is the very real loss of community that young people often experience upon ridding themselves of a Halachic lifestyle and community. To leave the fold is an active choice that entails diligent practice, willful avoidance of Halachic habits, and, at times, grief. It is not merely the absence of an experience; it is a choice that leaves a vacuum one desperately tries to fill. It is a total eradication of Halachic triggers, replaced with makeshift substitutes that often feel lacking.
While out with friends on a Friday night, there is a nagging thought in the back of your mind that someone, somewhere, just lit Shabbat candles. Sometimes returning to your apartment on a Friday night feels eerily quiet. It takes conscious effort to fight the urge to recite a blessing before eating an apple, or to put aside those gnawing modesty dress codes in your mind as you don a dress for the night out. Sometimes you feel like a total stranger when you revisit your hometown synagogue.
Many of the show’s viewers marvel at the protagonist’s exodus from her community without acknowledging the troubles that lie on the other side of that exodus. Often, it is difficult for religious ‘escapees’ to find a clear destination and community after their escape. The series glorifies the erosion of community, while imbuing impressionable women with narratives that may truly hurt them emotionally.
If you are a young Jewish woman reading this, and you are considering leaving behind a community for the unknown, do so with your eyes wide open and be prepared for the actual loss and consequences involved. It is imperative to have a strong, reliable community to contain you. Having explored an exodus in my past, I have seen its many facets firsthand.
Come speak to me first.