Todd L. Pittinsky
Todd L. Pittinsky

The real plotlines of ‘ex-Orthodox’ dramas

The entertainment industry has a sustained and growing fascination with discontents who (narrowly and often harrowingly) escape Orthodox Judaism so they can finally be “full people.” Some are wholesale fictional dramas, others are “based loosely” on memoirs, which themselves are works that use fictional techniques to tell “honest accounts” of real-world stories.

As Allison Joseph and others have rightly argued, every religious community has members who want out, due to some dysfunction in that community or in themselves. It’s odd, then, that a plotline that would work well for any religious community is applied almost exclusively to Orthodox Jews. Roughly 31 percent of the world is Christian and 25 percent is Muslim; Jews make up a mere 0.18 percent and Orthodox Jews are a very small minority of that already very small minority. So why are escapees from this tiny group getting such disproportionate attention?

What’s the real plot here?

There are two. First, this genre is emerging at a time of growing secular discomfort about the modern, secular life.  Fed up with rotten politics, evil algorithms, hypercompetitive kindergarten, and nonstop connectivity, a non-believer might wonder if some of the rich aspects of communal life — life in a truly “lived community” such as Orthodox Judaism — might be a an improvement.  This genre of escaping from Orthodox Judaism may be serving as a secular-friendly answer to that anxiety: “We’ve got our problems, but don’t worry, the grass isn’t any greener over there.”

Second, this genre is a new, progressive form of a very, very old “ism”, Orientalism, presenting Jews once again as exotic, as “other,” as the stranger now among us.

Every plot has to anchor its characters somewhere. Storytellers are motivated to tell stories. But storytellers aren’t the ones who decide what movies and shows get made. So when the same plot keeps emerging, it’s time to ask what’s the real story behind the story.

About the Author
Todd L. Pittinsky is a professor at Stony Brook University (SUNY) and a Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Holocaust Memorial & Tolerance Center of Nassau County. His most recent book is "Leaders Who Lust: Power, Money, Sex, Success, Legitimacy, Legacy" (with B. Kellerman, Cambridge University Press).
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