‘Unorthodox’ is a counterfeit $3 bill

Lots of reasons why I was eager to watch “Unorthodox” – the new Netflix series about a girl fleeing the Satmar community of Williamsburg. I identify as “Modern Orthodox,” but I represented Satmar’s Kiryas Joel in the Supreme Court and have appeared in court on behalf of other Hasidic communities and individuals. I loved “Shtisel,” the Israeli series depicting the “ultra-Orthodox” life-style. I arrived in America in 1941 as a 5-year-old refugee from Poland, and my father initially supported our family as a Yiddish columnist for the then-daily Orthodox Morgen-Journal. So I understand and speak Yiddish. And I have avidly read the believable first-hand accounts of those who have left the confines of devout Jewish religious life, even if I occasionally found them offensive and condescending.

Sequestered in our home because of (i) the invisible viral enemy, (ii) the dire warnings of doom to the “elderly,” and (iii) the mandates issued by children and grandchildren, my wife and I watched three episodes on Thursday – the first day they became available on Netflix – and a final fourth after the Sabbath (when it coincided with Turner Classic Movies’ showing of the always engaging “Fiddler on the Roof”).

“Unorthodox” is a major embarrassment. Like a three-dollar bill created by a master counterfeiting artisan, it first looks authentic, but it is quickly revealed as phony.

Put aside nitpicks like the captions that informed viewers that prayers were being recited in “Yiddish” when they were actually Hebrew, the inconsistent deference to tradition in uttering the divine name as “Adoshem” or “Adonai,” and the botched effort to portray a traditional Passover seder in a few hasty minutes. Much more disturbing was the false central theme of the film – that the Hasidic life-style drives away an independent spirit like the film’s protagonist only because she has unsatisfactory sex with her otherwise dedicated and kind husband and is unable to produce a baby in their first year of marriage. 

Let’s first address several non-ideological quibbles with the story-line of the film. Esty Shapiro is the young woman raised in, and almost never out of, the Satmar Williamsburg community. Her husband’s announcement that he wants to divorce her because she has not become pregnant drives her to flee to Berlin, where her mother (who has herself left the community years ago) has settled. Her mother gave her documentary evidence that she is of German stock, which entitles her to live in Germany. The film shows her giving these papers to a sympathetic lady who presumably secures the official approvals. Esty can now travel internationally and fly to Berlin.

Without Esty ever having to appear personally at a German consulate? Even if the German authorities would issue official documentation without the applicant’s physical presence and authentication, why go to this effort? Esty could easily get a US passport and enter Berlin as an American tourist. She could then arrange for permanent residence, with her mother’s personal help and the cache of documents. 

The film’s producers begin with a wicked dig at Orthodox observance. Esty’s flight to Berlin is apparently ticketed for Saturday, the Sabbath. To demonstrate an irrational peculiarity of Orthodox Jewish belief (not limited, however, to Hasidim or the “ultra-Orthodox”), the film begins with a shot of a torn wire. Halacha permits carrying on the Sabbath only if the public area has an “eiruv” – an unbroken physical circumference. Esty escapes her Satmar surroundings on Saturday but cannot carry a bag to the airport because the Williamsburg “eiruv” is ruptured and all who see her will wonder how she could violate religious prohibitions. (How quaint are these finicky legalistic minutiae that the Hasidim observe piously!) Was she planning, if the “eiruv” had not broken, to wheel a large suitcase through the Williamsburg street on the Sabbath? Could she not have asked her compliant conspirator to buy her a ticket to Berlin for a day other than Saturday?

In an interesting post-film discussion, the real Esty – Deborah Feldman, who wrote the book that inspired the film even though her real-life adventure was very different from the tale in the video — admitted that she initially made few friends in the world that had been foreign to her during her Hasidic upbringing. Esty bonds very quickly, however, with a cadre of international students at a Berlin music academy into which she stumbles. Even more incredible is the scene when her husband and a wayward colleague who have rushed to Berlin to find and carry her back actually discover her.  She is driven forcibly by the husband’s erratic friend to a playground to be lectured on Jewish survival at a site with Holocaust significance. She is then given a gun with which she may commit suicide if she chooses not to return to the fold.

Many movies I’ve seen have flawed narratives, and “Unorthodox” could be excused for these, even if it has more than its quota. But the series’ real sin is that it capitalizes on popular curiosity of what life is like in the Hasidic world by misrepresenting the true challenges that confront America’s “ultra-Orthodox” communities. “Unorthodox” caters to currently popular (and presumably profitable) conceits as substitutes for the reasons why some “leave the Derech” – escape Orthodox Jewish life.

Sex sells, so the scene in which Esty and her husband finally have relations that satisfy him (and presumably produce a fetus)  is graphically shown, as are the pregnancy  test she surreptitiously gives herself and the sex education she gets from a kosher instructor. There is little else of her year of married life other than occasional conversations with her husband and confrontations with her mother-in-law. 

Esty is not motivated to run away because her husband mistreats her, or even because she is intellectually curious about the outside world. There is no hint that she reads or has any interest in what goes on beyond the Satmar community, except that she likes music and covertly (with her husband’s consent) takes piano lessons. Those who have written why they fled from “ultra-Orthodox” communities have described the intellectual and emotional frustrations of the cloistered life-style. “Unorthodox” depicts none. 

Have sexual frustration and infertility been revealed as reasons for escape by any who have publicly explained why they found Jewish observance confining? To my knowledge, none of the published memoirs said so.  Those who view the “ultra-Orthodox” as relegating females to what an Israeli music-student in the film describes as “baby-producing machines” may be pleased by the message of “Unorthodox.” But it totally misrepresents Jewish tradition and ignorantly ascribes to Jewish observance no duty more lofty than procreation.

Could Esty’s calculating and callous Satmar mother-in-law have been unhappy – maybe mortified – by Esty’s apparent inability to become pregnant soon after marriage?  Possibly. Could she have instructed her son to divorce his wife on this account, as Esty’s nebbish husband tells her just as she is about to inform him that she is carrying their baby? Not without violating Jewish Law.

The Bible (Genesis 16:3) tells us that it took ten infertile years of marriage for Sarah to assign her maid Hagar to Abraham, and Ishmael was then born. On this basis, Jewish Law authorizes a husband to divorce his wife for infertility only if they are married for ten years with no children (Mishna, Yevamot 6:6). Jewish history and folklore have many accounts of couples that were childless after their marriage for long periods but who stayed together in loving relationships.

“Unorthodox” wants to have the American public believe that “ultra-Orthodox” Jews like the Satmar Hasidim prioritize procreation over all else, and the Estys in their world must run to Berlin to save themselves (if they don’t choose suicide). There are many ample subjects warranting introspection in Hasidic communities and problems that prompt some to escape, but what “Unorthodox” emphasizes is flagrantly false.

Enormous effort and expense went into making “Unorthodox” look authentic. Hasidic dress, including fur shtreimels, have been reproduced in extraordinary detail. Scenes of joyous separate-sex dancing at Esty’s wedding look genuine. The Yiddish spoken by the cast sounds real. But this is why the entire effort strikes me as comparable to counterfeiting a three-dollar bill – it is expertise in crafting a recognizably phony product.

Nathan Lewin is a Washington lawyer. 

About the Author
Nathan Lewin is a Washington, D.C., attorney who specializes in religious freedom cases before the US Supreme Court.
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