Given that “High Maintenance,” the HBO series about weed dealers and their regular clients situations is set in New York, it was only a matter of time before the show featured characters from the Ultra-Orthodox community. “Derech,” which premiered in February, concerns a reporter’s romantic interest in an ex-Chasid, but two common patterns differentiate it from the standard procedural involving Chasidim, which necessitates serious and unemotional black hatted men and modestly dressed women learning, observing Mitzvot, and solemnly talking negatively about secular matters. Perhaps inspired by the success of “One of Us,” the documentary detailing the lives of three Ex-Orthodox Jews who have left their communities, the episode captured the experience of leaving accurately. The principal ex-Chasid is Baruch, played by Luzer Twersky, who was also featured in “One Of Us.” Many scenes in the “High Maintenance” episode were also reminiscent of an audio story for Tablet’s Vox podcast featuring Twersky that was made by documentary filmmaker and producer Josh Gleason in 2010.
In one scene on “High Maintenance,” Baruch is seen scrolling through Craigslist looking for jobs that come up after searching “Jewish” and “Kosher.” For many Ex-Orthodox Jews cast out into a cold world without a safety net to support them, the job market is limited to their experience and expertise: Torah study and Kosher practice. Some ex-Orthodox men work gigs as Kashrut supervisors at restaurants and catering halls or as part of a Chevra Kadisha, taking care of the Jewish dead. What happens onscreen next is also painfully familiar. In improper English, Baruch asks a woman out via text. She immediately responds.
“Yes, it’s a date!”
It isn’t. As it turns out, Anja is a Vice reporter, feigning romantic interest in order to gain access to him for a story she’s writing about ex-Chasidim.
Baruch introduces Anja to his social circle. She hangs out with him and other OTD members for a story she’s writing, and winds up meeting almost a dozen Chasidim who have left or are living double lives. At the end of the episode, at the dance club House of Yes, Baruch realizes the betrayal when he sees Anja dancing with someone else.
This is the first time I’ve seen such an accurate portrayal of this familiar experience in which journalists curry favor with both Chasidim and ex-Chasidim, and use their subjects’ naiveté against them, with the only goal to produce a story about them.
The practice that “High Maintenance” critiques takes place across mediums, from newspapers to podcasts. Broadly speaking, there are two problems with this approach. Obviously, the first is the reporter’s dishonesty — showing interest only to gain entry to and take advantage of an insular community.
The other, more nuanced problem is one of consent and what that means when it pertains to the absence of knowledge. An OTD person might not understand how little power he or she might have in the editorial process. They might agree to be recorded, but won’t know what they’re getting themselves into. To some, it’s only a microphone and a conversation. They may not understand the concept of virality and what happens when one gains their fifteen megabytes of fame. A media person should inform the subject what he is agreeing to be a part of, to the best of her ability. But to what extent will the subject understand?
When I perform stories personal stories onstage, at many storytelling shows and spaces in New York, audience members would approach me after the show with questions about Curly Oxide, the Chasid turned rocker who became friends with a Vic Thrill, a singer and band leader. He was profiled on a This American Life episode in 2004. Listeners still remember him, 14 years later. A Chasid or ex-Chasid interview subject might not understand how his words will last forever. Curly Oxide became a symbol for something against his will, as both himself and a wider archetype of Chadism leaving their communities or testing the waters.
At the other end of the spectrum, the prospect of fame can be intoxicating. Money, wealth, and the priceless value of attention will lead people to say things that they will regret. No quote or Tweet will ever be forgotten. In 2018, everything is in the public record.
In late 2014, a podcast called” Love and Radio” recorded conversations between a woman and a Chasid who she had found on Craigslist in the “plutonic” section. It’s a rather lonely part of the internet, where users are just looking for friends. The 25 year old Chasidic man spoke improper English with a heavy accent as the media artist posed as his companion. He told her about his family, a wife and children. Throughout the numerous recorded conversations, his words displayed a lack of cultural awareness; he asked earnest questions about what college life is like and if it was in way similar to the pornographic content he watched on the internet. He didn’t know how to speak about such matters of sexuality, with all its etiquette and euphemism. It was clear from their dialogue that this 25 year old Chasid was spellbound by this woman’s attention, and curious about her life, asking questions about her experiences. Her work, her daily routine, the minutia of secular life. It was framed as a friendly conversation, where they would each talk about their experiences, such as dating and relationships. But she didn’t offer her own experiences, deflecting his questions with short and general answers. He was hungry to understand her life and her perspective. She kept baiting him with hints of her life, so that he would keep talking and give her great tape.
In the Love and Radio episode podcast, the reporter gave the Chasid an audio recorder to tape his life and what he witnessed. He put a lot at risk — if community members found it, they would have assumed the worse. Imagine being caught talking to a non-Jew.
At the end of the episode, the man and woman need to meet so he could return the recorder. But she waits in the car and sends her friend into his building to retrieve it. They never meet. There’s a sense of longing as he buzzes the friend in, his phone silent. In the end, he gets his heart broken. She gets a story.
The situation portrayed on “High Maintenance” is similar. Baruch sees Anja dancing with another man, far off in the club. In a closing scene, he’s choking in a convenience store. A stranger comes to his rescue, bringing him back to life. Sometimes outsiders, unlike reporters, come to the rescue.
It was gratifying to see such an honest treatment of dishonest reporting.