The four-part Netflix series ‘Unorthodox’ is the latest in a growing mini-industry of books and television programs depicting the inner working of the Hasidic community to an apparently vast market of fascinated observers. It has justly been praised for the attention to detail paid in accurately depicting clothes, haircuts, furniture, Hebrew accents and, in a particularly ground-breaking move, the Yiddish language. Not every detail is perfect, but I – a Hasid born and raised – was genuinely impressed by details like the plastic-covered rococo chairs, the foil-plastered Pesach kitchen, and the size of the Rebbe’s gartel that accurately conjured up my world. There is no doubt that the producers spared no labor in trying to make their depiction visually realistic. When the depiction veers from reality, therefore, it is reasonable to infer that something more than mere error is at work, especially when pulling at this loose thread unravels one of the major themes of the series.
On multiple occasions, the main character, Esty, and her hapless but well-meaning husband, Yanky, are depicted attempting to consummate their marriage. This culminates in a truly grimace-inducing scene in which he, after berating her about her duty to procreate, “successfully” completes the conjugal act while she is visibly in agony. In every single one of these scenes both partners are fully dressed, in Yanky’s case replete with tzitzit. I doubt this oddity would have escaped the notice of anyone watching, but, just in case, the show emphasizes the point, depicting Yanky carefully buttoning up his shirt post-shower before moving to the marital bed. Juxtaposed against this, when Esty later finds sexual liberation in the arms of a smoldering but friendly musician, she furiously kisses him, expecting to leap into action, but he pauses to undress her, to which she responds with evident but delighted surprise, discovering for the first time both that intimacy can be fun and that bare skin has something to do with it.
There’s only one problem with this theme: it’s not remotely true. Hasidim, be they Satmar or anyone else, do not have a custom of doing it with their clothes on. As it happens, Hasidic theology frowns on the practice based on a mystical interpretation of the biblical verse, they shall be of one flesh, something it has in common with other streams of Orthodox Judaism. So why did a team that put so much effort into getting every tiny detail right put the same degree of effort into getting this detail wrong?
The answer is that the clothes are a motif used to convey a wider theme of the series, namely portraying the Hasidic community as sexually aberrant. Esty suffers from Vaginismus, a serious medical condition that affects around 0.5% of all women with frequently disastrous results for their ability to maintain successful relationships. Esty’s case is particularly severe since after “nearly a year” of trying, their marriage remained unconsummated. During these miserable months, Esty’s mother-in-law and kallah teacher provide her with some medical home remedies, but to no avail. However, only minutes after entering her young musician’s bedroom, everything is solved. No fuss, no muss; all it took was a little romance.
Why then, according to this dystopian tale, did Yanky, in nearly a year of misery and frustration, not take the elementary step of kissing his wife? Apparently, it had never occurred to him to act like an ordinary husband and no one had thought to suggest it. We find Yanky in a Berlin brothel (don’t ask), questioning a German prostitute about what women want from a man and being surprised to learn that they like having their faces touched. A few scenes later, he is watching TV in his hotel room, observing a seduction scene with curious fascination, further underscoring the message that after a year of marriage he is learning for the first time how men and women kiss. How unfortunate for him that he is a member of a cult devoted to producing babies to “make up for the Holocaust” that perversely insists that this furious procreation be done without any sensitivity, tenderness, or human emotion.
I think at this point I have said enough; it brings me no joy to discuss this topic in such detail, and not a little discomfort. I know, though, how ordinary Hasidim feel mortified that outsiders might think we conduct our married lives in such an inhuman way. This portrayal of the sex lives of Hasidim is not accurate, it is not even close to accurate. It is a hateful libel of a community as a real-life “Handmaid’s Tale,” imposing unimaginable and completely avoidable misery on women in its morbid obsession with self-replication that turns even the miracle of childbirth into a sort of death.
From where, then, did the show’s creators, Anna Winger and Alexa Karolinski draw their surreal vision of the Hasidic world as a system based upon the twisted denial of ordinary marital intimacy? We don’t have to speculate too much because they tell us themselves. “Unorthodox” is based on a memoir of the same name by Deborah Feldman, who approached the Berlin filmmaking duo with the idea of turning her life story into a miniseries. As Frieda Vizel has pointed out, Winger and Karolinski did not demonstrate much interest in learning from others in the so-called “Off-the Derech” community choosing instead to lean almost solely on Feldman’s testimony. While they freely admit that the story after Esty’s escape to Berlin is mostly fictional, they insist that the Williamsburg narrative is true to the book and thus Feldman’s lived experience.
Deborah Feldman, however, is well-known for spending the past decade weaving a gruesome tapestry depicting a sick and dysfunctional world, summed up in this quote from a 2016 interview:
In order to control the women, they have this intense fear, I think, of the female body, and female sexuality, and so they turn this into the source of evil, they turn this into the big threat. And women are told that their bodies are very dirty and very shameful and that their sexuality is inherently evil and that they have to work their whole life just to compensate, themselves and the people around them, for the evil they represent and for the threat that they pose. And you grow up and you learn that the body is disgusting, that you are disgusting because you are somehow connected to your body…
This is, quite simply, a description of evil. If it was true, then the Hasidic community would deserve to be forcibly disbanded with all the ferocity once directed at it by the Soviet Union, but it isn’t true, it’s a warped fantasy. Some of the claims Feldman has made are so lurid and obscene that they recall allegations made by medieval converts like Johannes Pfefferkorn to a public equally eager to hear stories of the ghastly and grotesque. Such stories tell us little about the Satmar community, but a great deal about the dark recesses of Feldman’s imagination, or, at least, what she thinks her audience wants to hear.
Indeed, in its mania to depict the Satmar community as sick and twisted, “Unorthodox” actually forfeits the opportunity to make accurate criticisms. It is, indeed, very difficult to leave the Hasidic world, not just because of the benefits that you lose, but because of the gap you will typically start with in terms of skills, education, and simple ability to communicate normally with outsiders. In “Unorthodox,” however, everyone speaks pitch-perfect English whenever they need to and Esty casually strikes up conversations with a perfect stranger of the opposite sex in a coffee shop. The real mechanics that keep people inside the community, happily or otherwise, are replaced with pure mental terrorism. All Esty has to do to start a new life is free her mind; after that, it’s easy peasy.
Other overlooked topics include the adversarial relationships that Satmar, in particular, cultivates with both gentiles and Jews of different stripes, as well as the way the Hasidic community has lagged behind others in combatting child abuse. All of this is completely ignored in favour of conjuring up utterly crazy scenes designed to depict a manically evil cult, such as the one in which Yanky’s thuggish cousin, Moishy, sent on a mission by the “Rebbe.” hands the pregnant Esty a gun and encourages her to perform a double termination.
Overall, “Unorthodox” is just another ambitious television project that doesn’t quite come off. The plot development is so rushed that one minute Yanky and Moishy are davening at graves, the next they are in a brothel. The scene in which Esty discovers search engines and is surprised that her inquiry as to whether G-d exists doesn’t return a single answer is just the most obvious example in a string of clunky and heavy-handed symbolic sequences that persistently interrupt the narrative. The over-the-top obsession with the supposed ‘paradox’ of Jews living in Berlin is just bizarre. But “Unorthodox,” is more sinister than this. Its power, such as it is, rests entirely on the illusion that it gives you genuine access to a world normally closed to outsiders. It does not merely claim to be an individual story set in the 21st century ‘period-dress’ of Williamsburg, but rather bills itself as the “first realistic portrayal” of Hasidic life, while presenting a horrifying portrait that does not even rise to the level of a caricature.
Whenever you truly want to dehumanize a group of people, the first and last resort is to characterize their sex lives as foul and disgusting. Because of the great emphasis on modesty in the Hasidic world, it is uniquely hard for us to challenge such claims. There is, however, already ample and easily available evidence that much of Deborah Feldman’s depiction of Hasidic life is fictional, much of it coming from friends in the ex-Hasidic community. Anna Winger and Alexa Karolinski have chosen to act as willing dupes for a woman whose twisted fabrications are now beamed into the homes of anyone with a Netflix subscription.
I firmly believe that criticism and scrutiny of the Hasidic community is an important tool for curbing our excesses and fining off our rough edges, but the superficial realism acts of “Unorthodox” as a vehicle for a salacious, voyeuristic libel that I am duty bound to call out. I do not need to mount a defense of the Hasidic world or its way of life to argue that it does not deserve this kind of treatment: no one does.
Eli Spitzer is a school principal and a member of the Hasidic community in Stamford Hill, London. He blogs at elispitzer.com