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Let’s talk about Unorthodox

The conversation on the Netflix series “Unorthodox” has been non-stop, even outside the Jewish community. Inside it, the discussion has been even more fiery, as the show is as controversial as it is popular; many take issue with the way it portrays the Jewish community, particularly its accuracies and inaccuracies regarding its portrayal of women and sexuality within the Hasidic community.

On Monday, April 27th, Forward editor-in-chief Jodi Rudoren moderated a panel discussion with Eli Rosen who plays Reb Yossele and was the production’s Yiddish translator and consultant; Abby Stein, activist, “Becoming Eve” author, and former Hasidic Rabbi; Alexa Karolinski, creator and writer of “Unorthodox”; Chavie Weisberger, Director of Community Engagement at Footsteps; and Rukhl Schaechter, Editor of The Yiddish Forward on the development of the show, its response and the realities of leaving the Hasidic community.

Alexa Karolinski opened by discussing the unexpectedly large response to the show, placing it in Netflix’s top ten list in countries as far-flung as Saudi Arabia. She also talked about her process developing the show from Deborah Feldman’s memoir and the choices the production team made to accurately portray the community.

Originally hired only as a consultant for the show — but managed to get cast as the rabbi later on in the process — Eli Rosen spoke about seeing negative, unnuanced depictions of his community while growing up in the Hasidic community in Brooklyn, and his desire to create a more accurate, complex portrayal.

The use of Yiddish in the show was essential to the show’s intimate, accurate feel, and Rukhl Schaechter detailed the accents and phrasing, as well as other set details, that made the show draw the audience into the Satmar world so seamlessly.

Not unlike Esti and her mother in the show, Chavie Weisberger left the Hasidic community with her children eight years ago and eventually came out as queer; she shared deeply about her own traumatic experience leaving the Hasidic community, and compared the similarities between Esti’s wedding night and her own. She also shared stories from those she’s worked with at Footsteps, an organization that supports formerly ultra-Orthodox Jews as they transition to life in the outside world.

The thread of sexuality was picked up by Abby Stein, who was raised as a man in an important Hasidic family, and discussed how she navigated and thought about gender identity while still inside the community, dreaming of a large family with many children. She also spoke to the frequent questions from the audience on sexuality in the show, and explained, in detail, how her Hasidic community’s pre-marital sex-ed failed couples through a lack of detail.

Questions from the audience largely concerned the portrayal of the Jewish community and the depiction of sexuality on the show, and the panelists shared deeply from their personal experiences in response. As the talk closed, one audience member observed that any show eliciting both such strong praise and such strong criticism must actually be quite well-balanced.

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