“Unorthodox” is a dangerous, misleading fairy tale of transitioning from the secular world
Before I left the Satmar Hasidic community in Kiryas Joel, I believed my journey would be similar to that of Esty in the Netflix miniseries “Unorthodox.”
Like Esty, who is immediately welcomed into a circle of diverse and good looking Berlin musicians, I’d be easily embraced into the secular social milieu. Like Esty, who gets a scholarship on the basis of her raw talent, I’d get special academic privileges because leaving the community with a child shows fortitude. And like Esty, who is taken out to lunch by a professor from a prestigious conservatory and enjoys a sexy fling in Germany, I thought people who were kind to me would be uncomplicated in their motives; surely, I reasoned, no old geezers or men on the prowl would take sexual advantage of my vulnerability.
Why did I believe this?
Obviously, I was very naïve. I did, after all, spend the first 25 years of my life in a sheltered world. But I also believed this because it was how secular media portrays it, and the secular story was the only version I had.
Imagine that you are a sheltered Hasidic woman with few contacts on the outside. Now imagine that you watch “Unorthodox” and see how much the world will appreciate you, largely because of your exotic backstory. Now imagine further that everywhere you go in your religious garb – your scarves and long, old-fashioned skirts and the little handbags and the stroller – you are told by outsiders that your story is amazing. This happens to everyone from the community that I know; outsiders make assumptions based on our religious clothing and then talk down to us as if we are children. Let’s say you are on the Metro North and an older couple sits next to you, and you get into a bit of a conversation. You tell them you were just shopping at Macy’s.
“My, you are so intelligent!” they’d say. “I’d never have imagined by the way you look…”
And even though the condescension comes through, let’s be honest, this kind of flattery would get to your head too. And so, you’d come to believe that you are special, and that when you leave you will be treated as such.
Another reason why I believed doors would open easily for me was because even in the Hasidic community, I was always told I was very creative. When I was a kindergartner, my teacher stopped the entire class to show them my artwork of some grapevines. How I glowed! It’s my first memory of many. My mother always went on to everyone that “My Freidy is so creative!” How I shone every time! I didn’t get many compliments – I was bad at prayer, at chores, at being nice and mature. But this one talent was mine, and I assumed it would carry into the secular world. I figured – I’m a very hard worker, I’m creative, I have a unique perspective. Surely the world will ensure that I can contribute!
Well… It’s been ten years since I left the Hasidic community. Ten years. It’s been a very hard ten years. I often felt like I was going under. I sometimes worked four jobs at once just to pay the bills. I’d Airbnb a spare room, tutor, work for an insurance firm and give walking tours of Hasidic Williamsburg. I was so exhausted that I felt I had burned through my creative spark and became a hollow shell.
I want to tell anyone who watches “Unorthodox,” Please don’t think that this is how the story goes. I lived it, I watched many others live it. This is not how leaving works.
For one, we ex-Hasidic women are very naïve in our interactions with men. And boy, do we learn how to navigate these interactions the hard way. In a realistic depiction, the professor who takes Esty out for a meal would probably expect sexual favors in return for his assistance. Many of us have learned the hard way that people who we thought truly were trying to help us were suddenly standing far too close, breathing down our newly-exposed collarbones and telling us in so many words that either we giggle and go along, or the favor-well and compliment-well and the friendship-well – all the good wells will dry up. And we will be left high and dry and more vulnerable than ever.
I can tell you that it took me many years to face these scenarios and even hear myself think, hear myself say, “This is not what I expected of this relationship.” And until then, I would stand there with a man and his ultimatum and a dark, wrenching confusion would rise up from within me. And because it didn’t make sense, I torturously suppressed it. The real ends of these stories are much darker than Esty’s.
Another thing that happens when we leave is that we stop looking “exotic.” This is a relief. We learn to hide the muffin top that spills out from jeans and to buy funky glasses and cut our hair very short or grow it very long, and we suddenly are perceived as normal. Hallelujah! The longer I have been out, the more I have forgotten that I’m different, and this new normal feels, well, normal. But that doesn’t change the reality that I left at 25 with sole caregiving responsibilities for a young child, and that I was about as advanced in my academic path as my 14-year-old son is today. (One could argue that my son now has more tools to make it in the secular world than I had when I left.) Part of the reason is because Hasidic education is inadequate. Part of it is that the secular world has so many layers of gatekeeping that it’s very hard to succeed without a head start.
And you know what? The same people who condescendingly told me how utterly brave I was didn’t want me to cut ahead of them for a scholarship or an opportunity that they worked their entire academic lives for. I understand them, but I also wish they would be more honest with themselves about how generous the outside world is to those from a different life.
I think outsiders tell themselves a fanciful story in which they – the secular people – are the heroes. Notice how in “Unorthodox,” everyone in Berlin is so kind, tolerant, open, forthcoming. This flattery is for the viewer. It tells the viewer, “Esty is a hero but more importantly, so are you.” I know from experience that many people will, on an individual level, feel for those who leave and mean well. But these individuals live and support a system that doesn’t empower people like Esty to succeed. No matter how kind an individual might be, if the scholarship system and the many levels of red tape make success unaffordable and inaccessible, then individual kindness loses its potency.
There is plenty of individual kindness in the Hasidic community. But there, like here, it is the system that makes the real difference. And here, like there, the system is unforgiving to the ex-Hasid.
Here is the irony (or perhaps hypocrisy) in this: In “Unorthodox,” Esty is given an incredible chance despite her very unpolished talent. The secular world has opened a door on the basis of her inexperience and challenging background alone. But “Unorthodox” was actually produced by a German TV crew with a largely Israeli cast. It took our story – the one story that might have helped us break through any doors – and used it for the ambitions of a team almost entirely comprised of outsiders.
I know that many of us from the community want to write, to act, to direct, or like Esty, to go into music. We have no contacts. For the few contacts we do have, we are vulnerable to being taken advantage of. And journalists, artists, writers consistently ask us for free labor so they can use our stories for their own ambitions. We give them our time and souls because we think it will open doors. But all it does is open doors for the journalist or the screenwriter who paid us in a few profuse thank you’s.
So the reality is that not only did “Unorthodox” not play out its own mythology; it did the opposite. Instead of opening doors, it’s a show made by people with no skin in the game who borrowed a story and moved on, with little regard for its effect on the ex-Hasidic or Hasidic individuals from whom it borrowed.
For me, 10 years has made me less naïve and more feisty. I learned that life after Hasidism won’t be like the fairytale but it can be other things. My life now has much more room for my assertiveness, my opinions, my full messy self. I learned that it’s okay to stand up for myself. I learned that it’s okay to not be so nice. Unlike Esty, who is forever indebted to all her Good Samaritans and naively takes all the favors, I have a handful of loyal friends. And the rest of the time, I stand up for myself.
My life outside has been very hard. It shouldn’t be this way. I hope that those after me can have an easier time. But I have also enjoyed an unexpected delight: I get to be complicated, opinionated, rough around the edges. I get to be a much more realized woman than the version in which I am indebted to everyone around me. And for this, all my struggles have been worth it.
Frieda Vizel grew up in the Hasidic community of Kiryas Joel and left the sect with her son. She is now a tour guide of Hasidic Williamsburg walking tours. Her website is friedavizel.com