The recent Netflix series “Unorthodox” portrays a young Satmar woman, Esty Shapiro (Shira Haas), who decides to up and leave the Hasidic religious community in Brooklyn for a better, secular life in Berlin. Unsurprisingly, it displays the Satmar community, and especially her husband, Yaakov/Yanky (Amit Rahav), as rigid, patriarchal and hopeless. I found the series excruciatingly slow and painful, not unlike Esty’s first year of marital intimacy. As an Orthodox Jewish woman myself, I am writing to set the record straight for those unfamiliar with our community. “Unorthodox” is four hours of unabashed bashing of Orthodox Judaism. It takes practices that have profound spiritual meaning completely out of context, debasing a religion which has stood the test of time for thousands of years. (SPOILERS AHEAD)
The most glaring misrepresentation in the series is the always hot topic of family purity. This is something utterly misunderstood by anyone who doesn’t experience it firsthand. In “Unorthodox,” Yanky asks Esty if she went to the mikveh, is “clean” and therefore, permissible to him in the bedroom. “Clean” is not the correct term in English, Yiddish, or Hebrew. And it implies that if she had not gone to the mikveh, she would be dirty.
The mikveh is a small pool used for ritual immersion to spiritually cleanse an item or a person. Before we use new silverware, we immerse them in the mikveh. They are brand new from the store when we immerse them, so they are not dirty at all. In fact, they probably will never be as clean as when we immerse them in the mikveh. But, we immerse them in order to purify them before we use them. Another example is when someone converts to Judaism (not only Orthodox, but also in Conservative and Reform), he or she must immerse in a mikveh as part of the conversion process. The convert goes into the mikveh as a non-Jew and emerges a Jew. It only works to “cleanse” something in the spiritual realm but without this background information, a person watching “Unorthodox” would think Yanky was calling Esty dirty in the physical sense.
The mikveh is just one small part of the complex laws of family purity and “Unorthodox” chooses to highlight a tiny piece of Judaism out of context which of course seems bizarre to the uninformed outsider. In fact, the laws of family purity, such as the couple separating from each other for two weeks out of every month is one of the main reasons that divorce rates are so low in the Orthodox Jewish community. Distance makes the heart grow fonder, as they say.
On the Topic of Bizarre…
While I am not a Satmar myself, I have plenty of Hasidic friends and the number of bizarre facets of “Unorthodox” just annoyed me throughout the series. No one and I mean no one thinks eating pork will make her physically sick to her stomach. Also, no one thinks a smart phone can find a missing person by giving it that order. I mean, come on! Also, the interference of Yanky’s mother-in-law in their bedroom life is so abnormal. This does not happen in most religious families! It’s weird! All they left out was the hole in the sheet.
Also, the hair-shaving scene. Please. These Satmar girls know from a very young age that shaving their heads upon marriage is part of the package. I have a close friend who became religious in her teens with her husband and they chose to join a Hasific group. Her group is not Satmar but they also shave their heads. Since she wasn’t raised this way, she wasn’t prepared to do it for her wedding day. Guess what? Her husband was fine with that. After further consideration, however, she decided she wanted to go “all-in” so she went for it and shaved her head in anticipation of the wedding. Was it a major change? Yes, of course. Did it take time for her to adjust to having a shaved head? Yes. Was she crying hysterically as if someone was ripping off her fingernails? No.
Yes, she was pressured by her aunt and grandmother. But, at the end of the day, she agreed to go through with it and she knew all along it would involve shaving her head. I know for a fact there are plenty of Hasidic women out there who look forward to the day they will shave their head because it means they are getting married! This is the ultimate dream for many Orthodox Jewish girls. Yes, we want to build Jewish families and continue our beautiful traditions from thousands of years ago! Unlike Esty, the girls who are emotionally healthy, balanced, and stable actually welcome this momentous haircut.
No one forced Esty to go ahead with the marriage to Yanky. Therefore, I take issue with the term “arranged marriage” as used to describe how Orthodox couples are set up. Again, with a little background information, one naturally comes to appreciate the way Orthodox couples date, as opposed to other cultures in the world. The families of the young singles research each other. No, no one surreptitiously walks around the supermarket eyeing up the potential mate for her son. But people ask questions: What are his/her core personality strengths and weaknesses? How does the person spend his/her free time? What are some charity projects the person has been involved with? Do they like to travel? Are they the academic/intellectual type? How does the person handle anger? Give examples.
After this preliminary screening, the two sets of parents (or whoever is helping, in this case, Esty’s aunt and grandmother), choose whether or not the person sounds like a suitable mate. Then the couple meets, like in the series. This is a crucial step in the dating process and if, after meeting, the woman or man decides not to go through with it because of lack of chemistry or some other reason, usually the dating procedure stops. There is no forcing in a healthy family, even a Satmar one. Everyone wants the marriage to work out and it is not uncommon, especially these days, for women and men to date many potential partners in this manner before agreeing to go ahead to the wedding. Also, the couple meets more than once in real life. They don’t touch, as to preserve something special for married life so the dating process is short (sometimes as short as four meetings) to mainly check for chemistry between the two.
I also found Esty’s character to be bizarre in a general sense. The way she stares at people like she’s never seen women in pants or a musical concert are simply unrealistic. She lives in Brooklyn, not Mars! While the Satmar community likes to keep themselves insulated from outside cultural influences and societal mores, they still go to Manhattan to shop on Fifth Avenue like everyone else. There is nothing wrong with watching a musical performance and, in fact, musical concerts play a major role in many Jewish holidays and celebrations.
The worst part of the series has to be how it ends. Like, what now? Esty is pregnant, living in Berlin, sleeping on a floor mattress in her mother’s apartment with no cash, no job, and a ridiculous hope of joining a world-class conservatory with hardly any professional musical training. This is her happily ever after?
Yanky, in a last-ditch desperate attempt to reconcile cuts off his peyos, only for Esty to tell him it’s “too late.” Now that she’s been in Berlin for six whole days, she’s decided unilaterally that it’s too late to try to work out a solution where they can be a family? Only a week or two prior she was ecstatic to tell Yanky the good news that she was finally pregnant and now, it’s too late. Really? And, I suppose since Yanky has been raised by an overbearing mother who tells him what to do, now he should accept his wife’s determination as matter of fact?
In “The Making of Unorthodox,” the crew talks about their two visits to Williamsburg to get a better feel for the Satmar community. They were given a tour by a former Satmar member of a grocery store, apartment building, and other localities. I wonder if they learned about bikur cholim — the worldwide charity organization run by the Satmar community which provides free food and hospitality to hospital guests and visitors. No one mentioned this Satmar initative in “Unorthodox.”
I would like to know: does anyone from the crew ever speak to someone who enjoys being a Satmar Hasid? Ask any Satmar if she would like to sing in front of men and she would say unequivocally “no.” The fact that Esty “can’t” sing in public because it isn’t modest has its reasons, too, but of course “Unorthodox” just threw it out there to stir up more negative feelings toward this beautiful Jewish practice. In traditional Judaism, men and women are recognized as different. This is a revolutionary concept in today’s age.
Today, in Western society, everything has to be equal or it’s not fair. But the fact is that men and women were created with different physical traits and different spiritual traits. Many Jewish practices highlight this difference and allow each gender to achieve its potential not by copying the other, but by highlighting its own uniqueness. Women don’t sing in public. Women don’t learn the Talmud. We cover our hair and wear tights.
Men don’t light the Shabbos candles, bake the challah, or run the home. It’s what we do and it works for us. We’re happy and we’re fulfilled. If a person like Esty isn’t happy and fulfilled by living such a life, she is welcomed to leave. But, she should at least have the decency to do it before getting married and pregnant to avoid damaging the lives of her husband and child. Perhaps before they put all their energy into recreating streimlech, they should try to be fair to a community where most of its people might actually be happy card carrying members. Oh but that would take all the fun out of moviemaking.
One of the big ironies in this whole mess is that the Satmar people will never see “Unorthodox” because they don’t watch movies so they won’t be able to make a proper rebuttal.
The Jewish tradition has survived for thousands of years, resisting complete annihilation and assimilation due to our Torah-true lifestyle. Our heritage is so rich on so many levels and I hope all Jews can find their places within it where they feel truly fulfilled and satisfied.
Julie Joanes is an American attorney living in Israel with her husband and five children.