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Think the sex in ‘Unorthodox’ was inaccurate? Check your male privilege

Eli Spitzer’s article “No, the way sex is portrayed in “Unorthodox” is not accurate — it’s a hateful libel” serves as both title and introduction to the screed leveled against the film-makers of “Unorthodox,” the four-episode Netflix series based in part on the memoir of the same name by Deborah Feldman. Feldman is a woman who left the Williamsburg, Brooklyn ultra-Orthodox Hasidic Satmar community of her birth, with her son, in her early twenties, and the character Esty in the Neflix series was conceived by her and the filmmakers who are her friends.

The unabashedness of Spitzer’s response to the series confuses the act of responding to it, first, because one wonders why it was published in The Forward in the first place. It is clearly not a review, and it appears to challenge the legitimacy of departure from strict replication of reality in a work of literary or cinematic art. Related, in its arrogant assertions about the story of the young woman at its center, as opposed to the spacious inquiry “Unorthodox” so clearly invites, it confirms the prevalent assumptions that non-Orthodox Jews like myself hold about the suffocating control exerted by the Hasidic community over the minds of its members, particularly its female members.

At no point would a reader of Spitzer’s diatribe who had not viewed “Unorthodox” suspect that the plot of the series is propelled by its female protagonist’s well-earned feelings of not belonging in Williamsburg’s Satmar Hasidic community. Taught only contempt for her lesbian mother who escaped the community, ignored by her drunken and mentally ill father, continually patronized and ridiculed by her aunt, and comforted only ambivalently by the perpetually grieving grandmother who raises her, Esty can express certainty about only the reality that she is different. Indeed, “Unorthodox” is particularly successful in conveying how Esty comes by this view of herself in this Hasidic community where women have no choice but their graduation from appearance of loyal daughter to appearance of loyal wife and mother. It is in this context that Esty projects an anguished hopefulness about marrying Yanky, who has stated in their one brief pre-marital meeting that “difference is good.” Yet once married, she faces a year of pain and humiliation, followed by Yanky’s stated intention, under his mother’s powerful coaching, to divorce her a moment after she learns that she is pregnant.

Spitzer’s apparent lack of interest in these aspects of how “Unorthodox” seeks to illuminate the hearts and minds of its characters further confirms the perception of non-Orthodox Jews like myself that the Hasidic community is fundamentally constructed by the demand to maintain appearances. Indeed Spitzer’s central claim — that the filmmakers betray their “hateful” intention to portray the Hasidic community as sexually aberrant by clothing Esty and Yanky in nightgown and pajamas as they attempt sexual intercourse — lends a comic quality to this obsession with appearances. The comedy is only amplified when Spitzer offers religious text to substantiate his insistence that the filmmakers had to know that Hasids don’t do it with their clothes on. His contention that “Hasidic theology frowns on the practice of [also in Spitzer’s words, ‘doing it with their clothes on’] is based on a mystical interpretation of the biblical verse, thou shall be of one flesh.”

Spitzer appears out-of-touch with the more obvious intimations of sexual aberrance in the marital relationship of Esty and Yanky, which discredits him as a social, literary, or cinematic critic. When he writes, “it brings me no joy to discuss this topic in such detail, and not a little discomfort,” I doubt his honesty. I am suspicious that his protest of discomfort is an effort to deny the reality that much of his joy does, in fact, come from interpreting the experience of women without consultation with them, and, related, from living the illusion that his privileged relationship with a patriarchal God makes his own interpretations true. This complex of illusions is precisely the nature of patriarchal power and its toxicity.

Yet, as a feminist Jew, what complicates and softens my anger about patriarchal power is my grief for the actual individual men in whom it is implanted, often without their cooperation. Indeed, Spitzer overlooks some of the most poignant moments in “Unorthodox” — including Yanky’s too-little-too-late awakening to the subjective awareness that makes it possible to love Esty in all of her human complexity. Spitzer substitutes a medical diagnosis of her disqualifying abnormality for the missing reflection on how his Hasidic community has tragically compromised Yanky’s ability to love his wife. “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,” Spitzer writes.

His choice to present only the most rigidly medical explanation of a condition more typically interpreted as being influenced by a woman’s feelings of unsafety and fear, confirms the apparent denial of human subjectivity in Spitzer’s ultraorthodox cosmology. This apparent denial in turn confirms for non-Orthodox Jews that there is something inhumane about a practice in which rules and appearance are more highly valued than the ongoing inquiry about what it means to be human which has famously preoccupied Jewish thinkers and scholars historically.

Interestingly, it is when Spitzer entertains what he sees as the legitimate criticisms of the current state of Hasidism that I am most aware of my perception of his arrogance as a dangerous force in the world. Spitzer charges that “in its mania to depict the Satmar community as sick and twisted, ‘Unorthodox’ actually forfeits the opportunity to make accurate criticisms.”

Here he includes as an “overlooked topic” of “Unorthodox” “the way the Hasidic community has lagged behind others in combatting child abuse.” The next call for “criticism and scrutiny” of the Hasidic community appears in the last paragraph of the review when Spitzer defines such “criticism and scrutiny” as “an important tool for curbing our excesses and fining off our rough edges.”

One must wonder whether in Spitzer’s cosmology child sexual abuse constitutes an “excess” or a “rough edge” of Hasidic communal practices. Painfully, it is here that he actually suggests that sexual abuse has some relationship to these practices. I don’t think it requires any degree of contemporary feminist consciousness to wonder, in this context, at the apparent normalcy for the community portrayed in “Unorthodox” of the hapless husband Yanky’s daily reporting to his mother of his progress towards “finishing” the act of sexual intercourse with Esty.

In this, and other troubling contexts of ordinary social life presented in “Unorthodox,” Spitzer never contests the lack of what non-Haredi readers consider healthy developmental psychosexual boundaries. Mothers joke sarcastically about their luck in avoiding Shabbat dinner with their mother-in-laws in front of their young children. The prospective marriage partner, Esty, for her son, Yanky, is obligated to position her body to be “secretly” assessed by her future mother-in-law. Her drunken husband’s abuse of Esty’s mother, Leah Mandelbaum, is tolerated, and Leah’s self-preserving escape to Berlin is declared by the rebbe to be disgraceful abandonment. The act of the legal arm of the community in tearing Esty from the loving mother to whom she had bonded is non-problematic in this holy community, whose trope is the preciousness of children. Esty is repeatedly asked with not a trace of compassion, “What’s wrong with you?” Nobody, except her beloved grandmother, Babby, ever offers Esty what is commonly considered empathy until Yanky’s brief awakening when he has already lost her.

Last, when a Hasidic-authorized kallah teacher is sent to Esty to address the pain she experiences during Yanky’s attempts at intercourse and, in this context, to instruct her in “how to be a good wife,” she presents to Esty her obligation to submit to intercourse in strictly economic terms: Suffer the pain of intercourse as the way to get leverage in marriage: “Your babies are your leverage.” It is thus an ultimate insider who presents sexual relations as characterized by the “hateful” untruth for which Spitzer excoriates the producers of “Unorthodox”—-the presentation that in Hasidic marriage sexual relations can be “done without any sensitivity, tenderness, or human emotions.”

As an ambivalent, yet affiliated feminist Reform Jew happily married for thirty-eight years to a Jewish man who shares my own struggle with the patriarchal origins of Judaism, my interest in the sexual relations of Hasidic women does not emerge from the salacious fascination Spitzer ascribes to the viewers of “Unorthodox.” It is rather, part of a life-long educational philosopher’s inquiry, which I also take personally, about the relationship between patriarchy and subjectivity. I am always hoping to come to a better understanding of how the patriarchal power of Judaism, so determining of the lives of Haredi women, has influenced me as a critically educated female Jew who understands her own allegiance to Judaism as non-rational.

For Jews of my description, efforts to make peace with the contradiction between the patriarchal nature of the Jewish religion, including the rationalizing of imperialism in the Torah, with what we deem life-loving, socially progressive values has become our Judaism. From the time I could read, I was raised on the aphorisms of the Talmudic tractate “Pirkei Avot,” and the pro-socialist letters in the Bintel Brief, collected from the early twentieth century iteration of this very publication, The Jewish Daily Forward. As a child, my embrace of Judaism was characterized by a certain joy in mastering the pronunciation of modern Sephardic Hebrew as well as the agony of reviewing continually in my head the skeletal children in the first picture book about the Holocaust to which I was exposed.

The Conservative temple of my childhood and adolescence in Philadelphia was that of the charming Rabbi Sidney Greenberg, for whom my mother projected a kind of unwavering delight. This delight was rarely reflected in her necessarily more complicated reception of my father’s words and behavior. Yet it was her reception of Rabbi Greenberg, as expressed on her face, and even in the way she held her body when reflecting on his socially liberal sermons, that created the image in my very young mind of the glowing reception my own anticipated future husband would invite.

I remember clearly that as a teenager in a Hebrew class at Gratz College, love of text for its capacity to illuminate the joys and challenges of being alive was explicitly modeled in a compelling examination of Bereishit led by a gifted and attractive male teacher. From quite early on, my happiness was tied with the capacity to engage in the critical inquiry that has shaped my professional life.

Among the targets of “criticism and scrutiny” of Hasidic life that Spitzer claims to welcome are the factors that would make it exceedingly difficult to leave the Hasidic community. He even puts himself in the position of someone who might consider leaving and points out that what would stop you is, “…the gap you will typically start with in terms of skills, education, and simple ability to communicate with outsiders.” He even uses this recognition to express doubt about the portrayal in “Unorthodox” of Esty’s early ability to approach strangers after her arrival in Germany.

Yet Spitzer himself, with his popular blog and enough credibility to have his writing published in The Forward, is the beneficiary of a degree of worldly knowledge denied the overwhelming majority of Haredi people, yet not enough of it to have developed sensitivity to the subjectivity of a human being, and related, not enough to appreciate the complex relationship between art and reality.

In writing this review I believe I have made a bit more progress in my life-long inquiry about my complicated relationship with patriarchy. Yet this writing project has brought no further clarity about what aspects of my Jewishness I share with the ultra-Orthodox, who claim certainty that their lives are directed by the God of ancient and medieval Jewish texts. For me this raises the question about the relationship between a community’s willful removal of access to increasing levels of worldly knowledge and any certainty about God’s intentions for humanity.

Barbara Regenspan is Emerita Professor of Educational Studies at Colgate University.


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