Where does one start with “Unorthodox?” With the fake shtreimels which would hardly satisfy a 9-year old Hasidic boy dressing up for Purim? With the grating accents one would struggle to place west of the Vistula, if not the Volga? The home furnishings that may have been the deal during the Weimar years or Eisenhower’s first term at the latest? Or maybe the dim light bulbs, or no light bulbs?
The title of the series is as good a place as any to begin. Not only is it what one first encounters but it is also the show’s main problem. As the protagonist Esty shows, becoming “Unorthodox” is not quite as easy as it sounds. You can stop practicing, you can hop into a car on Shabbos, run away to the other end of the world, swap your thick hosiery for figure-hugging jeans, discard your wig, flaunt your shaven head but still the “Un” won’t stick to the orthodox. Esty can’t stop telling whoever cares to listen how she was not educated and how she was prevented from studying music, but even when she does finally win an audition for which she is ill-suited, she cannot but help herself sing her chupah tune. For try as you may to cut yourself free from your orthodox roots, all too often you are left dangling like the snipped eruv cord that opens the series.
But this too is secondary. With a title like “Unorthodox,” we would have to assume that Esty was born or married into a more-or-less typical orthodox community and household. And, if we are to believe the series, that orthodoxy from which Esty un’s (my coinage) herself, is one where the Holocaust is still widely mourned, where a bevy of sisters-in-law are constantly prying into your sex life, where your mother-in-law gives you a visual pregnancy test each time she sets her eyes on you, where Hasidic Rebbes convene and chair family crisis meetings and where a Rebbe of this type, for whom survival is second nature, is tactless enough to ask a husband to unload about his vanished wife in front of the entire family.
Of the above, the visual pregnancy test might cut closest to the bone, but it still ignores that Orthodoxy spreads much wider than Hasidim and Hasidim are also far more varied than just Satmar, where Esty’s family evidently belongs. This, however, is not something the series troubles itself to explore or even acknowledge.
This is not merely a question of artistic license, nor is it a question of nit-picking about this particular Rebbe’s (misplaced) white socks or the wrong prayer said over ‘negel vasser’ (the bedside hand-rinsing ritual immediately upon awakening). It is also not to offer apologetics for the faults of these communities which can often be claustrophobic enough, nor is it a plea to present the “positive” side which is not a filmmaker’s job.
However, if you are going to show someone becoming unorthodox then it is important to tell — or show — what makes the community she has decided to leave tick. And if you are going to call a series “Unorthodox” and claim it to be “the first show ever to accurately portray the Hasidic community,” then we are entitled to hold it to that supposed accuracy, and we may expect a portrayal that at least chimes with the truth.
So where is the buzz and tumult of Hasidic communities and the frenetic activity that never ends? Be it Shabbos or Yom Tov and their preparations, in airports and on planes to simches and pilgrimages to the ever-growing list of far-flung rabbinical graves, the never-ending life-cycle events, the food that goes with it all, the industry with the many small and not-so-small businesses which feed and finance these large communities, not to mention the interminable squabbling that from time to time erupts into a conflagration. In real life, If the eruv was cut, you can bet one faction would have deliberately snipped it to spite their rivals. Yet in the series we never even see anyone in a shul, which is at the epicenter of Hasidic life and, as the current pandemic has shown, is almost impossible to keep Hasidim away from.
If the series is to be believed, all Hasidim have going for them is a phobia of daylight and bright bulbs and an obsession with little else but babies. This enforced drabness visible in the clothing, the home décor, the wedding — though the atmosphere miraculously brightens up the moment Hasidim are out of sight — is all the more surprising as there is little of it in Deborah Feldman’s book, “Unorthodox,” on which the series is based. There, the protagonist receives a sleek black handbag and Italian shoes as soon as she reaches marriageable age, no expense is spared for her trousseau and her groom is gifted a Baum et Mercier watch for his engagement.
By contrast, in the series Esty is made to look like a rabbi’s daughter from pre-war Transcarpathia and is certainly never seen in Burberry tweeds which are all the rage in Williamsburg. They give us the kids slumped during the after-midnight wedding mitzvah-tantz — all too real at weddings which regularly end closer to dawn than to midnight. But where were the elaborate floral arrangements on the bridal chair? Instead Esty is seated, more like plonked, on a plain unadorned chair, at a wedding that would embarrass even mechutonim for whom communal funds had been raised.
In the book the grandmother has a subversive streak smuggling secular books into the home and hiding them from her zealous husband and also spends much time in her steamed-up kitchen producing mouth-watering rugelach. Here, she has been reduced to an overweight, badly-dressed woman devoid of character with the accent of a Russian émigré.
It is no secret that there is plenty of poverty around, caused in large part by poor education and large families, though there is also plenty of visible wealth and even more so an aspirational and thriving middle-class who are as much at home in the virtual world as in the real world notwithstanding the educational handicap. No picture of the Hasidic world is complete without showing this ostentatious wealth and mass consumption rubbing along shoulder to shoulder with the grinding poverty.
Yet these communities retain most of their youth despite the poverty and also despite their, admittedly constrained, exposure to the wider world. These are not people stuck in a time warp oblivious to the world around them as the series would have us believe. This is a community that lives in visible distance of the world’s most pulsating city and breathing its air while maintaining an unwavering fealty to dynastic rabbinical overlords with names, attires and customs that originated in Eastern Europe of centuries ago and still remains relevant to large and growing communities in 2020. But you would not obtain any insight from the series as to why and how this is done. And then there is the sex. Oy vey the sex.
Though before we get there we do need some lessons, don’t we? So let us join the grandmother on the couch and listen in on the kallah classes (bridal lessons) as the teacher introduces our Esty to her “hole.”
Yes, you read that correctly and I’m afraid it is just downhill from there. Because if we are to believe the series, this is how Hasidic sex lessons are taught. A woman turns up at a grandma’s house to talk to a clueless girl who knows so little of her body that she must be sent to the WC mid-lesson (I kid you not) to check out her orifices. And we the viewers follow her into the toilet as she carries out her homework assignment. Sorry if that counts as a spoiler, but if anyone is spoiling anything it ain’t me.
Yet this supposedly clueless know-nothing is knowledgeable enough to ask about the abstinence during the menstruating days. And for that, the teacher has a ready-made pert answer pulled straight out of her elaborate headgear that virtually all the women don: absence makes the heart grow fonder. Oi Mamele.
It is not that such modern-day fanciful explanations are not given to ancient rules and customs, because they are. Rather, it is the manner that the series has chosen to present it which is as authentic as the bone-china cup and saucer the teacher is unlikely to be sipping from. So let me teach them a lesson. Kallah classes are held at the teacher’s home; no grandmother, or anyone else for that matter, gets to sit in; and any drink sipped by the teacher is more than likely to be from a polystyrene cup which is the receptacle of choice in many a Hasidic home.
Well, now with the lesson over, and Esty presumably having found what she was sent to discover, we can get down to the nitty gritty. And this is where things get complicated. Hardly to its credit, the film resists the hoary “hole-in-a-sheet” line so beloved of depictions of Hasidic sex of yesteryear, though Yanky’s ankle-long shirt which he never removes and which remains buttoned-up throughout is only marginally more satisfying. Far worse, however, is the lack of any intimacy between the couple in private. Not on the first night and not at any time later. No foreplay, no smooching and not even the slightest embrace.
For writing this piece, I consulted someone with knowledge of Hasidic marital tutoring and he conceded that, sex during daytime aside, the sex scenes are in fact not entirely uncommon. They also accord with the criticism voiced internally on the manner in which boys and girls are prepared for their big night. Whoever teaches these couples should be flogged and the filmmakers cannot be blamed for telling the story.
The overwhelming majority of Hasidic brides and grooms are teenagers who have had no previous romantic or sexual encounter whatsoever. Never mind a stolen kiss behind the proverbial bike shed, these kids have spent their entire childhood and teens in complete segregation; in very many cases they have never seen their parents embrace let alone kiss. They are persistently told how anything to do with their nether regions is filth and that even any thought of it is sinful. Yet on their marriage night they are expected to go all the way with a practical stranger to whom they have chatted for perhaps a total of two hours, with one hour of that often about a year earlier.
After such an upbringing, it is little wonder that when her turn comes around, Esty finds intercourse painful. What however is unforgivable and awful to watch is when they do finally manage a painful — for her — consummation, he then gets to revel in post-coital bliss while she writhes in agony. But then what is one to expect after such preparation? Here is a teenager or someone in his early twenties who has acquired a full time cook who rushes home from her job to prepare his meal, and a waitress who serves him loyally at the table, so why should he not also expect a personal procreator? And if a kitchen comes with kitchen hazards, the bedroom comes with bedroom hazards, and who is to tell these overgrown kids the qualitative difference between the two?
The Hasidic attitude towards sex can be garnered from the standard Hasidic euphemism for sex — “the mitzvah.” Sometimes the mitzvah is to consume large quantities of indigestible hand-baked matzos, at other times it requires you to shake a lulav, and occasionally it is to thrust your partner. Some matzos are tastier than others and similarly some mitzvahs are more desirable. However, from an objective point of view they are all one and the same, which is how we get to where we are. Because what these lessons, which resemble bar and bat mitzvah classes, do not account for, is that sex is driven by human impulses and is part of a loving relationship, and that human feelings are not as readily produced as Hanukkah candles.
To explain this procreational rather than recreational sex, the musty interiors and the apparent rear-facing viewpoint in a forward-looking world presented by the series, we are given the pat answer of the Holocaust. Where the old are still mourning their losses and the young are busy replenishing what was lost.
And for a counterpoint to that, we do not have a Hasidic voice, because, as the series would have us believe, such voices do not exist. Instead the voice is provided by Yael, an Israeli, in Berlin no less, who mocks Esty while ingratiating herself with a metrosexual clique of music school hipsters. It is she who must tell Esty that it is no big deal that her grandparent lost their parents in the Holocaust because “so did half of Israel.” She is also the one who bullyingly tells Esty that her piano playing is crap, which indeed it is.
So here’s some news for the producers. Probably four-fifths of New York’s Hasidic population also lost parents and grandparents, or survived, the Holocaust. But unlike Israel they do not bang on about it endlessly, do not even have a Holocaust memorial day, do not go on annual March-of-the-Living parades waving Israeli flags, and do not on the whole send their youths on death-camp tours. They also do not propose selfies at a Berlin memorial to murdered Jews, as the annoying Yael does. Nor do they lie back and think of Auschwitz.
But it gets worse. I have always thought that, as bad as it is, the worst thing about “The Merchant of Venice” is not the stereotype of an avaricious Shylock. The real offense lies in the play’s resolution. The play ends on a happy note when the characters find love with one another, including Shylock’s daughter Jessica. For her, happiness means converting to Christianity so she can walk off with her lover. Only Shylock departs alone having lost his child and his fortune.
This message that salvation is to be found only on the outside beats at the heart of the series. Bright, white apartments are only for the music teacher and Esty’s outcast lesbian mother, a beauty set against the mostly dowdy Williamsburg matrons. Music is taught either by a non-Jewish Brooklynite or in Berlin. The humanity of that Brooklyn music teacher is contrasted with Esty’s father harassing her for her rent. And while the Hasidic father takes his underage daughter along for his avaricious exploits, the music teacher responds with compassion by offering the young girl music lessons.
In Berlin, strangers are welcomed while in Williamsburg those who will not conform are cast out. You run away from Hasidim to Germans who give you refuge; their passport provides an entry ticket to the world. For Yanky , a trip to Europe is for grave hopping; for Esty Europe is where you discover yourself. Hasidim endow you with stifling hosiery and outdated clothes from which you strip not for sex but for ritual purity, while in Berlin you shed your clothes for a swim and you also shed your wig. In Williamsburg you clam up for sex while in Berlin the juices keep flowing.
And to cap it all, in a most offensive Jessica-like gesture, at the end Yanky snips off his peyos, his most prominent and visual religious and cultural symbol - and in Berlin of all places – as a desperate attempt to win Esty’s love. Because as far as the series is concerned, for the Unorthodox, only Berlin beckons.
David Herskovic is a lawyer living in Stamford Hill, London, Europe’s largest Hasidic community.