Unorthodox by the Forward

Your questions about “Unorthodox” and leaving Hasidic communities, answered

More than 2,000 of you joined our virtual conversation last week titled “Unorthodox: Reality vs. Fiction.” Alexa Karolinski, one of the creators of the blockbuster Netflix hit, was joined by our Yiddish editor, Rukhl Schaechter, and three people who, like the four-part series’ title character, Esty, had left Haredi communities: Chavie Weisberger of Footsteps, a group that helps people make that transition; Rabbi Abby Stein, the author of “Becoming Eve;” and Eli Rosen, who acts in “Unorthodox” and also served as a consultant on the show.

It was a fantastic conversation, including much discussion about whether and how Hasidic Jews have sex with clothes on click here to watch the video). But there were many — many! — more questions from participants than we had time to answer.

Karolinski, a German-born filmmaker whose prior work includes the documentaries “Oma & Bella” and “Lebenszeichen” (Signs of Life), and Weisberger, who is the director of community engagement at Footsteps, were kind enough to answer a bunch more of them here.

Is it good for the Jews?

I worry that the show sets up a stark good (secular friends, life in Berlin) and bad (religious Jewish community). Might this permit anti-Semitism among audiences? I worry it could in the absence of a depiction of other, more compassionate/open Jewish community.
— Anonymous

Karolinski: Anti-Semitism is rarely the consequence of entertainment made by Jews. In fact there is a history of Jews blaming other Jews for anti-Semitism and it is wrong and factually incorrect. Also, most of my non-Jewish friends love Yanky and Moishe and see that they too are victims of where they come from.

Esty is incredible!

Shira Haas is absolutely stunning in this; did you always want her for the role? Did you find her through “Shtisel” or her powerful performance in “The Zookeeper’s Wife”?
— Esther Kustanowitz

The actress who plays Esty is extraordinary; her facial expressions deeply evocative and real. But her body type is so childlike and unique, and her walk suggests a physical impediment, which makes me wonder if you can share discussions that took place during the casting process about the impact of her particular physical presence.
— Letty Cottin Pogrebin

Karolinski: We found her through our incredible Israeli Casting director Esther Kling. She killed it in the audition tape which is why we flew to Tel Aviv to meet her.

Shira’s incredible ability to act and seem young and childlike as well as mature wise is one of the many reasons we wanted her to play Esty.

How does all this play out in real life?

Chavie, has the legal system been more supportive of the women leaving in terms of having access and custody to their children?
— Juliet Gerstenfeld

Weisberger: Sadly, no. There is a lot that the courts don’t understand about people who leave ultra-Orthodoxy regardless of their gender, and judges tend to err on the side of maintaining the status quo for the children by keeping them with the parent who remains in the community. Learn more here.

Given the Pollyanish outcome of Esty’s rejection of her Hasidic community (Really!! A spot in a competitive conservatory?), can you provide a more accurate sense of how successful these transitions are in terms of fulfilling alternative lifestyles.
— Robert Marx

Weisberger: Quite frankly, I don’t see the outcome of Esty’s story as Pollyannish! She lost her close relationship with her grandmother, she had to start over in a completely new country, and she will never catch up on the years of having a limited and damaging childhood. It’ll take her years to process the trauma from her sex life with her husband, and to undo some of the harmful messages she was taught about her role as a woman and her relationship with her body.

Every journey is unique, and it’s impossible to sum up a lifelong quest for truth in a four-part series. Based on my own experience and in watching those of my fellow Footsteps members, there is definitely hope for a rich and fulfilling life outside of ultra-Orthodoxy. The price of leaving is high, but there are many people who make it to the other side intact. Lots of our members have incredible stories to tell about getting into a college program, finding joy in their chosen career paths, finding love, and rebuilding their lives.

Thoughts on why more men leave than women?
—Leanna Wolfe

Weisberger: Men in the community have more opportunity to leave the house than women do. Men are expected to attend prayers three times a day, and often have jobs and other roles outside of the home. This gives them the opportunity to slip away to the library, to clandestinely meet up with others who are questioning, and to find answers to the questions that might come up for them.

Women, on the other hand, are left home to care for the children, cooking and running the home. They therefore have less opportunity to explore life on the outside.

Do people who leave remain observant?
—Norma Bernstock

Do many people who leave the Hasidic community remain observant?
—Jane Dody

Weisberger: I want to answer this question thoughtfully and with nuance. This is the question I am asked most often when I speak about my personal journey to freedom, and I tend to have a strong reaction to it, which I want to process with you, dear reader.

For me, an observant life meant subservience to men, an arranged marriage when I was too young, and lack of choice in every area that matters. I paid a tremendous price to leave. It’s the most painful thing I’ve had to do, and I’m still struggling with the horrific consequences of my choices. When I share my story of breaking free to live a life of my choosing, I want to be celebrated no matter where those choices take me. I hate being judged because I didn’t choose a different strand of observant Judaism, or because I am not living by someone else’s idea of what my outcome should have looked like.

Which brings me to your original question, Norma and Jane: Yes, some people who leave remain observant, some find other forms of faith, some find that lack of observance gives them what they were seeking when they left. What I hope you take away from this is that wherever our choices take us, the fact that we get to make those choices for ourselves is what should be celebrated!

Do those who leave more often leave the country or do most stay in North America?
— Cheryl Libman

Weisberger: While every story is different, most people stay somewhat close in proximity to their communities of origin. There are often ties to the community that remain even once someone leaves, with the most likely connection being child-custody arrangements. To pick up and move across the globe, like Esty does, is quite rare.

Are people leaving mostly from the U.S.? What is the percentage in other countries, which countries?
—Linda Kessler

Weisberger: People leave their insular ultra-Orthodox communities all over the globe — wherever there are ultra-Orthodox communities, there are also those who have left those communities. I know about established communities of formerly ultra-Orthodox people in the United States, Canada, England, Israel, and Antwerp, Belgium; they likely exist informally in other places as well.

Do other religions have similar situations?

Is there a parallel between the Unorthodox movement and those who have left other fundamentalist communities like the Amish and LDS? Has there been any collaboration between them?
—Ruth Goldstein

I wonder if folks could comment on parallels with ultra-Orthodox Judaism and other highly conservative or ‘extreme’ (for lack of a better term) religions. There are common threads including distrust of science, unaccepting of homosexuality, restricting women’s rights and suppressing critical thinking/intellectual curiosity.
—Anonymous

Weisberger: There are certainly shared experiences between people who have left their insular communities of origin. In the past, Footsteps has collaborated with a variety of organizations who serve former Muslims, former Amish, and former evangelical Christians, as well.

Let’s get back to the show

I am interested in the decision to make the only non-Satmar Jew in the series be an Israeli Jew? There are so many different types of Jews in the world. Was there ever a thought to include a reform or conservative American or European Jew?
—Anonymous

Karolinski: We actually did! Vivian Dropkin, her piano teacher is actually Jewish, but Esty’s family calls her a “shikse,” because they don’t believe that a Jew like her would be Jewish in their definition. We never explicitly make this a theme, but It’s why we gave her that surname, which Moishe says out loud in their scene together.

Hi, about the use of the gun in the show: I read an interview with Deborah Feldman saying she did get letters from family urging her to kill herself/suicide! Is that why the gun was used in the story, to reflect the threats?
—Jane Gorb

What’s the significance of the gun? Do such things happen in the community? Was Estie expected to take her life?
—Luis Landau

Karolinski: Yes, it was suggested to her. And it was suggested to Deborah Feldman when she left.

Weisberger: The gun is symbolic

‘Neither is a monolith’

What do you hope audiences (especially non-observant or non-Jewish ones) will learn about Jewish or Hasidic life from their viewing of Unorthodox?
— Esther Kustanowitz

Karolinski: That neither is a monolith. That there is not one kind of Jew or Jewish life and that we, like every other community, are flawed. And that people yearn for something else and deserve it.

I found the series worthwhile, but I wonder why it was sensationalized: Does Moshe really have to bring Yanky to a brothel? Does Esty’s mother need to be a lesbian? To me, it takes away from the narrative.
— Jeremy Frank

Karolinski: These are all parts of the narrative.

‘Every family is different’

Do typical “drop-outs” of the Hasidic community lose their family relationships, or are there family reconciliations over time?
—Jerry Katzoff

Weisberger: The short answer is that every family is different and every relationship is different. I have seen OTD folks find ways to maintain meaningful relationships with their ultra-Orthodox families, but more often relationships are strained, and many times non-existent.

An overshare: I grew up as the fifth child in a family of 10. Our home was full of love and warmth and all the things that make a Hasidic childhood appealing. Big Shabbos meals with lots of guests and joyful singing, delicious home-cooked food, lots of siblings to kibitz around with — I was happy and I loved my family.

It was only after my arranged marriage, and taking distance from the cocoon of childhood, that I started questioning my faith, my values, and whether this was the life I wanted for my children. When I made the decision to pursue a different life, I was shown a whole new face of my family and community. Close relatives who I loved turned their backs on us, sent menacing letters, testified lies against me in court and showed me an ugly side that I can never unsee. I can’t have a healthy relationship with them even if I was willing to forgive the horrific pain they caused and continue to cause us.

What role art?

Some of the stories we’ve seen about the ultra-Orthodox community (from “My Name is Asher Lev” and “A Price Above Rubies” through “Shtisel” and “Unorthodox”) feature some type of art as the “corrupting”/”mind-expanding” influence. Do you think that if the ultra-Orthodox provided more access to culture (music, art, song/voice) perhaps within some of the limits of halacha, fewer people would want to leave?
— Esther Kustanowitz

Karolinski: I think you just answered your own question :)

Weisberger: Most of the stringencies within ultra orthodoxy have little to do with halacha. They are “safeguards” to keep folks within the framework of this closed lifestyle. Access to creativity, art, music etc. creates an opening to connect with the larger world which is the antithesis of what leaders in the community are trying to achieve.

An OTD member of GesherEU made the comment that having traveled to Berlin with nothing but a passport and a picture of her grandmother. With no place to stay overnight, no phone, no clothes. Within three days she has a circle of friends, an audition, sorted out the relationship with her mother. It is a pity it is not authentic to the story and experience of leaving the community. Does not Unorthodox trivialize the complexity and trauma of leaving for most?
—Robert Bernard

Karolinski: Esty is by no means transitioned into a perfect Berlin life a couple of days in. She is pregnant, no education and no money. The show leaves the ending open. Esty goes through a roller coaster that in reality will follow her for many years. I hope we made something that can change the conversation and lead to more complex conversations about leaving, like the one we had with the Forwards. I don’t necessarily believe it’s one show’s job to do it all. Luckily there are organizations like Footsteps that can now jump in and continue the conversation. This is just the beginning.

We answer your questions “Unorthodox” questions

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