I just finished watching Unorthodox on Netflix. Didn’t take long as it’s only four episodes. If you haven’t seen it yet, it’s a miniseries about a young woman who leaves behind the insular Hasidic Satmar community of Williamsburg and begins a new life in Berlin, loosely based on a true story.
I have to say, any time I see something blatantly Jewish pop up on mainstream networks, I cringe a little bit. Like, eek, I hope whoever is behind this show does a good job portraying our religion and its vast spectrum in a respectful and accurate way. I mean who doesn’t love the Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, but even in this fun and hilarious show I had my moments of cringe (i.e. the circumcision scene in Season 3).
I consider myself Modern Orthodox, exactly what that means will depend on who you ask. But I’d define the gist of it as observing Shabbat and keeping Kosher. And as a Modern Orthodox Jew, I watch Unorthodox with almost the same fascination as an average person would. I’m like a distant observer of a religion I don’t relate to. Watching the inner workings of their reality, I can’t help but think, this is not my Judaism. This is some cult-like, on-the-fringe, suppressive version of my religion.
At the same time, I have to admit that just by virtue of being Jewish, I’m somehow connected to it. Like this sect is some kind of brother from another mother. There are elements of that world that are mirrored in my own, albeit in a lighter, less extreme version. For example, a large majority of married Modern Orthodox women cover their hair, but certainly do not have shaved heads underneath their flowing wigs. Modesty is also a concept I can relate to, but tee-shirts are not frowned upon in the world I grew up in. And I got married at 21, not because it was an arranged marriage (despite being asked this by our friend’s sweet and well-meaning grandpa once) but because we were high school sweethearts and didn’t want to date for years. We’ll be the first to admit we were just two kids.
But here’s the thing, I know that I am able to differentiate between my world and theirs, but can everyone else that’s binging this on Netflix? I worry that the entirely negative light in which their way of life is depicted has a residual effect on the perception of Orthodox Jews as a whole. I recently read a review on the show by someone who herself left the Satmar community and even she points out that the series misses the mark on the complexity of the sect and any of its soulfulness. The issue for me is not that the positive aspects aren’t shown, because I don’t speak from experience from within that community, it’s the portrayal of Judaism in general, as a game of black and white. One minute the lead character is a Satmar Hasid suffocating in a religious society covered from head to toe and having forced relations with her husband, and the next she is biting into a ham sandwich and sleeping with a non-Jew. Because, of course, there can be no in between.
When I started my career, I found myself being the only Orthodox Jew in the workplace, sometimes the only Jew, period. I was often surprised by how many misconceptions about Orthodox Judaism still existed even among highly educated circles. I was acutely aware that I was breaking stereotypes by practicing Judaism without “looking the part.” I didn’t wear long black skirts and a short wig, and my husband didn’t dress in garb and wear a furry hat on his head. But yet, I identified as religious. Such a conflict, I’m sure it seemed. I always did my best to try to explain as much as I could, to let people in on the sort of parallel worlds that I live in – a world where I can accompany them to a restaurant, but not touch the food.
At the end of the series there is a brief behind the scenes of ‘Making Unorthodox.’ At one point, there is a clip of someone on set who comments on how all the extras were walking around the streets in their full Hasidic costumes and he says, amused, “We had 150 Hasids on the streets outside, it was a very funny picture, some people were saying – look, the Jews are back in Berlin.” I found that comment to be pretty distasteful, if not bordering antisemitic. The Jews never left Berlin. And also, the statement was just historically inaccurate given that so many of the German Jews killed in the Holocaust were quite secular and had assimilated almost fully into German culture. The generalizations and stereotyping of Jews percolate from the very people that help create these types of shows.
And so, as a Modern Orthodox Jew, I didn’t have a problem with the show itself necessarily, even though they probably could have done a better job balancing the Hasidic world. The lead character is played by one of my favourite Israeli actresses, Shira Haas and her talent shows throughout. But I struggle with the kind of impact these types of series have in contributing to misconceptions and feeding pre-existing biases about religious Jews, possibly leading most people to believe we’re all just a bunch of fanatics. I hope I’m wrong.
Till next time!
(Featured image credit Anika Molnar/Netflix)