Sunday, June 04, 2023

Unorthodox, a documentary depicting young Jews and their struggle with religiosity, will be screened as part of the Teaneck International Film Festival on November 9, 2014, at Teaneck Cinemas. The film is narrated and co-directed by Fair Lawn native Anna Wexler, who broke away from her Orthodox Jewish community at age 16, rejecting its religious doctrine and social restrictions, and severing ties to her family. She ran away from home, slept on the streets, and experimented with alcohol and drugs with friends in Manhattan who had also left the Orthodox world. However, she noticed that after studying in Israel, many of her friends had a change of heart and returned to Orthodoxy.

Feeling betrayed and wanting to understand the reasons behind this return, Anna launches a quest to understand their transformations, by filming three rebellious Jewish teenagers during their yearlong journeys from high school to Israel and home again. Along the way, Anna is forced back to the roots of her own struggle to understand the meaning of faith and the essence of religion and identity.

This is a story Orthodox Jews can relate to, especially those in Bergen County. One of the opening scenes of the film takes place on Teaneck’s Queen Anne Road.

Anna, who took many years to complete the film, said she was surprised at what an intense project it became. “I originally set out to make this film because I was bewildered (and slightly angry) that my friends had transformed so radically over the course of a year in Israel. I wanted to find out what happened to them over this year in Israel. Were they coming to these spiritual realizations on their own, or were they getting brainwashed by the rabbis?”

The decision to include herself in the film came later, “building all that information in through a personal story would make it more compelling: instead of text-on-screen that would convey Orthodox rituals, you’d have my story.”

The film opens with Anna as a child, content in her family’s adoption of religious Jewish ritual. As she got older, she started to have doubts about Judaism, and asked questions about how science and Torah can both be true. She is later depicted as miserable in her family rituals, and when she runs away, finds a community with friends who had also left religious homes. She says that “rebellious Orthodox Jews stick together.”

The film then depicts the American post-high school students. One student shown on Ben Yehuda Street remarks of parents, “They think their sons are going to come here and just learn Talmud and Bible and all of a sudden get religious just like that.” One of the rebellious teenagers shares that before leaving for Israel he only observed the Sabbath because his family and everyone around him did. When he gets to Israel, he mentions that the days drag out, that he learns all day and the days are blurred together; one week feels much longer than it is.

Anna describes three phases of the year in Israel. The first is teenagers taking advantage of their newfound freedom–partying, drugs, alcohol. In the second phase, they are bored with all the partying and go to classes. One of the teenagers remarks, “It’s rainy, it’s gross. People ‘flip out’ when they’re bored.” The third phase is when major transitions happen.

Rabbi Lawrence Keleman, a teacher at Neve Yerushalayim and author of To Kindle a Soul and Permission to Believe, was interviewed in the film as someone who has come across numerous people who have become religious during their year in Israel. He said he found a common thread, a characteristic, in those who end up becoming religious.

“You can pretty much predict which ones will certainly make the curve and actually decide to become religious. And the [criterion] that I’ve found is if they are extraordinarily appreciative people, if they’re very thankful, if they have a sense of hakarat hatov, they are going to become religious...It’s a very interesting marker, if you find that marker in somebody the odds are that if they’re exposed they’ll become religious.”

In the film, Anna takes a trip to Israel and visits the Kotel. She mentions that there is “something seductive about being here with tons of religious people all thinking they’re doing the right thing.”

“If I could just believe in the faith all my troubles of the past would disappear and my family and community would accept me. I desperately tried to feel what I felt as a child–that all-encompassing sense of spirituality and belief. I sat there for a long time but I didn’t feel anything.”

One theme in the film is a lack of understanding on the part of parents about what is happening to their children during the year in Israel. The partying, the constant questioning of college choices because of fear of not staying observant, and trying to understand the motivation behind learning are all issues that are brought up. “Whether I keep it or not it’s good to just be aware of the laws,” said one of the three teenagers. However, others referred to seeing friends make major life changes on a dime during the year. For example, making decisions like stopping to talk to members of the opposite sex because their rabbis tell them to, or vastly changing their wardrobes, or deciding to fully embrace observance only after seeing the horrors of Poland, have altered perspectives.

The use of drugs is also explored in the film. Anna notes, “The problem is that while many people can experiment with certain drugs without getting addicted or suffering long-lasting effects, others cannot. There have been many deaths in Bergen County from drug overdoses amongst so-called off-the-derech teenagers. I firmly believe that there should be a greater support system in place for those who, as teenagers, choose to go off the path. Instead of being shunned, they should be supported during this time. Maybe that would prevent some of them from turning to drugs.” Anger at this lack of support may play a part in drug use. “People in the Orthodox community have a lot more to lash out about,” said one of the teenagers.

In the film, Anna asks if the year in Israel is crucial to the preservation of Modern Orthodoxy in America. Some of the responses in the film include “you’re running your whole life, it’s time to just think,” or “if you think change is bad don’t go to Israel,” and “when you take a year to find yourself, you find something.”

By the end of the film, Anna is portrayed as having developed a cozy and beautiful relationship with her grandparents, who live in Israel and are religious. Her grandmother told her on camera that she is confident that Anna will someday rejoin the community.

“One day, you will come back. You’re not going to be able to resist it. You might fight it. The very fact that you chose to do this story...you can’t get your religion out of your system. You chose to spend time on something close to you and meaningful to you.”

Anna went to Yavneh Academy from pre-K through eighth grade and Ma’ayanot starting in 9th grade through the middle of 11th grade, when she switched to Fair Lawn High School. She went to MIT undergrad, and graduated with two bachelors of science degrees, one in Brain and Cognitive Science and the other in Humanities and Science with a focus in Writing and Neuroscience. She is pursuing her Ph.D. in the MIT Department of Science, Technology and Society and she is studying the social and ethical implications of neuroscience advancements. Her full bio is on her website: annawexler.com.

Unorthodox, co-directed by Anna Wexler and Nadja Oertelt, will be screened on Sunday, November 9, 12:00 p.m. at the Teaneck Film Festival. Tickets for the 2014 festival are $8 at the door and $6 in advance for all films. Weekend passes are $35. See: http://www.teaneckfilmfestival.org/ for more information.

Rivka Hia is an intern at JLBC. She is a junior at Stern College majoring in journalism. Find out more at: about.me/Rivka.

By Rivka Hia

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