June 13, 2024
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The Case for Revisiting the Media’s Reflection of Orthodox Life and an ‘Unorthodox’ Woman

For many Orthodox Jews, media that reflect Orthodox life either do not resonate with them or are just plain irrelevant. Some presume that the entertainment industries exist to generate and then cycle profits into programs antithetical to Torah values. This segment of Jewry may not care about media depictions of the Orthodox, yet I argue that a rebuttal by Jews concerning misrepresentation of them is imperative, especially when misconceptions about Jews abound. Moreover, at a time when “diversity and inclusion” are global battle cries, we need to take stock of the way the world sees us, particularly through the media’s lens, and respond accordingly.

Recently, such misrepresentation has been compounded by streaming video, including Israeli programs. “Shtisel,” season three, has been aired. “Unorthodox” premiered last March; Shira Haas, its star, scored an Emmy nomination, Lead Actress in a Limited Series. Thus, discussion of how these shows depict Orthodox Jews is quite timely. “My Unorthodox Life” is the latest offering.

“Unorthodox” is the compelling story of Esther (Esty) Shapiro, a young Satmar wife who leaves her husband, her community, and her religious observance to find herself in Berlin. Despite Esty’s conflicted relationship with her community and religion, some scenes in Satmar Williamsburg reflect the warmth and continuity of post-Holocaust Chassidic life, as evident at weddings, and family meals on Shabbat and Yom Tov.

The four-part miniseries is masterfully crafted, executed, filmed, acted, and thus, painful to deconstruct. It is loosely based on Deborah Feldman’s 2012 best-selling book, in which she chronicles her own departure from Satmar and Orthodox Judaism.

Although artistically brilliant, Unorthodox’s glaring flaw is that it falls into the genre dominated by a vocal, highly visible “off the derech” (departed from Orthodox observance) or OTD minority of Jews whose new “derech” is completely secular. Unorthodox and similar shows posit that if one does not fit into such a niche, one must leave it—an all-or-nothing proposition. This perpetuates the myth that there is one path to and one vision of Orthodox Judaism.

This myth is reinforced by a growing number of written and audiovisual chronicles of desperately unhappy, abused and/or repressed young people who drop observance because their voices cannot be heard or respected. They suggest that such cases pervade the Orthodox world. This lacks truth, but in the media, the squeaky wheel gets the oil. “A Price Above Rubies” (1998) depicts a passionate but frustrated woman whose preoccupied husband cannot satisfy her and whose conniving brother-in-law assaults her. “Disobedience” (2017) deals with an English Jewess who leaves Orthodoxy and moves to New York after her relationship with another Orthodox woman comes to light. These are just the tip of the “un-Orthodox” media iceberg.

A cover story for The New York Times Sunday Magazine (2003) profiled young men and women who “defected” from Lubavitch and left Orthodox Judaism for secular lifestyles. In the same magazine, Taffy Broedesser-Akner (2017) tracked those in an OTD support group (One of the young ex-Lubavitchers in the 2003 article founded the support group). Other media outlets, including the BBC (2017, 2019), published stories featuring young people who departed from what they perceived as untenably restrictive lifestyles.

According to Lara Zarum (2017), “One of Us,” a documentary about three young defectors from the Satmar community, “effectively contextualizes this strange, backward community thriving in the middle of one of the most multicultural cities in the world.” “Strange and backward” are words that color the representation of “ultra Orthodox,” but even more significantly, become the rationale for those who “escape” to ditch Orthodoxy.

“Shtisel” is equally successful with non-Jewish audiences as with Jews. Its charedi characters (often labeled “Ultra Orthodox”) are appealing, vulnerable and face universal challenges. While working in a Latin American slaughterhouse, Giti’s husband, Lippe Weiss, goes OTD, no holds barred. He takes off his yarmulke, religious garb, cuts his payot and beard, and has a relationship with a non-Jewish woman. His wife is in denial and his daughter Ruchami detests (but eventually forgives) him. Remorseful, he returns to them and his religious norms. He fails, nor is he guided, to consider a “middle ground” religiously for him that could have averted his “flight” from his family and Orthodoxy.

Lippe’s brother-in-law Akiva Shtisel knows he must relinquish art for Talmudic learning if he wants a shidduch with his cousin Libbi. Although she eventually agrees to his chosen career, it is unclear, when season two ends, how this will work within charedi norms. It is likely that Lippe and Akiva will stay within their fold. The show is set in the less “ultra” Geula neighborhood (where religious life may be more palatable to the uninitiated) but ignores other paths within Orthodox life.

Sadly, TV and movies intensify notions of religious “repressiveness.” In the case of “Unorthodox,” Esty’s mother, who did not abandon her, lives in Berlin with another, non-Jewish female. Esty, raised by her grandmother and aunt, not her alcoholic father, accepts a shidduch with Yanky, but feels alienated from other young Satmar wives, and has difficulty consummating her marriage. Her intrusive, controlling mother-in-law’s meddling compounds her problems. After Esty clandestinely arrives in Berlin, she is befriended by music conservatory students, casts off Orthodoxy, and becomes intimately involved with a musician, even though she is expecting Yanky’s child. While Esty prepares to audition for the conservatory to pursue her dream career, Yanky arrives in Berlin to bring her home. He marvels at her singing, begs her to return home, cuts his payot to show his willingness to change, but she severs the cord with him and her past.

Cases like these exist but they are not a staple of everyday Orthodox life. They belie the continuum of approaches in Orthodox observance that are well within Halacha.

One should not judge Deborah Feldman’s very personal choice to leave her Satmar community. Unfortunately, though, “Unorthodox’” the mini-series (which again, is only loosely based on Ms. Feldman’s life) and similar films present a monolithic perspective on Orthodox Judaism. There are alternatives other than going OTD for cases such as Esty’s, but those stories do not provide as much titillating copy as narratives of young people who derail.

It is precisely this sort of misrepresentation that prompts viewers to conjecture about extreme Orthodox repression that compels adherents to leave the fold. Films are not made about chasidim who have shifted to “center” or “left” Orthodoxy, graduate prestigious colleges, marry happily, and, including women, navigate successful professional careers, maintain healthy relationships with their birth families, and learn Torah—or those helped by Project Makom.

And what of the Orthodox who are not “ultra,” were not raised chasidic, and face challenges, often quite daunting, within their communities? There are as many—and probably more—Jews who have chosen to stay, somehow, within their places on the spectrum, despite heart-wrenching circumstances. They find a path within the continuum of approaches that makes Orthodoxy work for them. It doesn’t mean that they don’t struggle daily, that they don’t grapple with precepts and laws that may be difficult for them, that they don’t sometimes think their lives might be easier if they went OTD, and that they sometimes wrestle their way through crises. They may temporarily be blindsided about the trade-off they made in staying Orthodox—that is, on the balance sheet of life, they have exchanged one set of satisfactions for another that is more meaningful for them.

Such Orthodox Jews stay within a lifestyle that resonates within them and allows them to function well, and even happily. For women, their position as the Akeret haBayit means that their struggles and choices are often more pronounced and potentially self-sacrificing, but they do have choices, personally and professionally.

Mainstream media should be apprised of the monolithic, distorted, and misleading way they represent Orthodox Judaism. Further, flawed depictions of Jews and “extreme” Judaism exacerbate an antisemitism already on the rise and further increasing during COVID-19.

From the perspective of this Orthodox Jewish professional, journalists and audiovisual “creatives” and producers could better serve themselves and their audiences by recognizing that diverse Orthodox Jewry deserves more accurate and balanced representation—and that Orthodoxy is not an all-or-nothing deal. For these reasons, if not others, Jewish voices, Orthodox and non-Orthodox, need to be heard within the entertainment industries and the news media that cover them.

Rachel Kovacs, Ph.D. teaches media at CUNY and is a PR professional, writer, and theater reviewer. She can be reached at [email protected].


 

Rachel Kovacs is an Adjunct Associate Professor of communication at CUNY, a PR professional, theater reviewer for www.offoffonline.com —and a Judaics teacher. She trained in performance at Brandeis and Manchester Universities, Sharon Playhouse, and the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. She can be reached at [email protected].

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