Netflix’s ‘Unorthodox’ degrades Chassidic Jews into caricatures

May 1, 2020 by  
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When my Facebook feed first filled with reviews of Netflix’s “Unorthodox,” I felt no urge to watch it. The well-worn genre of predictable coming-of-age stories about the glory of secularism dwarfing one-dimensional Chassidic characters didn’t spark my interest.

A scene from the new Netflix series “Unorthodox.” Screenshot.

Two things changed that. The show kept drawing increased attention, mostly in secular Jewish publications and discussion groups. This coincided with penetrating media scrutiny of the Chassidic community in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. I was finally compelled to watch the series in my quest to understand what motivates Jewish writers, filmmakers and journalists to inspect this community with a magnifying glass time and again when all it asks is to be left alone?

The series provided little food for thought. With all the depth of cardboard, the dumb-witted husband, the overbearing mother-in-law, the nosy neighbours and the boorish cousin came together in a familiar caricature. Though the Chassidic communities portrayed are situated just miles from their secular cousins in Brooklyn, their on-screen treatment resembled the colonialists’ impressions of primitive tribes in Papua New Guinea.

But then the behind-the-scenes story of “Making ‘Unorthodox’” both sharpened the question and provided a clue. In this short segment, the team described the creation process. In painstaking detail, the filmmakers talked about their research trips to Brooklyn, in which they analyzed every bit of Chassidic life. This research informed every element of the show: building exteriors, apartment interiors, costumes, street scenes, wedding rituals and facial expressions.

Yet one piece of Chassidic life was glaringly missing from the description: the mindset. At no point did the creators discuss an attempt to understand or explain what could possibly motivate tens of thousands of individuals to close off in insular communities and reject the trappings of modernity, despite the easy access.

By failing to ask this question and project this understanding onscreen, the series’ creators ended up passing off a lifeless shell as the real thing. The Chassidic community of “Unorthodox” resembles flesh-and-blood Chassidim as much as a cadaver resembles a living human being.

As the series’ creators yet again falsified and fetishized Chassidic sex as a lifeless affair in the baby-making process, they failed to learn about the Jewish perception of vibrant and healthy marital intimacy as the pinnacle of religious holiness. The painfully fake scenes of fully clothed sex, and the farce of a husband not realizing after a full year of marriage that he should have kissed his wife (not to mention the protagonist’s miraculous cure of vaginismus in the bed of a non-Jewish lover) left me wondering whether the filmmakers truly did not take the time to fact-check these urban myths.

The series creators’ painstaking efforts to carefully mirror the external trappings of a Chassidic lifestyle juxtaposed against their complete failure to paint the inner world of a Chassid presented a paradox. Authors, artists and journalists are some of the most intellectually curious people in the world. Their work centres on developing deep understanding and empathy for the people whose stories they are telling. So why is it that “Unorthodox,” along with its numerous predecessors in print and on screen, have failed to delve beyond stereotypes and share the real story?

The answer came in the opening credits. The graphic treatment of the title accurately represented everything the series and the entire genre are trying to do. The very name “Unorthodox” suggests a break with tradition. But the graphics, with a line struck through the title, is an attempt to obliterate Orthodoxy.

The supposedly romantic story of a young woman running away from the tyranny of a Chassidic “cult” is just a play-out of the secular Jewish aspiration to break with thousands of years of Jewish tradition. In the words of Esty, the protagonist, “God expects too much of me.” And so, to escape this burden, some Jewish artists and writers stoop to vilifying Orthodox Jews, who have the audacity to grapple with God’s expectations.

It is clear that Esty is a troubled young woman with a complex past and a medical condition. Her escape is an attempt to find healing and belonging in her unique personal and family situation, not a negative reflection on hundreds of thousands of Chassidim. Yet filmmakers have chosen to project their own prejudices, insecurities and aspirations onto this woman’s story. The series plays out their hidden wish for Chassidim to “see the light” and trade the oppressiveness of Williamsburg for the freedom of cosmopolitan Berlin.

And so, while the Chassidic communities are content to live their lives and be left alone, so many of their secular brothers and sisters feel triggered by the very existence of the Orthodox. As a result, they produce a litany of creations dragging out and projecting the marginal stories of abuse, dysfunction and impropriety (which exist in every society) onto the entire Chassidic community. By doing so, they hope to quiet the internal conflict and silence the little voice of the Jewish conscience within.

Such art is both unfair and unconstructive. Perhaps if Jewish artists were to take the time to really understand Chassidism, they might discover inspiring teachings and traditions that have enriched and empowered our nation for 3,000 years.

Perhaps, instead of playing out yet another story of a wandering Jew, we could all come together around our shared humanity, values, traditions and culture.

None of which requires a trip to Berlin.



11 Responses to “Netflix’s ‘Unorthodox’ degrades Chassidic Jews into caricatures”
  1. Tim Lynk says:

    I don’t want to appear needlessly argumentative here, but there is a plethora of clear indications that the religious community featured in this series ‘Unorthodox’ were Hareidim and not Chassidic.
    Their Yiddish had a clear and distinctive Hungarian accent and they were completely insulated, protected and isolated from all other people (including other Jews) who did not follow their own particular code and come from their own exclusive clique and were also virulently anti-Israel.
    The community, which was depicted in this series were Hareidim – ‘Misnagdim’ if you will, who trace their origins back to the Vilna Gaon and are the complete antithesis of the Chassidic ethos.
    The entire way of life depicted here is completely foreign to Chassidism in appearance, customs, taboos, dress, world view or accent.
    The Chassidic movement traces its’ origins back to the Baal Shem Tov and unlike the Hareidim is typified today by Chabad, whose reputation has been established by reaching out to all others with love, warmth, respect, encouragement and non-judgemental acceptance.
    I challenge you to find a Chabad House or a Lubavitch Kihila whose lives are structured in the appallingly ultra-narrow fashion, which is portrayed so clearly in this mini-series.

    • Ben Joseph says:

      They most definitely are chassidic, the community of Williamsburg are predominantly Satmar Chassidim (who originally came from Hungary)
      Chabad is one OUTLIER in the wider chassidic community and is no way the typical chassidic group.
      Talmidim of the Vilna Gaon (as should be quite obvious) originate from Lithuania not Hungary

      • Tim Lynk says:

        Hi Ben.
        Thank you for your informative message.
        I’m utterly astounded to learn from you that the community in question are actually a branch of Chassidism!
        I have heard of the Satmar community, but in Australia I’ve yet to come across them personally.
        I had no idea that Chabad is seen globally as more of a fringe group amongst Chassidic communities.
        Here in Melbourne if someone is visibly attired as frum, they will most often come from a Chabad or a Lubavitch background.
        We do have a fairly small Adass Israel community, who are Hungarian in origin and are quite different from our local reference point of what is a Chassid.
        The Adass community from amongst Melbourne Jewry most resemble the lifestyle represented in this mini-series.
        I am aware that Vilna is in Lithuania – my mother-in-law came from there.
        Thank you for teaching me something new.

  2. Rabbi Chaim Ingram OAM says:

    Let’s call this out for what it truly is. Anti-Semitism!

    • Tim Lynk says:

      Rabbi, with all due respect may I ask how this story, which is written and produced by Jews, based on true events and is sadly a glaringly realistic and meticulous example of a Hareidi community could possibly be anti-Semitic? It may be a an aspect of our people that we find disturbing or even opposed to, but to just label it anti-Semitic is not only inappropriate but is of itself misleading.

  3. Eva Gross says:

    Very surprised at this writer”s views
    and perspective. This unorthodox orthodox community is in my view very realistically portrayed. The men pray and study all day, with everything else, including earning
    an income, in the main left to women. The Torah and other religious scriptures actually talk about men working and the
    different types of work, men having to satisfy
    their wives sexually etc Instead
    they have set up a patriarchal society where women are subjugated, a shtremel is more
    important than feeding your family and because
    children are cut off from any knowledge
    or experience of the outside world, they have no choices, the Hassidic life is forced
    on them, to me child abuse. Defining
    a woman as unclean when she has her period is irreligious – what Hashem has designed, set up
    should not be denigrated and excusing things like domestic violence in terms of pesenting it as Yetzer Hara in inexcusable. Unorthodox actually is mild and restrained as a critiq
    of that community AND LET US NOT FORGET

    • Michael Barnett says:

      Well said.

    • Tim Lynk says:

      I heartily agree with you Eva, and it is only by calling a spade a spade (as in accepting this frighteningly disturbing portrayal as representative of the way that some of our people actually live) that we stand a chance of maybe reaching a solution to all the problems, which you have so eloquently described.

  4. Michael Barnett says:

    To my thinking, the author of this review writes as if she can’t understand why anyone would want to leave a religious community, and in doing so exposes her bias

    • Leon Poddebsky says:

      On the contrary: the author of this review wonders why the makers of this film did not bother to research the reasons that some Jews actually choose to live the Chassidic life. This is a criticism of the film makers’ professional shortcomings, not an attempt to promote religion.
      The reviewer’s observation that some non-observant Jews’ hostility to religion stems from a need to justify their own departure from the observant life path, is a valid hypothesis.

      • Michael Barnett says:

        The series is based on a true story. What more research could one need than real life experience?

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