It’s difficult these days to know who is right. Whose truth is THE truth? Is there even one truth any more? Was there ever? I watched the four-part series, Unorthodox, on Netflix recently. It tells the story of 19-year-old Esther Shapiro who leaves her Satmar Hasidic Jewish community* in New York and goes to Berlin. The flashbacks are based on Deborah Feldman’s life told in her memoir, Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots. What happens in Berlin is fictional but the character of Esty is based on Feldman. The insight it gives into the lives of this strict religion is fascinating. And Shira Haas, who plays Etsy, is incredible. I was riveted.
A short extra piece follows the last episode. It talks about the making of the series. And it would seem that they went to great lengths to get it right. I figured, then, that I’d be okay believing that it was a true depiction of Hasidic life.
I’ve become a little distrusting in recent times. I’ve been caught out too often to take anything on face value without checking it out first. This is a sad reflection on life today. I went in search of reviews and opinion pieces and came across one by Frieda Vizel, who also left the Satmar community and is now a guide in Williamsburg. She says that the series is ‘grossly inadequate’.
The opening scene of Unorthodox, like the rest of the show, is problematic in various ways: It imbues fancy profundity where there actually is none. It gets a lot of small details wrong. And it does not capture that which is truly profound in the Hasidic experience.
I have zero experience to call on here. I am not Jewish. I don’t know any Hasidic Jews. I wondered though, how two women from the same community could offer two truths. Could it be timing? I don’t know.
I don’t recognize the Unorthodox world where people are cold, humorless, and obsessed with following the rules. Of course, bad people exist in the Hasidic community, and I am critical of many of its practices, but that doesn’t mean everyone goes about muted, serious, drawn, fulfilling the rules and mentioning the Holocaust. I have always known Williamsburg to be a lively world of gossip, drama, peer pressure, materialism, competition, family and busybody neighbors. The people in Unorthodox are not that.
Ye gods. Who to believe?
Vizel recommends another series that, in her opinion, gives a truer depiction:
Shtissel provides a good contrast to Unorthodox. Unlike Unorthodox, the human story in Shtissel comes to the fore, and the particulars of the culture are only the setting in which they unfold. Rituals like an eruv are not heavy-handedly emphasized. Shtissel makes the watcher feel drawn inside the world. It comes as no surprise then that so many people enjoy Shtissel, because they can connect to it. Unlike the many stereotyping film portrayals of Hasidim, where the viewer becomes a voyeur to foreign Disney-witches in odd costumes. Audiences want and can handle depictions of Orthodox Jews that are complex and realistic. Showrunners who argue that flat depictions are necessary for the unschooled outsider are just being lazy.
Shtissel is next on my list.
Checking further, I came across an article in The Times of Israel about Ari Hershkowitz, another who left the Satmar community in Williamsburg and is touring the world to tell it of the evils he endured. He calls the Satmar dynasty ‘Judaism on steroids’. The article makes for compelling reading. And it mentions yet another Netflix documentary, One of Us, which follows three members of Brooklyn’s Hasidic communities.** One of the three featured in the documentary is Hershkowitz.
I have to watch that one, too.
- The Hasidic courts are named after the town the first Rebbe was from. Satmar Jews originated in Satu Mare. The town was passed back and forth between Hungary and Romania: ‘After the collapse of Austria-Hungary, Romanian troops captured the town during their offensive launched on April 15, 1919. By the Treaty of Trianon, Satu Mare officially ceased to be part of Hungary becoming part of Romania. In 1940, the Second Vienna Award gave back Northern Transylvania, including Satu Mare, to Hungary. In October 1944, the city was captured by the Soviet Red Army. After 1945, the city became again part of Romania.’
** Most of the approximately 165,000 Hasidim in the New York City area live in three neighborhoods in Brooklyn: Williamsburg, Crown Heights, and Boro Park. Each of the three neighborhoods is home to Hasidim of different courts, although there is overlap and movement between them. There are approximately forty-five thousand Satmar Hasidim in Williamsburg, over fifty thousand Bobover Hasidim in Boro Park, and at least fifteen thousand Lubavitch in Crown Heights.