On May 7, 2020 the Program in Jewish Culture & Society held a virtual panel discussion of the Netflix mini-series Unorthodox, a fictionalized adaptation of Deborah Feldman’s eponymous 2012 memoir, Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of my Hasidic Roots. The conversation that unfolded during the virtual panel offered insights regarding mainstream society’s curiosity toward Haredi Jewish communities and analyzed the way that the aesthetics and narrative of Unorthodox play into our own expectations and anxieties that surround such groups. The event had over 175 attendees and was moderated by Dara E. Goldman (Director, Program in Jewish Culture & Society) and featured brief presentations by David Myers (UCLA), Nomi Stolzenberg (USC), and Rachel S. Harris (U of I) before opening for a discussion moderated by Liat Maggid Alon (Israel Institute Visiting Scholar, U of I).
Unorthodox begins with Esther “Esty” Shapiro (Shira Haas) preparing to leave her Brooklyn apartment with only her ID, a small fold of Euros, and an unframed photograph of her Grandmother. As the four-part series unfolds, we see both where Esty is heading and where she has been. Esty is running from the insular society that she was raised within to make a new life for herself in Berlin. Through a narrative that interweaves the past and the present, the series follows Esty as she negotiates her own ambitions and desires with her position as a woman in a Haredi Jewish community. Esty enters an arranged marriage with Yakov “Yanky” Shapiro (Amit Rahav), which is marked by a lavish and elaborately filmed Haredi wedding. In the months after their marriage, Esty and Yanky experience difficulty in their sex life and struggle to conceive. This is regarded largely as a personal and moral failure on Esty’s part, and she becomes increasingly suffocated by her husband’s and community’s expectations for her. Esty and Yanky continue their attempts to have sex according to Haredi traditions, and a year into their marriage she finally does become pregnant, but only after a particularly painful sexual encounter. It is at this point where the flashbacks to her life in Satmar catch up to her present. Esty, now pregnant, leaves her marriage and her home to seek out a kind of freedom that had thus far been off limits to her. Although much of the series positions Esty’s Satmar life and her life in Berlin in opposition to each other, the contributions by Myers, Stolzenberg, and Harris reveal that the most compelling moments of the series resist such a neat framing.
David Myers began by offering a brief history of Haredi, popularly referred to as Ultra-Orthodox, Judaism and noted that it developed as a response to modern Jewish Orthodoxy, which sought to create a fusion of traditional religious learning and science. In the 19th century, prior to adopting the label “Haredi,” the community self-identified as traditionalists who were resistant to forms of modernization. They displayed such protest through their modest mode of dress and an acquisition of traditional languages, like Yiddish, two signs that are used heavily within Unorthodox. Myers noted that although Haredi Judaism emphasizes history and tradition, it is a distinctly modern phenomenon.
Esty is Satmar, which is a Hasidic group who settled in New York from Hungary following World War II. As such, the Satmar are a unique sect of Haredi Judaism, as they are mostly descendants of Holocaust survivors. Deborah Feldman, in the documentary Making Unorthodox, notes that this sets them apart from other Hasidic communities because their identity was solidified in relation to the Holocaust and emphasizes that the community’s structure was founded by those living with and processing their lived and inherited traumas. While many who embrace the term “Haredi” see themselves as direct descendants of pre-modern Jews, Myers emphasized that ancestral Jewish figures, manners of dress, and rituals did not resemble those of contemporary Ultra-Orthodox communities, and in many ways, Haredi Judaism can be understood as an “invention of tradition.”
Hasidic Jewish communities have long been a subject of interest for their unique manner of dress, rituals, and their insularity. Myers suggested that for those outside the religion, Haredi Jews evoke a nostalgic image of Judaism, one akin to the aesthetic of Fiddler on the Roof and a romantic idea of life in a European Jewish shtetl. This depiction often aligns Haredi Judaism with a sense of Jewish authenticity. This depiction, which is at play in Unorthodox, can yield a one-dimensional view of Haredi Jews and flattens a largely diverse community.
Nomi Stolzenberg further emphasized the ways in which Haredi communities in New York are a modern development and largely came to be by benefitting from property laws in the United States. As such, Stolzenberg argued that such communities and their ability to form local governments are a “quintessentially American phenomenon.” She noted that “the features of the community that appear to be most at odds with American values, and appear most authentically Jewish, arose because of the American political system, not despite it.” In this respect, contemporary Haredi communities share similarities to other, smaller insular religious communities like the Shakers and Mormons, which also boast a certain degree of political autonomy in the U.S. These communities, Stolzenberg observed, share two points of similarity: first, they reject mainstream sexual and marital practices, and second, they gained stability as associations of private property owners. These elements—specific sexual and martial rituals and attachments to private property that lead to political empowerment—are also distinctly modern. They were not, for example, a part of life in a European shtetl that Haredi communities, at times, appear to imitate. Within Unorthodox, the heteropatriarchal dimension of this power is emphasized, especially when we understand the series within a tradition of narratives about young women escaping from Ultra-Orthodox societies.
Rachel S. Harris situated Unorthodox within a lineage of tales of sexual captivity that can be traced back to the 17th century. (While the series is based off Feldman’s memoir and personal experiences, it is a work of fiction and largely diverges from her personal account.) The series has a thriller-like quality and is geared toward secular audiences who are curious about Haredi communities. And while the series is both aesthetically and emotionally rich, it also rehearses an assumption that those who remain in the community are too indoctrinated to see their own oppression. This representation forecloses the possibility of other forms of agency for women within Haredi communities, and erases feminisms within Haredi communities that do not fit the mainstream norms. Unorthodox also follows many of the visual and atmospheric conventions of other films about escape that emphasize characters’ emotional experiences of isolation. These elements include a limited soundtrack, sparse dialogue, and a muted color palette. As a comparison, Harris discussed the film Fill the Void (2013), written and directed by Rama Burshtein, which depicts the quotidian elements of the Haredi community and represents it as a warm, sociable space where women have fulfilling friendships and distinct forms of agency.
Although Esty has few intimate social connections, she is not necessarily alone, nor does she have any sense of privacy. The subject of Esty’s difficulty in conceiving a child after her marriage becomes the subject of public discussion and furthers her sense of isolation. The interest in Esty’s sexual life is not limited only to the content of the series, it also seems to dictate many of the series’ aesthetic choices. Harris pointed out that much of the series hinges on Esty’s sexual life and her own sexuality, even as Esty is depicted as child-like. The clothing choices, casting, and scenery emphasize Esty’s petite frame and, by extension, her innocence. At the same time, scenes like those shot in the Mikvah, an immersive bath taken to achieve religious purity, take on a voyeuristic perspective that engages viewers’ curiosity by offering a highly-sexualized, taboo portrayal of a woman who is associated with modesty and conservatism.
The emphasis on Esty’s ability to have sex and eventually conceive is not only important to satisfy her expectations as a wife, but also because of the larger pressure within the Satmar community to reproduce. The weight of this imperative is made clear in Unorthodox during a scene when Esty discusses how painful sex is for her with her aunt. Etsy, clearly frustrated, says that non-Jewish couples must watch a YouTube video on how to properly have sex (she is told later by a Haredi sex therapist that she is experiencing pain due to vaginismus). Her aunt clucks at remark and retorts, “Jewish women have ten times as many babies as non-Jewish women…You think they had YouTube in the Old Country? In Hungary? In the displaced persons camp where Grandpa married Grandma?” With this mention of the trauma that anchors their community, the mood of the scene changes. Esty goes quiet and her eyes well up with tears. This exchange emphasizes the multi-layered reasons that Esty must have children. Not only does her marriage and social status depend on it, but it also fulfills the Satmar community’s higher pursuit of Jewish repopulation after the Holocaust.
Esty is still not pregnant after a year of marriage, and sex with Yanky remains incredibly painful for her. The community perceives her as an unsatisfactory wife, one who is unable to sexually gratify her husband or “make him feel like a king.” And while externally Esty is regarded as barren, viewers are privy to a different sort of fertility that emerges in the form of her suppressed artistic talents, her love of piano and a masterful ability to sing. Harris noted that the barren/fertile binary also fits within the genre convention of escape narratives, wherein a protagonist’s suppressed creativity is released upon having a pleasurable sexual encounter with a non-Jewish man. In Unorthodox, this very plot unfolds when Esty meets Robert (Aaron Altaras), a music student that she meets in a coffee shop.
Harris observed that it is not just sex with a secular man, but also the protagonist’s encounter with the secular world that pushes her along her path to self-discovery. In Unorthodox, the secular world is represented by an idealized depiction of Berlin and is akin to a “type of Oz,” a world of color that stands in contrast to the grayscale of Esty’s previous life. Berlin is portrayed as a multicultural, accepting society where all forms of self-expression are welcome. Harris argued that this characterization of Berlin is intended to bolster our belief in mainstream society. As much as the series engages our curiosity about Ultra-Orthodox life, the show also reaffirms our belief that modern life can offer a path to self-actualization and individuated freedom.
In her first days in Berlin, Esty befriends a group of racially and ethnically diverse music students who quickly embrace her and bring her to Großer Wannsee, a lake just outside of the city. The visit to the lake is a pivotal experience for Esty, as she strips off her layers of clothing and wig to reveal her shaved head. The scene is a renewal, what Rachel Syme has called “both a sacrilege and a baptism,” in a way that is markedly different from the cleansing scene that takes place at the Mikvah. When Esty pulls off her wig, the iconographies associated with the image of the shaved head converge: a sign of her status as a married Satmar woman, a symbol of the Holocaust, and a chic hairstyle associated with an alternative urban life.
Before she steps into the water, however, Robert points out matter-of-factly that it was here where the 1942 Wannsee Conference was held and where National Socialist leaders decided to execute Jewish communities, homosexual people, and other marginalized populations. Esty in a horrified tone responds, “And you swim in this lake?” Robert shrugs and replies, “Well, a lake is just a lake.” This brief exchange highlights the diverging ways that the Satmar community and young Berliners have reconciled their relation to the Holocaust, and that memory can be attached to or disassociated from the surrounding landscape and architecture.
In the conclusion of the event, Stolzenberg, Harris, and Myers discussed the portrayal of Berlin as a multicultural urban center full of cool and fashionable young people. While this image of Berlin existed long before the series aired, this representation papers over rising nationalist movements in Germany in favor of a color-blind view of the city. Harris and Stolzenberg point out, however, that the Holocaust is very much linked to xenophobic sentiments that target refugees, migrants, Muslims, and people of color both in Berlin and globally. Ann Winger, the series creator and Executive Producer, has reflected that “there’s a kind of doubling-back on history in this show,” and characterizes Esty’s departure from her Satmar community to Germany as a return to the origin site of their trauma. Alexa Karolinski, the co-creator and writer, has called this return “den Kreis schließen,” or a means of coming full circle. Myers, Harris, and Stolzenberg, instead, offered insights that urge us to keep this circle open.
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