Unorthodox dropped on Netflix on March 26, but the online ex-Orthodox community had already been speculating about it for weeks. It took a day or two for us to binge-watch the four episodes, and then the postmortem began. The series recounts the escape of Esther Shapiro (“Esty,” played by Shira Haas), a 19-year-old newly married woman, from the Hasidic community in Williamsburg to a new secular life in Berlin. Haas, who played Ruchama Weiss on Shtisel, seems to be carving out a niche for herself in ultra-Orthodox roles. In fact, it was a little startling to see her wishing her fans a happy Passover along with others in the cast of Shtisel from her Tel Aviv quarantine, wearing casual clothes instead of an ankle-length skirt.
The OTD (off the derekh—that is, no longer on the Orthodox path) social media groups include people from backgrounds as diverse as the Orthodox world itself, and only a few of us have deep and direct knowledge of Satmar, the Hasidic community ostensibly portrayed in the series. (The unnamed Hasidic community of the show more closely resembles smaller, more intimate groups, where a Rebbe might come to a Hasid’s home to discuss a family problem.) But all of us have gone through some version of the transformation Unorthodox dramatizes, and we gobble down and fiercely debate every new OTD memoir that hits the shelves, every documentary and movie that comes out. Our small tribe of defectors is certainly not the intended audience for this growing genre, but we are its collective subject, so we obsess over what they get right (a bit of Yiddish dialect, the right kerchief) and what they get wrong (see below). Call it the problem of OTD translation. We need to explain ourselves: to “outsiders,” where we come from; to old friends and family (to the extent that we can still talk to them), where we’ve gone. As with all acts of translation and leave-taking, something gets lost, someone betrayed.
A small example: In the 2012 memoir from which this show is loosely adapted, Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots, Deborah Feldman calls her grandmother “Bubby,” the pronunciation most common among Ashkenazi American Jews at whom the book is aimed. But Esty, in the series, calls her grandmother “Bobby,” as I called my own. “Accuracy” hardly captures the effect this had on me, the gratitude I felt toward the series (more particularly, to Eli Rosen, its Yiddish translator and cultural consultant) for getting that little thing right. Who knew a vowel could break your heart?
I wasn’t the only one in a state. The days after Unorthodox hit saw a burst of writing on the Facebook groups, particularly by formerly Hasidic women—posts describing what it feels like to shave your head and then to finally and gloriously stop shaving it, kallah classes gone awry, mikvah stories, Hasidic wedding photos, descriptions of awkward first-night sex. There was even a mention or two of vaginismus—Esty’s condition, which makes sex painful for her and complicates the consummation of her marriage. I spend a lot of time in OTD groups, and I’ve never seen such raw writing.
Lots of people with a less personal stake in the subject were also talking about the show’s portrayal of Hasidic Williamsburg. In the Los Angeles Times, Meredith Blake published a piece titled “Netflix’s Unorthodox Went to Remarkable Lengths to Get Hasidic Jewish Customs Right,” praising the writer and director for their commitment to authenticity and describing Eli Rosen’s involvement. (Among other things, he taught Haas how to speak what most people heard as a convincing Satmar Yiddish; Rosen, a regular in the OTD groups, also plays the rabbi.) In a glowing review, New York Times television critic James Poniewozik also weighed in:
There’s an otherworldliness to “Unorthodox,” a credit to how well the director, Maria Schrader (also of the “Deutschland” series), visualizes both Williamsburg and Berlin. The dialogue hopscotches among Yiddish, English, and German; the scenes among the Hasidim are essentially period pieces, meticulously designed and costumed. There’s a sense, which Esty must feel, that the series takes place simultaneously in the past and the future.
After such baselessly confident judgments, it was a relief to hear from Frieda Vizel, who, as someone who left the Satmar community, knows better than Blake or Poniewozik whether Unorthodox did, in fact, “get Hasidic Jewish customs right.” Writing in the Forward, Vizel pointed out that the broken eruv that plays a pivotal role in the first episode, and which is cited by Poniewozik as a symbol for the almost invisible “high walls” that keep Esty in (until they don’t), is an obviously invented plot device. Satmar—along with many other haredi communities—generally doesn’t “hold by” the eruv. But for those viewers with just enough knowledge of Jewish practices to have heard of an eruv, this manufactured plot detail presumably allowed them to imagine themselves in the know.
It’s easy to pass this off as a minor quibble, an inaccuracy easily forgiven for the sake of the larger artistic vision, the symbolism Poniewozik sees in the eruv as the border of the community. But for Vizel, these small inaccuracies are symptoms of a much bigger, if less easily pinpointed, problem. What the show gets wrong, she argues, is basically everything:
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.
This last part made me laugh. By some kind of cultural contagion, a set of conventions seems to have developed for presenting the Orthodox world onscreen (Shtisel is a notable exception): not only the garb and the song and dance and “sea of black” but also ponderous language, weird utterances, and sepia tones, as if Orthodox Jews lived by candlelight, parsing out stern and sagacious words like rabbinic Yodas or Mr. Spocks. I can attest that the last kitchens in America still lit by fluorescent lights are in Hasidic homes.
It’s just this ponderous quality that Poniewozik was so taken by, the feeling that he was watching a “period piece,” an “otherworldly” combination of past and present that signaled that he was in the presence of “authentic” Hasidism.
While Poniewozik praises director Maria Schrader’s visualization of both Hasidic Williamsburg and contemporary Berlin, the focus on accuracy and authenticity, in his and other reviews, is directed almost entirely at Brooklyn. How did Berlin get off the hook so easily?
Walking in on the scene in which Esty hangs out with a group of music students in the kitchen of their conservatory dorm, my son asked if I was watching reality TV. I could see why; the talented, diverse, outspoken, and sexy young housemates bantering in front of a mural of a tropical beach were as visibly curated, as fabulously and uniformly beautiful and young as the cast of a Coke commercial. He wasn’t the only one who noticed. Along with memories of Hasidic marriages, the OTD groups were full of wry commentary on the ease and speed with which Esty finds her remarkable friends, the young German she gets into bed with, and the teacher and students who help plan her conservatory audition. Was it just me, or was it hard to follow how much time had passed between Esty’s dramatic flight to Berlin and the climactic audition near the end of the fourth episode? A few days? Weeks? Is that really how long it takes to go through the admissions process at a German musical conservatory? And, as someone dryly commented on an OTD Facebook group, “Where were the sexual predators?” She didn’t need to elaborate; we all knew about the dangers of those uncertain first steps “off the derekh.”
I suppose it makes no sense to ask whether the Berlin we see in Unorthodox is “authentic.” The music conservatory that is the story’s major setting is, after all, a complete invention on the part of the writers. In Making Unorthodox, a short documentary appended to the series, the producer, Anna Winger, describes their intention to present an “aspirational” version of Berlin, one very different from the Berlin of Deborah Feldman’s own experience. Feldman moved to Berlin with her young son only years after leaving Williamsburg; Esty makes the great leap in a day. So, that leaves only one context measured for its accuracy by the critics, one scrutinized for its curious customs and strange rituals. What would it mean to investigate and present the sexual habits of that group of people in Berlin, the details of their mating rituals?
This is not to say that we see no sex in Berlin. One scene finds Esty in what looks like the sexiest dance club in Berlin, and the group Esty falls in with includes a gay Nigerian cellist and his blond boyfriend. It isn’t surprising that Esty herself soon gets swept up in a tender (if initially awkward) love scene with the sensitive and hunky Robert in the final scene of episode 3. But the credits roll before we can see how far they get. When episode 4 dawns, they are still in bed, Robert asleep in the morning light. It seems entirely possible that the couple has had sex (though “made love” seems the right euphemism for this gauzy scene). Esty’s vaginismus, perhaps, is cured by Robert’s soft gaze and hard chest, by the ethereal glory of classical music or the pounding techno-rock at the club, or by the same Lake Wannsee current that carried off her wig. Or maybe not. She gets out of bed, wearing a bra and the skirt she was wearing the night before.
There is nothing remarkable about this modestly averted gaze, the cutaway from the tousled bed; we’ve seen those camera angles, heard that music before. In contrast, there is nothing usual, or normal, about all the earlier sex scenes in episode 3, which devote excruciating attention to Esty and Yanky’s year of failed marital sex: Nothing is left to the imagination. A kallah teacher mimes intercourse with her fingers and demonstrates the use of menstrual cloths, we have ample opportunity to witness what Hasidim wear to bed, Esty is handed a tube of lubricant (by her mother-in-law!), and the kallah teacher measures her anxiety with some sort of medical device and hands her a kit of something called “dilators” (look it up, or use your imagination). Esty and Yanky try again and again, and each time is more awful to watch. If these are sex scenes, they are of an entirely different species than the tender Berlin lovemaking. Name another reference to vaginismus in popular culture.
It’s worth pointing out that this shockingly direct depiction of sex—with its odd fusion of the clinical, the ethnographic, and the pornographic—is trained on what surely must be one of the most sexually modest communities in the world. I say “odd” because the prurience of Unorthodox is not Netflix’s familiar pop culture prurience. It’s a pornography not of sex but of sexlessness, of sex denuded of the glamor of what we might as well call Berlin sex, a sex hedged by Jewish law and the imperative to procreate. But this sexless sex is also, apparently, the most exciting sex, because it is so hidden.
Unorthodox’s quasi-ethnographic depiction of what is often described as “an insular community” is also odd, also distorted, insofar as it is driven by sexual curiosity and shaped by the conventions of an escape narrative. Only someone who was on the inside but is now on the outside could ever truly know, and would ever dream of describing, what Feldman’s autobiography and the show attempt to describe. This is an ethnography of horror, which plays and replays the backwardness of its subjects, confirming at the same time the sublimity and joy and freedom and light of modern secular lives, at least as “aspirationally” imagined. It’s a gaze that sees everything except its own hungry eye at the keyhole.
While odd, it’s not entirely unprecedented. Modern Jewish literature began with something like OTD memoirs, which right from the start performed a similar strip show for an enlightened audience. Salomon Maimon’s 1793 Autobiography contains both the earliest literary record of the nascent Hasidic movement and a deep dive into the autobiographer’s years of unconsummated marital sex. (To be fair, he was still a young teenager.) A few decades later, Mordecai Aaron Günzburg’s Aviezer provided even more graphic detail not only about his impotence as a newlywed but also about his mother-in-law’s attempts to “cure” him with near-lethal concoctions. Were the Jewish Enlightenment autobiography not an entirely male phenomenon, we might have seen some vaginismus. In these memoirs, something of Jewish law, its minute attention to the body, was brought to bear on the very different literary genre of the autobiography. These, too, were translations, shaped by the expectations of their readers as much as by their subjects. It’s worth noting that Maimon escaped Poland for the same city Esty chose two and a half centuries later and that he published his autobiography in German, not Hebrew. Even then, exotic Jews were a hot commodity.
There is a passage toward the end of Deborah Feldman’s memoir where she first figures this out. She’s working on an application to an adult education program at Sarah Lawrence as part of a much more gradual defection from the Satmar community than portrayed in the series (but try selling that story to Netflix). “I prepare the essays in advance, handwriting them before typing them up. The first two are autobiographical. I think to myself, This is my shtick. I gotta use whatever I got.” I got into a doctoral program at Berkeley at least partly on the strength of my own OTD story. A lot of us use whatever we got.
In Making Unorthodox, actress Shira Haas grasps for words to describe the power of the story in which she stars, finally settling on the insight, which she delivers with glistening eyes, that it is about “the right to have your own voice.” She was probably thinking of the audition scene: Esty begins by singing a Schubert lied but closes more powerfully by singing a Hasidic wedding song, the very one sung at her wedding, “Mi ban si’ach.” Unorthodox, Haas seems to be saying, is a story of empowerment and individuality, of discovering one’s own voice. Does it matter that this ideal of “finding one’s own voice” has the ring to my ear of the Sarah Lawrence classroom, the Berlin (or Tel Aviv) coffeehouse? It’s in phrases like this one that the OTD story finds an accessible narrative frame that translates (Hasidic) treason into (secular) bravery, (family) abandonment into (individual) empowerment, the mess of human relationships into an epic tale of universal appeal.
And what does Esty sing in this voice that is her own? A Hasidic song from the community left behind. This Hasidic music is also her deepest truth, despite the powerful attraction she thinks she feels to classical music, despite the desperate escape she has made from the community where such songs are sung. Or maybe Esty saw something as clearly as Deborah Feldman did: As a pianist, she didn’t have a chance; even as a singer, the main thing she had going was the story that explained her choice of “An die musik” as her grandmother’s secret favorite. “Why secret?” the judge asks, and her chances for admission skyrocket.
Maybe, just maybe, Esty heard that question and saw her shot. The only way forward was through the one thing she had that everyone wanted, the story of the “insular community” she had left behind. Even the Hasidic song was only what it was because it came with this story of a woman finally allowed to sing, a secret finally “scandalously” shared. Do you believe Esty is too naïve for such calculations? That’s only because she has to be, because only an Esty above calculation lets the secular viewer off the hook. Only an utterly naïve Esty—which is to say a truly authentic Esty—can obscure the nature of the queasy transaction that is the OTD narrative.
For the whole history of Jewish society, until less than two hundred years ago, love and attraction played little or no role in the making of marriages, which were arranged and contracted according to the interests—commercial, religious, and social—of the families involved.
A professor and three Hasidim walk into a bar—to study philosophy. True story.
Part of the artistry of Shtisel derives from an almost ritualistic obsession with the details that ultra-Orthodox Jews themselves obsess over.
Part of being a ba’al teshuvah is the yearning to stop being one—to finally blend with those who never had to return because they never left.