A Rabbi's Reflection on 'Unorthodox'

A Rabbi's Reflection on 'Unorthodox'
(Anika Molnar/Netflix via AP)
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Netflix's "Unorthodox" miniseries was a major Jewish cultural event during the COVID-19 shutdown, especially because it was mostly acted in Yiddish. Inspired by Deborah Feldman's 2012 memoir of the same name, it follows Esther "Esty" Shapiro (Shira Haas), a young pregnant Hasidic wife as she flees from the Yiddish-speaking haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Satmar community in Williamsburg, Brooklyn to Berlin, Germany. Feldman went on to write two other memoirs, "Exodus" (2014) and then "Exodus, Revisited" (2021), which provides the most insight into Feldman's background and perspective. I offer here an American Conservative rabbi's reaction to the TV series, to the memoirs, and to the challenges that both offer to Jewish observance.

In the four-part Netflix drama, Esty has headed to Berlin because her estranged mother has always told her that she is entitled to return to her maternal grandparents' native country. Esty's most powerful influence is her paternal grandmother, "Bubby." In the memoirs, Feldman's preoccupation with the Holocaust is most directly connected to her grandmother, a survivor, whose destinations and struggles Feldman will literally revisit in trips to Hungary and Sweden. The series and, even more so, the memoirs, are effective for age-appropriate (due to interspersed sexual content) Holocaust education. Deborah Feldman was also highly conscious of the Holocaust from a young age because of the Satmar belief and promise (theologically troubling to most other Jews) that the Holocaust was a punishment for assimilation and that Jews must make God "proud of us" so that there won't be another Holocaust.

The adapters/producers departed notably from the memoirs by making a point of inventing an out-and-out Hasidic goon, Moishe Lefkovitch (Jeff Wilbusch) who, for their purposes, had to be recruited by the rebbe (grand rabbi) himself. Thus, the rebbe comes across as goonish as well. He urges Moishe to accompany Esty's husband Yaakov ("Yanky" or "Yankel") who hopes for her return: "Bring back Esther Shapiro and God will ... pay your debts, will work things out with your wife and children." Moishe plays vicious mind games on Esty, cruelly invoking the Holocaust and handing her a gun!

Whether intended or not, Yanky (Amit Rahav) comes across sympathetically even though he fails to stand up for Esty against meddling relatives. The only moving scenes in the series are with him, particularly at the end. Interestingly, the miniseries is not kind to Bubby, though it acknowledges her as an unwitting inspiration in Esty's educational choices. Bubby lets Esty down even more than did Yanky.

The miniseries also departs from the memoirs by having a doctor raise the possibility of abortion and by emphasizing Esty's rejection of that choice. Because of all the children lost in the Holocaust, Esty feels obligated to bring a Jewish child into the world, especially in Germany.

The miniseries ends on a spiritual note, but far removed from Judaism and from Holocaust themes. A friend gives Esty, who is curious about God if not Jewish life, the gift of a compass, which becomes a kind of Ouija board. Esty seemingly substitutes New Age regalia for Jewish ritual objects and practices. Feldman writes in her memoirs that she had hoped for "magic" from an early age and even in her marriage. She flirts with many New Age ideas and practices in her memoirs: shamanic therapy, circles in nature, lingering dead ancestors, "real magic;" "manifesting of the impossible," and finding "karmic reconciliation."

I can't help thinking of Will Herberg's observation in his profound work of theology, "Judaism and Modern Man" that people who won't worship God will worship something else, and likely something destructive or at best unworthy. I would add that they will make up their own rituals, as well, usually pale imitations of traditional practices, like Feldman's placing scented candles around the room for an "oasis of peace" in "Unorthodox" – far from a full Sabbath experience.

Needless to say, Deborah Feldman's memoirs and the Netflix miniseries pose a challenge to Jewish communal and synagogue organizations: How help those who leave haredi communities to find a place in Jewish life that they can regard as authentic, given their early immersion in Judaism?

Deborah Feldman stated in more than one place her discomfort in America and in the American Jewish community. Unlike the miniseries character, Esty, Feldman tried for a while to start a new life in the States before deciding on Germany. But, as she tells it, the leaders of a Modern Orthodox Jewish day school did not treat her or her son fairly and would not accept his left-handedness, while the approach to Jews and Judaism in America at large and in the Jewish community was not encouraging or helpful to her.

The haredi community, like all other Jewish groups, should consider the benefits of teaching children about the Founding Fathers' wise conviction that religious groups need to be protected and allowed to flourish even when one disagrees with them or is repulsed by them. In their correspondence, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson defended the right of "asylum" in the United States to religions whose doctrines they regarded as ridiculous.

Such education might have moderated Feldman's cold observation that "bringing transformation to these radical groups is in the best interest of the greater society that supports them," as she writes in "Unorthodox." Are haredi communities to be classified as "radical groups?" The haredi groups maintain traditional values, teachings, and practices which a portion of the Jewish community will always regard, even crave, as essential. These groups are also vital to the demographic and spiritual revitalization of Jews and Judaism, even if there are aspects of their worldview and practice which other Jews may find repulsive. Increasingly politically-savvy haredi American Jews are, I expect, coming to realize that fostering appreciation of the Founding Fathers' pluralism will help them to stand up for themselves and even make their case to alienated family members with good American debate and persuasion.

Tellingly, the producers of the Netflix series depicted Esty as most bothered and disaffected by the traditional shaving of her head (so she could cover her hair, reserved for intimacy with her husband, with a wig). But Deborah Feldman was far more nonchalant about this. In "Unorthodox," she describes her bigger problem with the mikvah (ritual bath) and its management, describing it as dirty and as Shingles-infecting, even molestation-enabling, and as making her feel dirty ("kicked aside," as she translates nidah, the biblical term for a menstruant woman). In "Exodus, Revisited," she cites with acquiescence a friend who dismisses the Jewish (and Muslim) dietary laws as "violent separation" from others.

Such observations and denunciations in the memoirs and the miniseries challenge efforts of all Jewish religious movements to foster observance of the mitzvot or commandments for the hallowing of everyday life. When Esty discovers that she has eaten a ham sandwich and that she has not become nauseated, she explains her passing anxiety attack to her music professor: "Where I come from there are many rules." He replies, "In music often you have to break the rules to make a masterpiece." In "Unorthodox," Feldman exclaims, "How can I condemn my son to a life of smallness and limitation?"

In his lyrical defense of traditional East European Jewish piety, "The Earth Is the Lord's," based on presentations shortly after the Holocaust, Abraham Heschel said that to the pious Jew, Jewish law is "sacred music. The Divine sings in noble deeds"; human effort is "but the counterpoint to the music" of God's will. He also pointed out that it is the "unfree" who are "horrified by the suggestion of accepting a spiritual regimen," who "equate self-restraint with self-surrender."

In all three of her books, Feldman tells of her grandmother's anguish at losing a beloved garden because of a "nutrient stealing" loganberry tree that could not be eliminated due to a biblical prohibition against killing fruit-bearing trees. But what about all the creative efforts of Orthodox rabbis during shemitah (sabbatical) years to grow plants in special troughs as opposed to on "the land" (Leviticus 25:5) when it must be left fallow? After all, a wise Talmudic woman, Yalta, wittily observed that for everything the Torah prohibits, it allows an equivalent (Hullin 109b). And there's something beautiful – not to mention, environmentally admirable – about not destroying even annoying fruit trees.

But positive, even transformative moments in Hasidic life do flow into the memoirs, and even the Netflix series. In "Unorthodox," Feldman conveys the community's sense of sin being wiped clean on Simchat Torah (the "Rejoicing in the Law" Festival), even more so, or at least more joyously, than on Yom Kippur, though sadly she is able to see divine light on everyone but herself. Indeed, Feldman indicates that she speaks for herself at certain stages of her life, and not of everyday Satmar Hasidic life, when she rejects a feeling of "being watched by God" as "crippling" or regards the Deity as a graceless being who must be charmed and persuaded into "cooperation" (theurgy?) in order to show people grace – notions that good educators in Judaism, like the foundational biblical and Talmudic texts, would discourage.

Elliot B. Gertel is the Rabbi Emeritus of Congregation Rodfei Zedek in Chicago. He has been film and television reviewer of the “National Jewish Post and Opinion” since 1979. His books include "What Jews Know About Salvation" and "Over the Top Judaism: Precedents and Trends in the Depiction of Jewish Beliefs and Observances in Film and Television."

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