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“Unorthodox” — the Haredi Communities in the Time of COVID-19

06/10/2020 02:48:12 PM



One obvious outgrowth of COVID-19 and the ensuing stay-at-home orders is the proliferation of binge-watching — discovering television series on streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon. For the Jewish community (if not beyond), the mini-series “Unorthodox,” based on the autobiographical book written by Deborah Feldman, has caught quite a buzz. And our Congregation Kol Ami book club recently took on the book.

The mini-series, while not completely true to the original story, does retain the spirit of the story — a harsh critique of the Haredi community and, in this case, the Satmar Hasid community. My own reflection here is not to defend the community’s machmir (read: strident) approach to halakhah. Particularly, I remain uncomfortable with the communal ethos that plays out as one-size-fits-all and in the sexist imposition of family mores.  

At the same time, I take to heart the reviews of the mini-series that point to an oversimplification or, really, an overly generalized view of the Haredi community. The mini-series does lack some nuance in its portrayal of characters and in its harsh treatment of Hasidic sexual practice. I do not doubt the truth of the book, which I read a few years ago. The community she describes in her book is not a Jewish community that I would ever wish to create or uphold.

By contrast, I am now a season-plus deep into the Israeli television series “Shtisel.” The series retains the overarching theme of dogmatic adherence to halakhah being challenged by those who find avenues for creative and emotional expression not accommodated by their Haredi existence. Yet, the characters all retain individual attributes and flaws that one would find in any community.  

How children assert their own individual forms of expression apart from and in opposition to their parents, the need for parental approval notwithstanding the child’s yearning for independence, sibling rivalry for that approval, parents’ over-involvement in the lives of their children notwithstanding their best intentions — all are given expression on the show. These are issues that any community might face. The fact that these issues in the show are played out within a Haredi community matters and, just maybe, shines a brighter light on these issues. After all, these issues, to the extent that they can be characterized as issues of boundaries, are given greater prominence in a community in which the boundaries defining proper or normative behavior are substantial.

Ultimately, “Shtisel” has characters to root for and love, and characters who seem to possess inherent evil inclinations. It’s not that I don’t root for the Esty Shapiro character in “Unorthodox” — I do. I rooted for, and still root for and admire, Deborah Feldman. I just do not want to allow my somewhat harsh perspective on a more dogmatic religious life, Jewish or otherwise, to lose sight of the humanity contained by the people who live within those communities. My discomfort with the Haredi community is generally triggered when those who may not wish to remain within that community are not given the option to leave.

If I have gotten anything out of the bright light that has been shone on the Haredi community via our COVID-19 binge festival, it is the reminder of the connectedness of our Jewish world, even with a community I would never live within or promote. I hold on to this idea, knowing that there are those within the Haredi world who question my Jewish credentials or do not see me as Jewish at all. Maybe one day, those who disdain a more progressive brand of Judaism will also see our humanity, frailty and all.

Fri, July 3 2020 11 Tammuz 5780