On April 28, New York’s mayor Bill de Blasio took to Twitter to vent his frustration at the Hasidic community of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where hundreds of men had gathered in defiance of social distancing orders for the funeral of a prominent rabbi. “My message to the Jewish community, and all communities, is this simple: the time for warnings has passed,” DeBlasio threatened. Earlier that day, as it happened, the Blue Angels had flown over New York in a spectacle that drew conspicuously non-distant crowds into the city’s streets and parks. No mayoral tweets took aim at them; but then, they are us, while the Hasids of Brooklyn are very definitely not.
That much is clear to anyone who has passed some quarantine time binging Unorthodox, the hit Netflix series about a young Hasidic woman who runs away from Williamsburg to find sexual and artistic freedom in Berlin. It’s the latest in what’s become a small but growing genre of escape-from-Judaism stories—including the mediocre movie Disobedience, starring Rachel Weisz as the bisexual daughter of a London rabbi; the Netflix documentary One of Us, which follows three ex-Hasidic Jews from Brooklyn; and the excellent 2015 memoir All Who Go Do Not Return by Shulem Deen, who grew up in the Hasidic village of New Square in Rockland County, New York.
The fictional Unorthodox is based on Deborah Feldman’s memoir of that title, which appeared in 2012. Raised in the Satmar sect, one of the most radically anti-modern Hasidic groups, Feldman was married at 17 and became a mother at 19. Several striking episodes from Feldman’s life are assigned to the series’s heroine, Esty—such as her shock upon learning, just before her wedding night, that she has a “hole” in her body that is designed for sex; she replies that she must have been born without one.
But then, they are us, while the Hasids of Brooklyn are very definitely not.
Feldman’s book tells a classic story of self-emancipation from ignorance and patriarchal oppression. After many years of inner rebellion, she began to take writing classes at Sarah Lawrence, made friends outside the Hasidic world, and finally mustered the courage to take her young son and leave the Satmar community. But in transforming Deborah into Esty, the writers of the Netflix series, Anna Winger and Alexa Karolinski, turn a real tale of courage into a preposterous genre piece. In the first episode, Esty makes her get-away from Williamsburg like a defector in a spy movie. In search of her estranged mother, she flees to Berlin, where she immediately falls in with a crowd of fun-loving music students. As they introduce her to the joys of nightclubbing and casual sex, Esty’s husband is on her trail accompanied by a gun-toting Hasidic enforcer named Moishe, who will stop at nothing to bring her back into the fold.
Much of the show’s publicity has centered on the care the filmmakers took to make the details of Williamsburg life authentic—the clothes, the furnishings, the Yiddish dialogue that the actors learned phonetically. But Unorthodox could not be more stereotyped. In this story, religious people are all cruel fanatics and modern people are all beautiful, diverse and tolerant. The emotional tone is set by the Israeli actress Shira Haas, who plays Esty as though she’s just escaped from a war zone, frail and terrified at all times. Indeed, she applies to the music school as part of a program for refugees, telling the interviewer that that’s just what she is.
The filmmakers’ most telling alteration to the book, though, is to have Esty find her bliss in Berlin, of all places. (Winger and Karolinski are both Jews who live in Germany.) It is the Jews, the show repeatedly insists, who cling stubbornly to the memory of the Holocaust; the Germans are magnanimous enough to let bygones be bygones, especially if it involves rescuing a young girl from the clutches of her cruel Jewish family. That plot has been popular ever since The Merchant of Venice, where Shylock finds that Jessica has run away with her Christian lover and can’t decide which he misses more, his daughter or his ducats. The success of Unorthodox shows that stories of stubborn Jews getting their comeuppance never go out of style.
Adam Kirsch is a poet, critic, and editor in New York whose books include Who Wants to be a Jewish Writer?: And Other Essays