I’ve always been fascinated with subcultures — like the Hasidim, Amish and Gypsies — that stubbornly maintain their separation from modern life. I find them inspiring, because they demonstrate that there remain ways to leave modern life behind, and live another way. To submerge ourselves once again in the way of life our ancestors lived in for millennia, where tradition, and our elders, ruled all. Until foreign armies came, anyway.
I watch every drama and documentary I can about these groups. I found the Netflix limited series “Unorthodox“ to be one of the best, and I liked it enough to go and read the autobiography it was based on. It’s the story of a young Satmar Hasidic woman, strong-armed into a loveless marriage, who courageously breaks free from a life that feels alien to her.
So far, everything I’ve said is in the program notes, but spoilers follow!
In the Netflix series Esty, is a young woman who escapes from her arranged marriage. She flees from Williamsburg Brooklyn to Berlin, where she finds a welcoming community of young artists, who help her find her voice — quite literally.
I enjoyed the series very much. The glimpses into the Hasidic culture and practices were fascinating. I’m sure I wasn’t the only goy viewer who used Google to find out why, as part of preparation for a Passover meal, every square inch of exposed surface in the kitchen gets covered in aluminum foil. I found the portrait of Esty’s husband Yanky to be quite sympathetic. He was as uncomfortable as she was when they met for the first time under the watchful eyes of their families. You could see that he too was trapped by their traditions. Their wedding night was a fumbling disaster, and when Yanky reported their inability to consummate the marriage to his family, Esty was exposed to the most embarrassing scrutiny of what was considered her failure alone.
As a viewer, you know from the beginning of the show that Esty escapes, and so each event in her Hasidic life is framed as a contributing factor, impelling her to turn her back on her marriage, and her entire community. Like many shows about historical cultures, or current subcultures, the writers appeal to viewers by emphasizing the oppression of an alien culture, and how precious are the modern freedoms that we take for granted: like our unquestioned right to choose a spouse for ourselves. When Esty travels to Berlin, she improbably finds instant, seamless acceptance by a group of young musicians that she meets in the street. They shepherd her through the admissions process of their music school. One of them points out that while she is a competent pianist, she falls well short of the level of the extraordinary skill demanded by their school. Still, Esty discovers that all along, without her really knowing it, she had an exquisite gift for singing. She sings her way into school.
The improbability of that story, the fairy tale of a young woman finding a group of friends in the scary forest, and discovering she has the gift of song, is what drew me to read the book. The TV series claimed it remained faithful to the book only in Brooklyn. The Berlin part of the drama was entirely fictional. The stark contrast between free, self-actualizing life in modern Berlin, against the stifling oppression of Hasidic Brooklyn started to grate on me. I realized I was watching propaganda for modern life. It was skillfully executed and brilliantly done — but it was really just propaganda.
Propaganda is about selection and focus. Show only an idealized modern Berlin. The friends Esty finds are of course, quite diverse in the current way of thinking. They are different enough to convey a broad, democratic authority, without being different enough to suffer irresolvable conflicts. In Berlin all relationships — the gay lovers among her friends, Esty’s mother and her lover — are tender and loving. In Hasidic Brooklyn, all relationships are, at best, empty of feeling. More often relationships are suffocating and they are sometimes quite cruel. Modern life has been criticized for loneliness, the breakup of extended and nuclear families, and despair. But not in modern Berlin. Warmth surrounds you in Berlin. In Brooklyn, no one can express their true inner self: Etsy has to hide her music lessons. In Berlin, the loving warmth of her new community of friends encourages Esty to blossom, and she discovers she has a heretofore hidden talent for singing.
I turned to the book to learn the true story of what really happened when Esty escaped. I found to my surprise that the book was very different in Brooklyn as well. Berlin was not her destination she first escaped. Deborah Feldman — the real-life Esty — escaped gradually. As a child she surreptitiously went to the library, and she hid forbidden books, like Jane Austin’s novels, under her mattress. Her father was a distant, but important, figure in her life. Deborah grew up without him, and as she grew older she realized it was because he wasn’t capable of caring for her. The entire community viewed him with pity. This, combined with her mother’s seeming abandonment, was the reason she was raised by her grandparents. With her troubled background, she wasn’t in much demand as a marriage partner, and her grandparents were forced to match her with a man who wasn’t in much demand either.
The TV drama exhibited some sympathy for Yanky, her husband, but in Deborah Feldman’s recounting her husband is presented as insecure and distant, and he was abusive towards her at times. In the TV drama Esty escapes from Brooklyn when she became pregnant, but in reality Deborah had a son before she left. Deborah and her husband left Brooklyn, and moved to an Hasidic community in Orange county, north of the city, because it was close to his family. She convinced her husband to let her attend college, lying to him that she’d be taking professional courses, when in reality she would be studying literature. This was the decisive break. She began changing her clothes when she arrived at school, and became friends with a few fellow students. One night, she had a near-fatal car accident on the Tappan Zee bridge, while driving home from school.
She never went back to her husband after that.
Deborah didn’t go to Berlin until years later. No she stayed in the New York area, fighting an uphill battle to gain legal custody of her son. I find it inexplicable that the TV series didn’t focus on this triumph, rather than creating a fictional one in Berlin.
In the book we experience Deborah from the inside, and in the TV drama we experience ourselves watching Esty. The book is a description of what it feels like to be born into a culture that levies exacting demands and hard, inflexible constraints. But the TV drama is meant to persuade us that modernity is a sort of salvation, rescuing us from all unfairness.
Having read the book, I think less of the TV series. The “making of” extra feature focused with some pride on its authentic rendering of Satmar Hasidic culture. There is a marked myopia in this, because their rendering of modern life is in no way authentic. Its not even remotely realistic. Nowhere on earth, in this age or in any age, has there been a collection of young people whose diversity magically transmutes them into apostles for modern individualism. The series is propaganda, magnifying the pain and sickness found within traditional life, and cleansing modern culture of all its pain, loneliness and despair.
The book is about Deborah. It is one persons accounting of her life — the circumstances she was born into, the alienation she felt even as a child, and her increasing resentment of a life that was chosen for her. The TV series is not about a person at all, but rather it is a dramatization meant to persuade. It succeeds in its aim because it flatters the viewer, using the authentic rendering of the outer details of Hasidic life to convince the viewer that they see through the surface details and identify the painful woulds inflicted by that life. The harsh choices faced by Esty force the viewer to see fictional Berlin as the comforting alternative modern life offers.
Deborah did, in the end make it to Berlin, because that is where her mother would up in her own journey. Deborah did, in fact, meet some friends in Berlin, but they were not the fictional friends in the series, but rather a group of artists that read her book, knew her story, and wanted to use her story to celebrate their belief that salvation is to be found in secular individualism. The circle of friends were the creators of the TV series.
Deborah did, in fact, discover an inner voice. But it was’t the magical, Disney princess singing voice Esty unleashed in fictional Berlin. No it was the voice of a writer, telling a true story in a way that was compelling enough to win her freedom.