Why I believe it’s important to criticize shows like Unorthodox

Why I believe it’s important to criticize shows like Unorthodox

I am not used to writing for a wider readership, so I am new to the onslaught of feedback from my Forward essay on the inaccuracies in Unorthodox. Many people are going to the trouble of contacting me through my tourism business to let me have it that my criticism is petty and embarrassing, and also flat out wrong. (They also educate me on the community which I’ve studied formally for nearly ten years, because surely a woman must never be an expert, right?)

I want to explain where I come from when I criticize shows depicting ex-Hasidim or Hasidim.

My two important complaints:

I am critical of a few important things: First, I am uncomfortable with outsiders creating shows and reaping the ensuing rewards from those shows, when people from the actual community are creative, bursting with ideas and working so hard to access the means to share them. My second complaint is that the shows that are created by outsiders are nothing but bad propaganda. Both of these criticisms are important and valid. They are not petty. Allowing for the loudest, most powerful voices to cancel out any dissent creates an unfair fight and leaves little room for the truth.

What’s in it for me?

You might say – well, I don’t trust your criticism because you have an agenda: You are upset you didn’t get to make the show. – In that case, let me try to unpack what I stand to gain by speaking my mind on Unorthodox.

I’m a tour guide in Hasidic Williamsburg, the only one. My tours are mentioned in a Netflix series (in the making of) that reaches a huge audience. I only need 30 people a week to run a successful tour operation. Since the show launched, people have become curious about which tour the producers mentioned, and I’m already getting media requests despite the lockdown. All of this was extremely predictable and auspicious. This show was good news for my business, and it’s even better now that tours are going to be in desperate need of a boost. In fact, I think I’m one of the only ex-Hasidim or Hasidim who indirectly benefits from the show. So no, this is not coming from a place of being upset about any alleged exclusion.

I’ll go so far as to say that the reason I am emboldened to speak my mind is because I know I’m not coming to this with a personal gripe. Until now, I would have said nothing, for fear I’d be dismissed and mocked for just being jealous. But this time, I chose to speak up; I wonder how many Hasidim or ex-Hasidim who want to be actors, writers, producers, make music, etc., feel the same. How many say nothing, for fear that they’ll be dismissed?

Sour grapes versus valid criticism

Should we be dismissed if we criticize the show for taking opportunities that should have gone to ex-Hasidim or Hasidim? Is this a case of risible envy? Of course not. There is a very valuable case to be made for ensuring that those who have only our stories as opportunities, should get those opportunities. As LK wrote in the comments on this blog:

“Maybe Unorthodox wasn’t authentic, but some of the scenes did capture my experiences, for instance, when Esty is told she doesn’t have sufficient training in music. Incidentally, I wonder how many OTD actors auditioned for this series only to be turned away for lack of sufficient background in theater. That’s what bothered me most: I think the entire cast should have been OTD. I think that we collectively, as a community, own this content, and only we (or a subset of us) have the right to tell it, produce it, and direct it. Let’s recognize that intellectual property is a thing, and that without the OTD experiences, this show has no content (yes, all the side plots were extremely misleading: where was my princess charming Robert(a)?). Shira Haas can land many roles, Winger and Karolinski can write other things, but for many of us, this story is the only thing we own (!). Many of us will only get the stage when we discuss/write/act about these experiences, and not for lack of talent. I believe that our community, as small as it may be, has a sufficient supply of writers and actors, and no one else should capitalize on this.”

This astute comment also brings up the notion of who has the right tell minority stories, an issue that is hardly limited to Unorthodox. A few months ago, the literary world was swept up with the controversy of American Dirt, a book about the plight of Mexican migrants written by an American woman. Some very brave Latina authors became vocal about the audacity of an American woman getting a seven figure book deal to tell the stories they never get the chance to tell.

Were these authors jealous? Who cares; they still had a very good point. And furthermore, they were effective. The publishing industry promised to work harder to create opportunities for Latina creatives. I can bet my negative bank account that the woman who created the stir won’t be the only one to reap the rewards, or at least, that the favor she is doing will benefit far more people than herself alone. That was the point. Whatever you think of the book and the criticism of its clichés and ignorant Mexican references, we can agree that it is important for the struggling writers to say their bit. It’s the only way minorities ever wrestle back their stories from more privileged (albeit often well-meaning) folks.

It saddens me that a community of people who should be rebels and troublemakers have no backbone when calling out fancy-pants people with Netflix shows on, frankly, the most implausible and ridiculous story I can imagine them making. I also believe that people will start to grumble loudly after a few brave souls are done taking the heat and being called petty. Because no doubt, the problem I am expressing is troubling plenty others.

It isn’t “just a movie”

I was never one of these “it’s just entertainment” people. Entertainment is at the core of society, of our values. If you want to argue it is only a fictional show, let me tell you that I have a very unique vantage point. I am a tour guide, so I meet people from all over the world. For many years now, people have come on my tour believing they know Hasidim based on Deborah Feldman’s book. They do not think it is one woman’s story; they think it is everyone. They look at Hasidic men and women in a way that makes me deeply uncomfortable. I try to encourage people to realize our commonalities, not to dehumanize. Some people are open minded, most are not. But the way they see Hasidim, as a fact, is culled totally from the media they consume. It is never “just entertainment.”

The other problem is that shows like Unorthodox make human authoritarian tendencies look far away and absurd. When you watch the show, you think, “Me, authoritarian tendencies? I’d never march in and tell my daughter in law to consummate a relationship!” We convince ourselves that we are impervious to Big Brother, because we know what Big Brother looks like from watching movies about cults and subcultures. It makes us think we will see evil when we see it. But evil is much more banal. If we don’t know that, we don’t notice when it becomes us.

It’s ironic that people should be gorging themselves on Unorthodox at the same time that we are in lock down, and some of humanity’s most authoritarian impulses are showing. I feel a constant sense of déja vu. Suddenly, as our freedoms are curtailed, the types who in the Hasidic community lectured you on what you wore on your head (which headgear) now lecture you what to wear on your head (which mask). The same relish with which people shamed sinners in the Hasidic community is brought upon those who dare go outside for some fresh air. Asking hard questions about the value of a lockdown, or of its devastation, is a thoughtcrime. People blindly cite statistics and mantras like gospel. I read Peter Hitchen’s “Notes from a Non-Conformist” and his experience of having his freedoms curtailed, his behaviors policed by others, and I feel as rebellious as I did when I read about evolution as a young Hasidic mother.

The tendency towards mob behavior is frightening. It is bad. It is not petty. My sensitivity to it comes from a tremendous amount of suffering by those who have no room for non-conformists. I will never be a conformist, so I will always know when the pitchforks are coming. The mob takes our dignity if we go along, and if we don’t, they make us traitors to our values, make us hurt people who defect.

Bravery to swim against the current

The irony is that the show Unorthodox praises this exact idea, an ideal I strive to live by: the courage to swim against the current, to be non-conformists, the value of freedom, and the ultimate benefit of holding your ground. But the show, sadly, does not truly mean it. It says that propaganda is bad and non-conformity is good, all the while being itself propaganda and conforming terribly with people’s lazy biases.

There is an extra layer of mind-fuckery added to watching the show in present times, where not only are people behaving in authoritarian ways, they are doing so by co-opting the language of a healthy democratic society. It’s an Orwellian world where freedom is slavery and all that jazz. Peter Hitchens outlines this well in his article “We Love Big Brother,” describing the people who shudder away from his hellos on the streets right now, as if speaking to someone from a distance will somehow transmit coronavirus. They do this in the name of protecting the “vulnerable” and by telling one another they are “helping to save the NHS.”

In her aggressively titled article, “The ultra-Orthodox leadership’s shameful abdication of its responsibility,” Shoshanna Keats Jaskoll uses the same lofty notions of saving lives and protecting the vulnerable to go as far suggesting we name names of those not self isolating to a satisfactory level. She is completely ready to step into Big Brother’s shoes, and she is not alone. Many people have been quick to bully the Hasidic community for any lockdown infraction, showing no compassion for the toll such a lockdown has been taking on this community of many very large families. It seems that people from all corners, from the media and both within and outside of the community, have delighted in calling the Hasidic community out, not ever seeing in their behavior any notes of the meddling mother-in-law or vindictive husband.

Curiously, it was this same self-righteous drive to call out any non-conformists that seems to have led to the pushback myself and others have received on our opinions about Unorthodox. This is bigger than my own views and feelings, and it’s bigger than Unorthodox. The fact still remains that the Hasidic community—and all minority groups—have the right to tell their stories in their own voices, and that allowing outsiders to do the talking distorts people’s view and allows harmful biases and misunderstandings to prevail.

Lest you think I ask that you go to your balcony and clap for me, I want to assure you that I don’t think criticism of a piece of media is some kind of heroic bullshit. I say it because authoritarian, mind-numbing swooning and mob-like attacks make me frantic and frightened. I know from a lifetime of trying to avoid the wrath of the intolerant, that avoiding self-criticism is dangerous.


Addendum: Here is a critique posted downthread of one of my posts that is so good, it’s worth sharing it here. It speaks to many of the problems of the show purely from a critique perspective.

The secular world has a fascination with religion. Liberal Jews have a fascination with Hasidim. Open communities have a fascination with closed communities. And I get it, because when you take very different cultures and put them right up against each other in a physical space, it is NORMAL to be curious. When you meet people who have very different values, it is NORMAL to feel defensive, even judgmental. But wow – if that’s where you start and that’s where you end up – that is boring. Why can’t boring people tell inaccurate stories about their OWN culture?

This is being sold as an authentic story about Hasidim. But the Hasidim are just props – the psychological core of the show is the deep fear that most liberal and secular people have of illiberal communities. This is MY story – the story of the liberal Jew who imagines herself stuck in an illiberal world and how that would make ME feel (suffocated, oppressed, desperate to return to my own set of norms). That’s why everything is so easy, why there’s no grief, or fear or any of the other real emotions that real humans feel when they leave something they know and love for something they want but also fear. The movie was made for ME. And it’s already been made – so many times. I mean, it’s never been made with Shira Haas. But still.

I honestly think this deserves and even more detailed point by point analysis, with screenshots, and drawings, and cartoons, and voiceovers and your own stories. The show is trading on authenticity – no one would be the least bit interested if they said “We thought the costumes were cool and, like, I’m Jewish, so we just made sh*t up”. If they are lying, call them out. Be crabby.. Nothing will get better until we all demand a higher standard.

The people who created Shtissel are not Chalmers Hasidim and the actors do not speak Yiddish. They got it right because they CARED. The details mattered, not because they wanted to BRAG about authenticity, but because a good filmmaker knows that bad details are a DISTRACTION from the STORY.

How much time and energy and attention went into choosing the right ashtray for one scene in Madmen? How much time and energy and attention went into all of the tiny details in Shtissel, details that people like me completely MISS? Shtissel is not showing off its authenticity to ME. It wants to delight the viewer – the Hasidic viewer – by hiding tiny tokens of affection in each scene. Those are acts of LOVE between a filmmaker and his subject. That is what is missing here.

A good filmmaker does not collect a person’s story to use it as a weapon. They don’t take complicated, human lives and turn them into something hostile, cold, and flat. We’ve already seen the show where a woman leaves her controlling family / community / husband / religion to become someone just like the filmmaker and her friends. It’s been DONE. And now, it’s been done with taller hats.

If you really want to criticize, tell me a story about Hasidic life that defies all the well-known stereotypes and then completely breaks my heart. I don’t need a love letter where everything is perfect and good, but I don’t want to read hate mail. I just want to see my fellow Jews on screen in all their complex, beautiful, fur-hatted, short sheitled, heartbreaking glory.




Book Review: Becoming Eve by Abby Stein

What makes Shtisel so accurate?

(sorta) live-tweeting watching Unorthodox

  • Dina N.
    Posted at 03:30h, 07 April Reply

    Very well said. People think the mob will always wear the same face, so they are on the lookout for 1930s Nazis and racists from the 50s, their ilk, ready to call them out and reject their rhetoric. They don’t realize that the pitchforks are weilded each generation by its own version of the mob, and only the very sensitive and very honest can see it for what it is when it comes.

  • Elizabeth
    Posted at 23:55h, 08 April Reply

    Thank you very much for spending your time and talents to write about the show “Unorthodox.” I have started to watch it on Netflix, and it is…”heavy-handed” is the term that comes to mind. One would have to be an idiot to have even watched the trailers and not figured out that the Hasidic community that Esty leaves is going to play the role of The Bad Guy. (So very black and white. Yet I imagine there are plenty of people who find happiness and fulfillment there. I say “imagine” because I do not know anyone personally, of course.) This was never my community, so without the commentary of others I would not know which details were correct and which were not. As a current practicing member of another religious minority community–one that was grossly misrepresented in another popular television series–I find it incredibly disrespectful to (1) paint an entire group of individuals as some monolith devoid of personality, and (2) get the details wrong. Thank you again.

    • Frieda Vizel
      Posted at 11:02h, 10 April Reply

      Whenever I watch shows about other sub-communities (Ammish, Mormons, etc – the media loves it) I feel so disrespected by the portrayals. Any intelligent person with zero background information of the society can appreciate how stupid the show presumes its viewers to be. I have come to appreciate that we (you and me and others who think this matters) are always going to be in the minority while people choose to enjoy entertainment that has zero value except help pass the time in a stupor. It’s a profoundly depressing realization.

      Anyway, I’m glad you wrote. Thanks!

  • Rob P
    Posted at 08:42h, 09 April Reply

    Having participated in one of your respectful and powerful tours six months ago I was interested to hear your thoughts on Unorthodox. Initally I was engrossed by the drama of the Netflix series.
    However, on reflection, the binary series’ portrayal of the Hasidic community as seemingly without any positive qualities contrast with the western-secular-German community as seemingly without negative qualities seemed too simplistic. This doesn’t seem to reflect the complexities of real life for either way of life.
    Thank you for your thoughts and speaking up for minority communities to have the opportunity to tell their own stories – with richness, depth, complexity and honesty.

    • Frieda Vizel
      Posted at 10:57h, 10 April Reply

      Rob — I love to hear from my tour alumni! 🙂 🙂 Thanks for being open minded – I think it’s good to try to see things from all angles…

  • Getan
    Posted at 01:20h, 11 April Reply

    I liked the show, even though there were things that irked me. For the record, I do not have a Hasidic background.

    I do have a bone to pick with you regarding only certain people having a “right” to tell certain stories. What I am about to say may come across as harsh; I’m not trying to be. I understand your position. I understand feeling frustrated when you see inaccuracies, or when you see things being slanted too much one way or the other about a community that you are close to (even if you’re not officially a part of it anymore) and that you know so well.

    You say that people in the Hasidic community would love to tell their stories, but can’t, and by outsiders telling their stories for them, they are taking away their opportunity. I am just confused as how and why people in the Hasidic community are unable to tell their stories? What do you mean by this? Anyone can pick up a pen and paper and start writing. It seems to me that the vast majority of people who are still inside the Hasidic community are happy to be there, and have no desire to start writing, producing, directing, and acting in tv shows about their culture. Perhaps I am wrong, though. But even if they did have such a desire, I don’t think the Hasidic community itself would allow its members to start writing and acting in shows about its life. People who have left Hasidism likewise can write their stories. No one is stopping them. Deborah Feldman, whose book this show is based on, did just that! She is a former Satmar Jew who decided to write a book about HER STORY. Her book was on the best seller’s list and has now been adapted into show. So I’m confused on how this show is purportedly made by outsiders, when its source material is the very type of person you are saying should be telling these stories? Alexa Karolinski, one of the creators of the show, is also Jewish. True, she is not a Hasidic Jew, but she is still a Jew, so I’m not sure if she’s complete outsider who “doesn’t have the right to tell Feldman’s story.” Judaism and the Holocaust affects all Jews, regardless of level of adherence. Is Karolinski not allowed to try to express herself, her identity, her perception and experience being Jewish? Karolinski saw Feldman’s story and saw something that resonated with her. Perhaps she wished her family were more religious. Perhaps she was intrigued. Perhaps she was interested in how various Jewish movements around the world live and express their faith and culture; how they deal with Holocaust and trauma associated with it. Karolinski grew up in Jewish community in Germany. Perhaps she too was curious or struggling with something in her faith, culture, and history, and she wanted to explore these themes via Feldman’s story? And where do you draw the line at where someone is an outsider vs an insider? Can someone with depression AND anxiety tell the story of depression and anxiety, but someone with ONLY depression can’t? Can men not tell stories about women? After all, men by definition are outsiders to womanhood. Can women not tell stories about men? Does this mean that no films or tv should be made about astronauts, soldiers, rocket scientists, the British Royal Family, Italians who own a vineyard in Tuscany, Jazz singers in Paris, or farmers in middle America unless the cast and crew have themselves been astronauts, soldiers, rocket scientists, British royalty, Italian winemakers, French Jazz singers, or Nebraskan farmers? Can only people who have suffered robberies make movies about robberies? Can only people with depression, or anorexia, or cancer, or schizophrenia tell stories about those things? Can only blind people tell stories about the blind, and deaf people tell stories about the deaf, and illiterate hillbillies can only tell stories about illiterate hillbillies? On one hand we complain about the lack of diversity of stories coming out of Hollywood; but then we complain when more diverse stories do come out of Hollywood because “those people don’t have the “right” to tell them!” You say you don’t like authoritarianism or the curtailing of freedoms. Isn’t saying that outsiders don’t have “the right” to tell stories about people other than themselves contradictory to that?

    Of course, when a show is made by someone who is not in the community, there will be some inaccuracies, but does that mean they “don’t have the right”? And I agree that the show was very white and black and didn’t paint the community in a terribly sympathetic light. The show is not perfect by any means. BUT you have to remember that this isn’t so much about the community, but about Esty. It’s based on Feldman’s personal story, and the show is about Esty’s personal journey. It’s about HER experience, her perceptions, her feelings. Clearly, that’s how she perceived her experience. Clearly, the very fact that she wanted to – and did – escape means that her perception of her community was not particularly complimentary. You say outsiders shouldn’t tell stories of insiders. So let Deborah/Esty tell HER story, instead of forcing your perception on her. It’s somewhat ironic that even after leaving her community in order to find her own voice, Feldman’s personal story is not allowed to be about her and her feelings, but rather about the feelings of the community she escaped.

    Anyway, I write this in the spirit of respectful discussion. I would like to see more shows/films about about Hasidic community that paints it a more sympathetic and nuanced light. Shtisel, for example, is also set in a Hasidic community, albeit in Israel, and it’s aBut I think that this show is ultimately about the experience of one and very specific woman and her experiences and perception, not so much about a community.

    • Frieda Vizel
      Posted at 06:08h, 11 April Reply

      These are valid points. Many of your arguments are often made when we discuss the question of ‘who gets to tell stories,’ right? I didn’t invent this conversation and many have been eloquent on it above and beyond anything I can ever say here.

      The way I see it, you are describing a post-modernist kind of view: namely, that everything is subjective and everything is true if this is how someone said they experienced it. Post-modernism is much maligned by talking heads and pseudo-intellectuals, but there is a core of of a problem here Your approach denies any concept of truth. Taken to its natural conclusion, we can all say anything and it’s all true as long as it’s our experience. This completely undermines the value of stories, which is to plumb for certain human truths.

      A good example from Unorthodox is: we can see on its face that Esty’s “befriending” a group of young musicians in Berlin is unbelievable. You might say “it’s her subjective experience; don’t silence her.” But I am not silencing her. I am asking for a more honest accounting. It’s the same way as when a child runs up to its parent and relates a horrible injustice perpetuated by a sibling. If the story doesn’t have hands and feet and there is reason to suspect the veracity of the child’s account then you don’t take it at face value. ‘Who hit who Johnny?’ You ask: what’s the truth?

      In my creative writing class my professor would often critique our pieces with; “I don’t believe it. I’m not convinced.” And this applies to supernatural stories, fiction, non-fiction. If a plot has holes and it relies on ex machina tired tropes then it is bad from a literary perspective. It’s completely fair to criticize it on the grounds of accuracy and honesty. In fact, we should, it’s part of critical reading.

      But this is an old debate and I know many people who are on your side of it.

      Who can tell stories? The other question that divides many of us ‘creatives’. This is a good take on the subject.

      I actually think that outsiders can tell our stories if they are cognizant of the stories they are appropriating and 1. respect the artists from the community who are not getting published and seen and 2. respect the subject matter. (Being Jewish is not a qualifier – many Jews openly despise Hasidim and know nothing of them, including Karolinski.)

      However, I think that we ex-Hasidim need to be vocal about being ignored while well funded projects get to go ahead. Anyone in the arts knows that it takes a lot of funding and connections to get anywhere, and it’s not simply a matter of just getting out and writing or whatever. The pool of creatives is extremely saturated and there is no room for anyone who has only raw talent. (especially not if you want to retain *any* creative control) So even though I think some people could create amazing works about subjects they haven’t lived, we ex-hasidim still need to raise the counter-argument that we should have first opportunity to the create.

      Again, this is another one of those eternal debates in the arts. We will probably agree to disagree.

  • Trudi Cohen
    Posted at 09:32h, 11 April Reply

    Dear Frieda,
    I agree with a lot of the points you make, but I also think that “Unorthodox” is valuable, if freighted by overtly “good secular” and “bad hypocritical religious” characters. The essential truths it brings out are accurate. Women are discouraged from advanced education and performing in public. Squelching these voices is part of the culture. When I was a volunteer at Literacy Partners, we saw all sects of the New York City adult population and there was a Hasidim man who attended classes who couldn’t read English. I see that as a failure of his community and an impediment to his future. Hopefully, he attended more classes and educated himself. There are good people everywhere, but when a culture isn’t tolerant of individual voices within the community it should be prepared to be criticized.

  • Caro P
    Posted at 16:10h, 15 April Reply

    This story is just as valid and real, as your critics about the story.

  • Dina
    Posted at 04:23h, 17 April Reply

    Satmar is a sect.

    They dress different and take the religion to an extreme.

    If you wish to be naive and defend them then you have closed your eyes to the child molestation, domestic violence and child abuse.

    Unorthodox may not have gotten a few details correct but they are 100% correct regarding the big picture of control, how they take children away from the women if they want to divorce.

    Please, don’t be so naïve.

    All sects jewish and not are bad and against Torah.

    The owner of this blog left her sect why? If you defend it so much then return. Otherwise, support people that have gotten out.

    • Frieda Vizel
      Posted at 09:24h, 17 April Reply

      I didn’t understand all of your comment but I got the gist of it, as it reflects sentiments I hear often. I’ll just make a few points in reply.

      1. I wonder how much you know about the Hasidic community that you are so confident in calling it a “sect” and so on. I’m always surprised how much people think they know when they have information filtered through outsiders.

      2. I’m not defending the community. I am urging you not to engage in black and white stereotyping, like when you say that by defending the community I close my eyes to abuse. It’s an absurd statement on so many levels. For one: I’m not defending — I’m urging balance, perspective and accuracy. For another: doing this has nothing whatsoever to do with closing my eyes to abuse. And lastly: abuse exists everywhere and is not exclusive to Satmar Hasidim. People in glass houses…

      3. I left the community for many reasons, but a very important one was that I could not live in a society that saw the world as black and white and was very intolerant. There were many nice things in the community and for many people the intolerance wasn’t a deal-breaker, but for me it was. I wanted to live in a world where self-righteous dogma was discouraged. Where people could “dress different” and be completely tolerated for it. The sad thing is that I am watching the tolerance and openness of the secular world shrink. Things here are becoming more close-minded. I am devastated to see it. I speak out against shows like Unorthodox (which is mind-numbing garbage, really) because I think pushing for openness and tolerance and critical thinking is crucial, crucial, crucial.

      4. “If you defend it so much then return. Otherwise, support people that have gotten out.” Lol, this reminds me of the time my father threateningly said: “you stay here and behave as is appropriate or you’ll become a hooligan like those street people”. This or that. Either or. My way or highway. Black and white. Good and bad. Here or there. One or the other. No room for anything else… It’s a world without greys all over again!

      This is a very limited way of thinking, Dina, and it’s not good to let yourself get carried away this way. I’m saddened that it’s become the norm for western people to be so dogmatic. This self righteousness is scary because when you feel so morally right all actions that follow from that are justified and beyond reproach.

      I am convinced that this smallmindedness is the byproduct of our modern media culture which is radicalizing people who don’t know what radicalization looks like, and who are convinced that they are above such folly. Well, radicalization can happen to everyone, and it happens when we starve our public intellectual conversation from diverse, critical, challenging ideas. We stop having enough information to think critically. This happened in the Hasidic community and it’s happening now here too.

  • SDK
    Posted at 23:51h, 04 May Reply

    I am touched that you liked my post enough to re-post it. I am sadly not a writer (except of long comments), not a critic, not in journalism, not in media, not in television or in film. But I’m happy to step into any online arguments or discussions to make this point so just alert me if needed.

    I get the daily Forward emails and they just re-posted your Forward piece in Most Popular. I’m glad they at least published that critique, although I wish they had invited you to the online discussion, which I have just started watching and which seems to be letting everyone entirely off the hook. Your piece was extremely fair, balanced, careful, and focused on a key point which even my friends who know nothing about Hasidim saw easily on their own – that the secular friends in Berlin were even less realistic than the Hasidic characters.

    It’s hard to know where to be the most disappointed. Is it taking the story from the book, which seems like it was more complex, and making it so fantastical and over the top (in both the Hasidic and secular directions)? Is it all the small details they got wrong, which they could have so easily just gotten right (here I don’t mean really expensive hats but rather small changes to dialogue, costuming, sets, intonation)? Let’s give some credit for the serious effort it took to get the details, let’s say, 75% right. If you’re making that much effort, why not go for 95%, since authenticity is the calling card for the film? If it was all wrong, that would be laughable. When it’s mostly right, you have to ask, why not go all the way? Why not listen to what your advisor is telling you?

    The one thing this has done is proven that there is a market for work about Hasidic life. We can only hope that opens up the possibility of more shows with better stories going forward.

    • Frieda Vizel
      Posted at 00:28h, 05 May Reply

      Did you see a reviewer also quoted of your comment at dvora.substack.com? Also, you have some fans here.

      The popularity of your comments tells you something. I think people from the community or the OTD world feel complex feelings about the screen rendering of their lives, but they are afraid to express it for fear of being uncool, bitter, jealous, etc. Most of what I wrote made people from our community uncomfortable because I had gotten dirty and picked a fight with a fancy tv crew and also because I showed my disgusting naked hunger for success, instead of patiently waiting for it to be served up on a platter… In other words, they are suppressing their reactions for fear of looking bad. I am hopeful that I pushed the envelope. And that when people see comments like yours they realize that it’s completely fine to voice criticism for criticism’s sake.

      It doesn’t have to come from a place of defensiveness, it can come from many other places, right? (This is part of this cultural miscommunication, one of the small details of the ‘new’ world that many people don’t learn because there is so much peer pressure to unlearn. I only unlearned it because I give tours and had so much practice with outsiders.)

      As for the Forward’s panel, I saw them boast that the panelists discussed Hasidic sex. “Folks, gather around, juicy stuff… Sooooo panelists, tell us everything!” Well, I’ll do the gossips one over and tell you that I think most of the panelists there have nothing to say on the subject. I can’t imagine that anyone actually thinks ‘these people have interesting perspectives, let’s invite them.’ It’s more, ‘this is a nice mix of brand and diversity, let’s invite them.’

  • Yasnaya Polyana
    Posted at 23:47h, 08 May Reply

    Hi Frieda
    I read the article on Forward but comments were closed. While not Jewish, I have a fair knowledge of both Christia and Jewish sects. I read your article on Forward after reading about Satmar Jews at https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&source=web&rct=j&url=https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Satmar_(Hasidic_dynasty)&ved=2ahUKEwjN4MLN46XpAhU5yjgGHVVyDa8QFjAWegQIARAB&usg=AOvVaw3wariPvvtZWtsYG1SBTUAD&cshid=1588994749628 which provides details of the history.
    While you have left and appear to be on good relations with the community you were raised in, Unorthodox tells the story through Esty’s eyes and experience which sounds like it was very different from your own. Maybe Williamsburg and Our gas Joel while sharing Hasidic roots are governed differently.
    Your criticisms of Eruv and other minor details are probably correct but at the end of the day it is the major themes in Unorthodox that come through. That is of insular, power run sects that subjugate its adherents through rules based law using God as a pretext. The scepne you describe as rape was consensual if you remember Esty encouraged him to keep going despite the pain.
    The series highlights many positives of Judaism including family life, hard work, support for others and even concern for runaways like Esty and Moishe. Moishe’s suggested options
    Are probably dramatic licence.
    If I get to NYC again, I’ll look forward to doing your tour.

    Posted at 18:01h, 07 August Reply

    […] Unorthodox is the first major show about the Hasidic Williamsburg community. The miniseries is based on the memoir by Deborah Feldman. I wrote some reviews here and here and everywhere! […]

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