April 5, 2020 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.