She decides to run away on a Saturday. The Sabbath is a day of rest in ultraorthodox Jewish communities, and stringent rules are relaxed a bit. But the cobweb of religious limitations remain. Strong winds have broken the eruv, the wire that circles the neighborhood as a symbolic city wall, permitting the inhabitants to carry things on the holy day. Hastily she has to reschedule her escape, and leaves home emptyhanded, carrying only a small amount of cash and an airline ticket that she can tuck into the hem of her skirt.
This is the symbolic beginning of the German-American drama miniseries, modeled over Deborah Feldman’s true story that was published as a book in 2012. On the screen her name is Esty. She is 19 years old and has grown up in Williamsburg, Brooklyn as a Satmar Hassid, one of the most extreme and closed off Jewish groups.
Williamsburg, Crown Heights, Boro Park, and other heavily Hassidic parts of Brooklyn have lately gained questionable fame as Covid-19 hotspots. The disease has been spreading with alarming speed in ultraorthodox Jewish populations, both in the US, Jerusalem, and other parts of the world, due to the whole sector’s self-imposed isolation from modern society. Their only knowledge about the outside world stems from the ultraorthodox press, and to keep out dangerous influence they immerse themselves in stringent rules and endless religious rituals.
This is what Esty is running away from. She is living in an arranged marriage. Her soft-spoken husband is under the thumb of a dominant mother and, through flashbacks, we see how she was utterly unprepared to enter the relationship. Just before her wedding, a grownup woman from the neighborhood gave her some sexual advice, and Esty was horrified to learn that her body has an opening where her husband would enter her – and only on Friday night, as part of the ritualized life in the Satmar community.
Escaping the ultraorthodox lifestyle is extremely difficult. Understandably it is a rare step to take for a young woman. Social control is strict, and you have very little alone time to think. Once you take the leap, you venture out in a world that seems like a totally unknown void.
Esty is heading to Berlin. People from outside have given her a plane ticket. She needs to get far away, and quick. Suddenly, she finds herself alone in the German capital, and as her contact does not show up, she hooks up with a group of young musicians. A few Germans, one from Yemen, and another is an easygoing girl from Israel – the dreaded Zionist enemy in the Satmar narrative. They all go swimming at Wannsee – «It’s just a lake!» says the Israeli girl, but for Esty this is where the Nazis decided on the Endlösung at a short conference in 1942.
Escaping the ultraorthodox lifestyle is extremely difficult.
Back in Williamsburg, the family is in disarray. But it is more about their reputation in the community than Esty’s wellbeing. Suddenly it dawns on her husband, Yanky, what Esty meant at their first meeting when she claimed to be different. His dominating mother is furious with disappointment – with her son, but mostly with Esty. Because what happens in the most extreme parts of ultraorthodox society when someone leaves the flock is heavy stigmatization. Someone leaving the community is an unmistakable proof of bad upbringing, and siblings are frowned upon amongst the matchmakers that should arrange good marriages for them.
Deplorable treatment of women
Israeli actor Amit Rahav, playing Yanky, had a prominent role in another miniseries, Stisel, that drew huge audiences when streamed on Netflix. Stisel, an Israeli production from 2013, gives a fascinating insight in ultraorthodox life in Jerusalem, and Unorthodox does the same, though on different terms. It might lack the drama, and the bunch of musicians that Esty meets in Berlin might seem more like the kids from ‘Fame’ than a genuine group of multi-racial youngsters in 2020 Germany.
But that is not the issue. It is about understanding minority groups and extreme ways of life. The ultraorthodox men just study Tora, and the women are childbirth machines, as the secular Israeli girl puts it. In one of the flashbacks, Esty is told that it is her duty to make the man feel like a king in bed. She is horrified, as most of us would be. Still, the description of the Williamsburg communities is not blind to the occasional beauty of Hassidic life – like the sumptuous celebrations of Jewish holidays and the close togetherness around a common goal and identity.
The ultraorthodox men just study Tora, and the women are childbirth machines
This is one of the dilemmas Esty faces in spite of her strong will to find a better life. Because, on the outside, she is vulnerable and feeble, something we should keep in mind when we look at fundamentalist groups and condemn them. Their worldview is conservative and their treatment of women is deplorable, just to take an example, but our own modern and liberal society has some serious problems as well. That is one of the reasons why this miniseries of four episodes is important.
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