Unorthodox: How Looking for “Truth” Misses the Point by Ivy Helman.

ivy tree huggingA few weeks ago a Slovak journalist reached out to me about the new Netflix four-part series entitled Unorthodox.  In the email, the journalist wrote that they had read about my work as a Jewish feminist and wanted some insight into the new series.  Their main question was: how accurate is the portrayal of the Satmar community?

I was slightly surprised.  The journalist wasn’t looking for my opinion on Esty as a young Jewish woman who takes control over her life and works tirelessly to quite literally have her voice heard.  Rather, the questions were: is the Satmar community really like that; do they not use the internet or have smart phones; is quality education so lacking; is marriage arranged; would a woman really be that clueless about her own body; is sex like that; and, do they really have no privacy?  

Fast forward.  I did the interview.  I figured that if I could offer the article’s Slovak and Czech readers a better understanding of Jewish life, my efforts were worth it.  I tried to focus the interview toward those  goals and my feminist take on the story.  The piece was published, and somewhat proud of my efforts, I posted a link to the article on my Facebook page. 

A friend responded insightfully to my post.  “What I find really interesting is all this hype about… Unorthodox – specifically how society is trying to verify the story ever since its publication as a novel. [Unorthodox was based on a memoir.] It tells a lot about how women and their personal experiences are perceived at large and also based on their backgrounds…and who gets to be credited as trustworthy per se without doubting the personal experience (certainly not women).”  So true.  And, a quick search of English-language articles about this piece are similar.  Just like the article I had participated in, most of them wish to address just how accurately the Satmar community is portrayed.

This has consequences.  First, when focusing on if the series got it right, we are not questioning the basic foundations of what we see.  For example, is there really such a lack of both basic and sex education in Satmar?  The answer comes up: yes, that was an accurate portrayal, or, no, it wasn’t.  It doesn’t really matter which; people seem to disagree.  Yet, so much isn’t discussed.  Why is it that way?  In what ways is this lack of education detrimental to human flourishing?  What could be done to fix this? Interested?  See here.

Focusing on accuracy also doesn’t address just how limited the opportunities for women within these communities are: motherhood.  Rather, accuracy questions do people really have sex like that?  Does everyone know everyone else’s business?  The quest for “truth” does not question why women are only valued as mothers.  Of course, it is amazing to value motherhood, but not to the detriment of woman who can’t or don’t want to be mothers or women who want to be mothers as well as have lives outside of motherhood.  Seeking truth also doesn’t question why women aren’t allowed to read the Talmud or sing in public.  In other words, looking for accuracy leaves sexism and patriarchy unquestioned.  

But, what about the other part of the comment: who is believed, who is trustworthy?  Clearly no one believes the women story-tellers or the memoir’s author.  If they did, there would not be an abundance of articles discussing whether the film is accurate or not.  Neither would the series be accused of anti-Semitism.  

Truth-seeking also has one other consequence: it silences Jewish diversity.  These articles either verify the story or call it false.  They don’t ask: what do various Jews from various backgrounds think about the series?  In other words, these articles do not portray the diversity of Jewish identities that exist out there, which consequently might have been interesting for Esty to see as well.  While you can sometimes find this addressed in the comment sections of some of the articles and rarely in an article itself, I think that is an important question.  For example, what I found important about the series was the story itself: the central character was a pregnant young woman attempting to build a life for herself outside of everything she knew.  That is courageous, bold, and inspiring.  Yet, that opinion doesn’t speak to whether or not the story is true.   It was left out of the article in which I was quoted.

Yet, a better example comes from when I received my quotes back for approval. The journalist wrote about marriage saying, “According to Helman, the situation we have seen in the series is possible, but uncommon.  Just like the [Libavitcher] rabbi [who the journalist had also consulted], she too met her husband several times before the wedding.”  Interestingly, all I had said about my marriage was that we too had had a yichud.  Nothing else.

I responded.  “…Personally, I am not married to a man.  My wife [although I prefer partner, but to make the point] is Czech and we dated for years before we got married.  When we got married, we had a Jewish wedding at Červená Lhota with my female rabbi from the United States.” Once again, having the sole focus on “is this story true,” meant that what doesn’t fit the narrative isn’t included.   My queer relationship didn’t fit into the story being told.  Needless to say, that section just got cut.

The series doesn’t pitch itself as a documentary about life in the Satmar community.  Why hold it to that standard?  Searching for authenticity silences both the author and the filmmakers and ignores the series’ strengths.  

Unorthodox gives a glimpse into a fictional woman’s journey to freedom, to find her voice, to direct her own life, to make her own decisions about what is important, and to become who she was born to be.  The series successfully portrays one courageous woman’s story of escape in order to be true to herself in spite of the consequences.  It is compelling, and at times heart-wrenching.  It is a story of hope, of dreams, and of all the potential that life could be, while at the same time, it acknowledges that this new life won’t be easy. Unorthodox is a powerful work of story-telling.  I highly recommend it.  


Ivy Helman, Ph.D.: A feminist scholar and faculty member at Charles University in Prague, Czech Republic where she teaches a variety of Jewish Studies, Feminist and Ecofeminist courses.  


Categories: Fiction, Film, General, Jewish Feminism, Judaism, religion, Women's Voices

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

5 replies

  1. Dear Ivy
    Thank you for your tireless work to be heard and for your thoughtful, inspiring reflections on faith.
    So glad you are speaking
    As ever, your post raises pertinent questions and perspectives. Thank you
    In admiration and respect


  2. Thank you for writing about Unorthodox. Before I could find a way to see it online, I found an interview with Deborah Feldman, the author of the memoir on which the film was loosely based. Nothing she said prepared me for the horror/trauma I felt watching the movie. The image of doll-like fully made-up Esty sitting on a chair at her wedding sticks in my mind. She seemed like sheep going to slaughter. Before seeing the film I had seen Hasidic men often in NYC and in airports, and for some reason, I always thought about the fact that they would not touch me even in passing because I might be menstruating. But I also had positive images of the Hasids from reading Buber and Wiesel. I was aware that Judaism, including Hasidism, views sex more positively than Christianity, and I knew about the idea the intercourse on the Shabbat reunites God and the Shekhina. I also remember Wiesel writing that seeing the Hasid’s dance somehow renewed his connection to the Judaism of his youth.But watching the series I came to see that the Hasid’s dancing was mainly a homoerotic experience for men. Yes the women danced at the wedding, but dancing did not hold that same place in their lives as it did for the men. Also I came to see that the act of intercourse united a man with his wife and God with the Shekhina but that there was no consideration of what the act meant to women. All in all I found the film extremely terrifying. And no I don’t “blame” the Jews for this. I have heard horror stories from Greek women about their arranged marriages and I know this is a widespread cultural phenomenon. May it end!

    And may women find ways to create and transform the roles we play in the religious and spiritual dramas of our lives!

    Liked by 3 people

  3. Excellent post!


  4. I’ve never heard of Unorthodox, but I found your post interesting to read. I sure hope you got that journalist straightened out! Good journalism depends on facts. It seems to me that you were interviewed by someone who was not actually seeking the truth. Good for you, though, for being truthful and honest.


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