The Concept of an Outsider in Yiddish mini-series “Unorthodox”

ABSTRACT:

As the first Netflix series, primarily in Yiddish, Unorthodox is a German-American mini-series that is inspired by Deborah Feldman’s 2012 autobiography, Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of my Hasidic Roots. It traces the story of a 19-year-old Jewish woman who escapes an unhappy, arranged marriage in an orthodox Jewish community in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, New York City. The Holocaust shaped the identities of Satmar Jews, a Hasidic community originally from Hungary, after the second world war. Through this paper, I would like to discuss the concept of ineradicable trauma that has caused a feeling of estrangement with respect to the protagonist embodying a race that feels ever so distanced from the current world. Simultaneously, I shall throw light on the concept of an outsider within one’s own cultural and religious community, by discussing the angle of sexuality and autonomy of characters from the series. I wish to look into the sociological and historical understanding of the Hasidic Jews and how their community was formed, their beliefs and practices along with what they are contingent on.

KEYWORDS:

Hasidic Jews, Trauma, The Outsider, Female Sexuality, New Beginnings.

When 19-year-old Esty breaks out into a soul-wrenching Yiddish song in the penultimate scene of the mini-series Unorthodox, it is not only a tone of triumph that she echoes, but it also acts as an emphatic reminder of her being an outsider. As she belts out a joyous Jewish wedding song, there is an unmistakable sense of aching pain that has latched onto her being, owing to the indelible trauma that accompanies her community. In his memoir, If This Is a Man (United States title: Survival in Auschwitz) (1947), Auschwitz survivor and writer, Primo Levi posits:

“Auschwitz is outside of us, but it is all around us, in the air. The plague has died away, but the infection still lingers and it would be foolish to deny it.” (Levi,72).

The trauma of the Holocaust caused PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) amongst numerous Jewish communities. Several studies have introduced the theory of Epigenetics, which refers to transgenerational trauma, which is inherited and can be passed on from one generation to another. (Wilkinson, 3:37–3:56). We see this very phenomenon in the mini-series as Esty is compelled to partake in the collective suffering that plagues her ultra-orthodox Jewish community. However, the concept of trauma has been interpreted in numerous ways in Unorthodox.

Esty feels like an outsider in the very community that she was brought up in. Although she belongs to a tightly knit Hasidic community of Williamsburg, she is unable to practice her autonomy. She is finally able to escape her community that espouses powerful, stringent, and often discriminatory codes of living to ensure a sense of belonging. However, it is intriguing how she feels much more liberated in Berlin, which ironically happens to be the very location of the trauma that was inflicted upon her community. Unorthodox weaves a beautiful journey to portray how people create trauma and fear in the minds of others, but places don’t. “Berlin may have been the site of suffering, but it was not the source.” (Wilkinson, 7:02–7:06) As Esty wades the lake in Wannsee in Berlin, she takes off her wig which stands as an embodiment of years of suffering of being a Jewish woman in an ultra-orthodox Jewish community. (Schrader, Episode one). She washes herself of the trauma that was fed to her every passing day of her life before she escaped to Berlin. Esty had felt more othered from her own community than from a foreign land, where she had never been before. As she sets off on her journey in Berlin, with much trepidation, she is relieved to have escaped the religious and ultra-orthodox regulations of her community.

The Hasidic community that is portrayed in the mini-series was formed by Hungarian Holocaust survivors, the Satmar Jews. As Esty’s grandfather mutters in religious fervor, he echoes the sentiments of members of most orthodox Jewish communities who believed that the Holocaust was God’s punishment for assimilation with the outside world. (Schrader, Episode four). As Deborah Feldman writes in her memoir:
“In our community, markers of piety are very important… I think much of the reason Satmar Hasids dress in such a specific, conspicuous manner is so both insiders and outsiders will remember the vast chasm that lies between our two worlds.” (Feldman, 44).

Thus, most ultra-orthodox Jewish communities lead their lives in an attempt to appease God, to be the ideal Jew who accepts their set of responsibilities by the virtue of their birth in this community. In Chaim Potok’s novel, The Chosen, he meticulously delves into the argument of “choosing versus being chosen”. Through the pious and patriarchal character of Reb Saunders, who belongs to the Hasidic community, Potok details the tradition where ultra-orthodox Jews are of the opinion that they are “the chosen” people who are set apart from the rest of the world, primarily in terms of their obligation to the Almighty. (Potok, Chapter 7). The members of these ultra-orthodox communities adopt practices, customs, and rituals that strictly focus on the numerical growth of their community. Esty tells her doctor that she is unable to terminate her pregnancy as people in her community “are rebuilding the six million lost; Jews killed in the Holocaust.” (Schrader, Episode three).

Chani Getter, former Hasid, and director of “Footsteps”, an organization that helps former Hasids to integrate into the secular society, believes that Holocaust was the primary driving force that resulted in the rigid insularity of the Hasidic communities. These are communities entirely built on Holocaust survivors who wished to keep people in their community connected to Judaism by adopting strictly exclusionary practices like banning of the internet, arranged marriages, segregation of men and women, distinct Eastern European dress, and a pivotal focus on Torah learning. Holocaust was viewed through a more spiritual lens by these orthodox Jewish communities. It was not only perceived as mass extermination of Jews but a systematic process to destroy the Torah. The only way to triumph over the memory of this massacre was a complete submission to God. (One of Us, 9:15–9:27). Throughout the series, we encounter people who are god-fearing in the garb of being religious. During Esty’s marriage ceremony, we see her and her fiancé, Yanky, rocking back and forth frantically, muttering prayers, as if under a spell. (Schrader, Episode two). Esty’s wedding is somber and is only reflective of the world of unease that awaits her.

Throughout the series, we are exposed to the dire need for repopulation, which is what most of the rituals and practices of these ultra-orthodox Jewish communities revolve around. According to a detailed report by the Pew Research Centre, people belonging to Orthodox Jewish communities were reported to bear more children in their lifetime (4.1%) as opposed to members of Modern Jewish communities (1.7%). In order to enable procreation, a woman’s sexuality was perceived as threatening, thus, always kept under covers. In a riveting video by BBC Reel, photographer Frederica Valabrega gives us a peek into the lives and practices of Jewish women who hail from ultra-orthodox Jewish communities. She places particular emphasis on the dress codes of women, which ought to be modest, in an attempt to avert attention. “It is not kosher or new to not give us attention as we are supposed to be within ourselves,” is what Jewish women from the community had to say. (Aguirre, 1:10–1:20).

When Esty’s head is shaved after her marriage, as per the rules of her community, it not only reflects a woman being stripped of her sense of self and beauty but also takes us back to the dehumanization faced by numerous Jewish communities by the Nazis when their heads were shaved off in concentration camps. (Wilkinson, 7:30–7:42). There is extreme apprehension of the female body and sexuality. In an interview, Deborah Feldman shares how women were told that their bodies were shameful and were meant to be hidden. After marriage, they were made to shave their heads and wear fake hair so as to appear less attractive to other men within the community. A woman is only deemed fit to bear children and repopulate the community at a faster rate. (Feldman, 5:05–6:27).

In a religious community that values silence and suffering, there is no space for female autonomy. Esty’s mother Leah, is cast out of the community as she comes out as a lesbian. In a cathartic exchange with her estranged daughter, Leah tells Esty how she was taken away from her in court and then ousted from the Hasidic community in Williamsburg. It was then that she moved to Berlin to exercise her independence with whoever she chose to love. (Schrader, Episode four). According to Mordechai Levovitz, founder and clinical director of Jewish Queer Youth, a non-profit organization in Manhattan, “over 75% of lesbian, gay or bisexual teens in orthodox Jewish communities report suicidality as opposed to the national average of their age which is 13.6% and an average of 39% amongst LGBTQ teens.” (Levovitz, 3:36–4:01). The extraordinary pressure to adhere to fixed gender roles alongside the dearth of help within the community often drives Jewish teens out of their orthodox communities. Although most of their problems are linked to issues primarily found in their communities, people in ultra-orthodox Jewish communities refuse to discuss their concerns with anyone outside their community. (Schnoor, 62).

Although Judaism is a community-oriented religion that employs congregational prayer as a means to bind the people of the community together, we see Esty throwing herself at every opportunity to yank herself out of her own community. (Mitrany and Mazumdar, 48). Esty is shocked to learn that everyone in her immediate and her husband’s family was aware of the fact that they were unable to consummate their marriage. She quotes the Talmud to Yanky, which says that a husband ought to be able to give his wife pleasure, which should make the process of creating a family filled with happiness. Yanky retorts by saying that women are not allowed to read the Talmud. (Schrader, Episode three). Esty’s freedom to read, sing, and indulge in the activities that give her pleasure is incessantly thwarted at every step of her life. She is discouraged from taking piano lessons and from singing out loud as they go against her community’s values, which prevent women from partaking in such merriment. When she moves to Berlin, there is a marked change in her perception of people, places, and especially, music. She watches people from different communities and ethnicities playing music together in an orchestra. Esty begins to unleash her stifled creativity through music. She is able to express her personal identity as she breaks into a rapturous Yiddish song at the end of the mini-series. It is truly remarkable how she arrives at Berlin as an outsider, only to feel much more at home here, than in Williamsburg, where she spent all her life.

A poignant documentary feature film, One of Us (2017) narrates the lives of three ex-members of the Hasidic community who had to grapple with the stringent laws that their community had laid out for them. Despite stepping out of the ambit of their communities, a sense of loss and estrangement continues to shadow their lives. Ari, one of the three people, experiences something called “secular anxiety” wherein he is uncomfortable with his own ultra-orthodox community but also the outside secular world. He is unable to understand what he wishes to be part of: the precise feeling of an outsider. (1:25:00–1:26:52). Esty breaks down as the alienness of Berlin makes her yearn for her grandmother who brought her up. (Schrader, Episode two). However, she dreads the thought of ever returning to that life of immense suffering. At this point in the series, Esty feels like an outsider at two levels: the first, where she feels estranged from her own community, and the second, where she feels the pulsating unfamiliarity of Berlin. She begins to lose every morsel of herself until music comes to her rescue. Esty finds respite in what the music director of the academy tells her: “In music, you have to break rules to make masterpieces.” (Schrader, Episode two).

Esty’s friends prove that trauma comes in various forms and histories along with a variety of remedies to deal with them. Hailing from Israel, Yael used to play the violin in the military orchestra, which served as her escape from the trauma of her Jewish community in Israel. (Wilkinson, 8:10–8:52). The primary conflict between Esty and Yael hinges on how their shared trauma is dealt with so differently. Esty begins to view the world outside rigid black and white boxes. As the story moves to-and-fro from her life in Williamsburg to her present in Berlin, there is a beautiful cinematic shift with respect to the colors of Esty’s clothes. From dull pastel shades, she gradually moves to bright and vivacious hues. She ventures out to buy a red lipstick and marvels at herself in the mirror as she applies a generous layer. (Schrader, Episode four). From a community that only taught her to question her wishes and desires, to a foreign country that celebrates free will, love, and creativity, Esty is finally able to discover the core essence of herself.

As Esty submerges herself in the lake at Wannsee, her mind is pregnant with the knowledge that this place was the very site of a conference where the Nazis decided to kill the Jews in 1942. (Schrader, Episode one). When the Berlin wall was up, the East German guards would shoot down anyone who tried to swim across this lake. But now, the same lake has come to represent freedom where Esty takes off her wig and sinks herself. It was time for Esty to let go of the baggage of her community’s past and live her present on accord of her own free will and desire. Esty ushers on a new beginning as she opens the gift that was given to her by her piano teacher, in the final scene of the series. It is a compass that acts as a symbolic representation of a fresh start. The compass points in the direction where Esty’s friends in Berlin come walking from. Although Esty lovingly holds on to the memories of her Bubby (grandmother), she realizes that it is time to break out of this trauma that has latched itself onto her community like an apparition. The collective memory of immense suffering is a constant reminder that has caused her to feel ever so distant from her own community. Esty now wishes to belong, even if that requires her to swim against the tide. Although her ultra-orthodox Hasidic community never prepared her for the outside world, Esty is determined to fend for herself and weave herself into the fabric of this foreign land. Thus, she turns to a fresh page to restart and rewrite her own life.

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