‘Unorthodox’: Judaism on Steroids

Once a year, in Brooklyn, New York, on Israeli Independence Day, members of the Satmar Hasidic Jewish sect protest and march in the streets, carrying signs that read, “Destroy Israel”. The Satmars are firmly opposed to Zionism and the State of Israel. They believe that Hitler, the Nazis and the Holocaust were sent by God as a punishment to the Jewish people for the sin of trying to assimilate into foreign cultures.

Unorthodox is a Netflix series, directed by Maria Schrader and adapted from the memoir Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots, by Deborah Feldman. The plot of the series, set in the present, is fictional, with only the flashbacks of Feldman’s secretive Satmar family life drawn from her memoir, but this seamless blend of fact and fiction has made Feldman a controversial figure in the Jewish world.

Joe Dolce’s TV reviews appear in every Quadrant.
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The series begins with recently married Esty leaving her husband, Yanky Shapiro, to board a plane to the source of her family’s trauma, Germany. She is looking to re-connect with her mother, Leah, who abandoned her as a child, but primarily wants to escape her ultra-religious family and community. While in Berlin, she meets Robert, a musician, who introduces her to friends at the conservatory where he studies. Esty believes she can gain admittance and prepares to audition.

In New York, Yanky seeks help from the rabbi, Yossele, and a family heavy, Moishe Lefkovitch, is contracted to find Esty. Lefkovitch and Yanky follow her trail to Berlin.

She has applied for a piano scholarship at the conservatory. There are flashbacks throughout of Esty’s life in the Williamsburg community and of her complex relationship with her grandmother, Bubby. At first the newlyweds are unable to consummate the marriage and, as one of the tenets of Satmar beliefs is to reproduce, in order “to replace the six million”, family pressure is considerable. Eventually, Esty manages to become pregnant.

In Berlin, Moishe has broken into Leah’s house and discovered papers leading him to the conservatory. Moishe and Yanky confront Esty on the day of her audition, but her mother is also present and offers support. The piano audition goes badly, but Esty sings an impromptu a capella song in Yiddish that persuades the judging panel to accept her into the conservatory. Her husband has also been moved by her singing and begs her to come back to Brooklyn, promising to change, but Esty, believing he will never be able to keep this promise, refuses and stays in Berlin.

Feldman has come under criticism for alleged half-truths. An uncle told the New York Post: “She was crazy about [her husband] … she was dying to get married. He did everything and anything for her, but she never appreciated anything no matter what he did … Nothing was good enough for her.” Her mother, Shoshana Berkovic, disagreed: “There’s no love in Hasidic marriages. You’re matched up with a stranger.”

A young wife is like a pretty bird—you have to keep her in a cage.
—Hasidic saying

A Brooklyn neighbour commented, “It paints the whole community in a bad light. We feel insulted. I think she’s a lost soul.” Feldman wrote: “I never chose to be married. He’s a stranger to me. I just happen to have a child with him.” She told Doreen Wachmann of the Jewish Telegraph, “I wrote the book because I knew it would help me get custody of my son.”

There are few similarities between Feldman’s book and the series. In the first episode, Esty escapes to Berlin to begin a new life. In the memoir, however, there is no trip to Berlin. Feldman remained in New York, raising her son. There was no conservatory of music, no Moishe trying to track her down and no moving Yiddish song at the end of the story.

The book delves into fascinating detail about the Williamsburg enclave, which is only touched on in the series. Feldman’s grandfather, Zeidy (all family names have been changed), insisted that only Yiddish be spoken, as he considered English der tumeneh shprach—an impure language. Feldman didn’t move away with her eight-year-old son until she was twenty-four.

Esty’s father is an alcoholic, but Feldman’s own father was mentally retarded, with an IQ of sixty-six. An accurate diagnosis was never possible, as he refused to co-operate with psychiatrists, but she recalls him as “shabby and dirty, and his behaviour was childlike”. Feldman’s great-grandfather was a Kohen, with a lineage back to Temple priests (like the songwriter Leonard Cohen). The Kohanim were known for beautiful voices, but Feldman remarked that her grandfather Zeidy “couldn’t carry a tune”.

After her mother left, she was raised by her oldest aunt, Chaya, who she said “treated her mother like garbage”, but admitted that her aunt taught her “to become iron-fisted … not let anyone else force me to be unhappy”.

The Unorthodox series was created largely by women. The director, Maria Schrader, started her career as an actress and had a leading role in the award-winning 1999 German film Aimée & Jaguar. The writer, Anna Winger, was a professional photographer before going into television. She created the 2015 German-American series Deutschland 83, about a Stasi undercover agent sent to West Berlin. Her co-writer, Alexa Karolinski, also produced Unorthodox. Her documentary, Oma and Bella, about her grandmother, won the Grimme Prize, at the Berlin Film Festival, and her accompanying cookbook, with the same title, was a best-seller.

The production design and costume design, by Silke Fischer and Justine Seymour respectively, lift the series to what Alfred Hitchcock referred to as “arousal by pure film”. Wolfgang Thaler, the cinematographer, is a former beekeeper who is a professor at the Vienna Film Academy.

Diminutive actress Shira Haas (who plays Esty) travelled to Berlin for two months before the film shoot to study Yiddish. She was born in 1995 in Tel Aviv, the granddaughter of an Auschwitz survivor. When she was three years old she developed kidney cancer, resulting in a spinal cord injury requiring two years of radiation treatment, which affected her growth. She made her television debut in 2013 as twelve-year-old Ruchama Weiss in the Israeli series Shtisel. She won Best Actress at the Jerusalem Film Festival in 2014 for Princess, and the Israeli Academy Award in 2018 for Noble Savage.

The Yiddish proverb, “Tu on a khazer a shtrayml, vet er vern rov?” means: “If you put a shtreimel on a pig, would it make him a rabbi?” A shtreimel is the round, distinctive furry hat worn by Hasidic men on Shabbat. It is unclear whether the shtreimel’s origins are Tatar, Turkish or Russian but it is usually worn only after marriage and is custom-made for each owner from the tails of minks. Each hat costs over $2000 and requires six minks.

The Satmar dynasty was founded in 1905 by Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum in Szatmárnémeti, Hungary, now known as Satu Mare, Romania. Some say Satu Mare, or Satmar in Yiddish, was named after St Mary; others, that it means either Big Village or Big Sea. When the Nazis occupied Hungary in 1944, the sect was almost destroyed, but Teitelbaum escaped to Brooklyn with a small group of followers, settling in Williamsburg.

Because of the Holocaust, one of the driving forces of Satmars has been procreation—replacing those lost—hence pressure on married couples to have children quickly and frequently.

Feldman’s grandfather Zeidy said, “God sent Hitler to punish the Jews for enlightening themselves. He came to clean us up, eliminate all the assimilated Jews.” Hasidic Satmars adhere to traditional dress, religious and moral codes. As Zeidy said, “If we go to extreme lengths to make God proud of us, he’ll never hurt us again, like he did in the war.”

Zaidy served in the Hungarian army, and became a scholar and an accountant—the most respected kind of Hasid. The Derech eretz—honour codes—dictate proper behaviour. He told his granddaughter, “If you have no roots, you have no legacy. All our worth is defined by the worth of our ancestors,” echoing Herbert Spencer’s insight in 1876 that at the root of every religion is ancestor worship.

He forbade reading of works by apikoros—“liberated Jews”—ones who negate the rabbinic tradition—but his granddaughter kept her stash of secret books, including works by Jane Austen and the banned English version of the Talmud in the Schottenstein translation, hidden in her underwear drawer, a place that was taboo for “modesty squads” to inspect. Feldman said:

It’s common knowledge … that these squads exist. You hear about them from when you are very little. “You better be good or the Va’ad HaTznius will get you.” What Modesty Squads are looking for are forbidden music, forbidden books, forbidden magazines, forbidden internet, revealing clothing …

Zeidy discouraged higher secular education. Feldman said:

Education—and college—is the first step out of Williamsburg, the first step on the path to promiscuity that Zeidy always promised me was an endless loop of missteps that distanced a Jew so far from God as to put the soul into a spiritual coma.

Feldman was told that Hebrew books were only intended to be read by men and that girls are “forbidden to enter the library”, echoing a passage of Virginia Woolf’s from A Room of One’s Own:

As she revels in the tranquillity and beauty of her surroundings, the narrator remembers an essay by Charles Lamb about revisiting Oxbridge. She is inspired to view the manuscript in the library, only to be told that “ladies are only admitted to the library if accompanied by a Fellow of the College or furnished with a letter of introduction”.

Feldman’s grandmother, Bubby, was a Holocaust survivor. All her relations, except a cousin, were murdered in Auschwitz, while she laboured in the factories of Bergen-Belsen. The cousin that survived helped her come to America. Bubby told her granddaughter: “Hitler had chicken feet, you know. That’s why he never took off his shoes. So they wouldn’t see he was a sheid—a ghost.”

Feldman said Bubby made her feel safe, especially in the kitchen, where she would sing Chopin and Liszt. She once asked her about Anne Frank, whose diary she had secretly read, and about her grandmother’s time in Bergen-Belsen, but she refused to answer her. She said: “In this family we do not hug and kiss. We do not compliment each other. Instead, we watch each other closely, ever ready to point out someone’s spiritual or physical failing”, which they regard as “compassion for someone’s spiritual welfare”.

I interviewed Deborah Feldman’s mother, Shoshana Rachel Berkovic (née Levy). She teaches biology and chemistry in Brooklyn, with a keen interest in evolution, and is an activist for the United Federation of Teachers, and for gay rights, including the Human Rights Campaign. Born and raised by a religious, but not Hasidic, Jewish-German family in Manchester, England, she attended Bnos Yisroel School and had an arranged marriage with a New York Satmar, Eugene Berkovic, who had undiagnosed mental problems. When they broke up, she said: “Seven years after I left my ex-husband I finally got the courage to go to a lawyer.”

I asked her what she thought about the character of Leah Mandelbaum, representing her, in the series: “It was fine. Not reality, but a positive portrayal.”

She and Feldman kept their ex-husbands’ surnames, which is common, usually in the interest of simplicity for children in school years. But Berkovic and Feldman are not close:

She refuses to have anything to do with me. Mostly because of brainwashing by my ex’s family. She’s convinced I abused her as a kid and that’s why they took her away from me. She has no interest in her little sister (Shira). We have not told her about her new nephew (my younger daughter had a boy three months ago) since we figured she wouldn’t be interested.

I had a phone conversation with Berkovic’s youngest daughter, Shira (aged twenty-five), who was marvellously open and forthcoming. She was watching Unorthodox when we spoke and felt everything she had seen was 85 per cent fictional. Hasidic, she had been married five years, and has a baby boy just born in January. Her family comes from different Hasidic branches—mostly Satmar and Skulen—and when I asked which one she identified with, she said, “None. I try to stay neutral. I’m a Jew and proud of it. Happy to follow the laws of the Torah. Not into politics. Just busy with my own responsibilities.” Before the birth of her son, she was a shaitel macher—a wig stylist. She says:

I am today happily married. I did not undergo the same type of “arranged marriage”. I experienced dating. Today’s Hasidic world is different and has changed so much. I view my heritage as a wonder and beauty.

She believes her older sister wrote Unorthodox from a place of trauma, to free herself from the painful memories of that time and family separation. Shira would like to have a relationship with her again and has fond memories of when she was small:

When she took me shopping for my gown, for her wedding, I got to choose myself. She made my hair fancy one day when she took me out with her. After, when she was already married, she took me along to the beach, with her friends and her son. The last time she came to my grandparents was Purim, during her pregnancy, with her husband. I enjoyed her company, but she was already showing signs of disinterest in being religious.

Shira shared recollections of her father: “When he came to visit my grandparents, I use to run over to him and yell, Tati [father]!” She said:

I do not like to bad-mouth people as it is called Lashon hara [evil tongue] but I do not have a relationship with my father. I did once though [but] because I noticed it was becoming an unhealthy relationship, I had to end it. It was the right thing to do based on the guidance I received. 

Her grandfather has passed away and her grandmother has dementia but she said that, growing up, she could always turn to them for help. She visited her father’s family on every Sabbath and holiday, but with the new baby and COVID-19, this is no longer possible.

She remarked, “I want to be there for my children and see them grow. I had a similar upbringing as my sister, but I never left my mother.”

She says her sister’s success with Unorthodox did not change her relationship with her father’s family much: “I am my own person. I was brought up with an open mind and to be respectful. It’s as if there was no book to begin with.”

Berkovic says the book and series have had no serious effect on her personally, but may have increased the alienation between her and her ex-husband’s family. Although Feldman alleged in the book that her mother left the Satmar community because she was a lesbian, Berkovic said:

I didn’t make plans to leave because I was gay, in fact I didn’t know about homosexuality until later on, during the process, when I was in grad school and took a diversity class and one of my classmates recommended I see [the film] “Trembling Before G-d” … I saw two women together and thought “I’m not the only one? I’m not crazy?” I left because I was sick of getting abused by my ex and his family. It was affecting my ability to function. I’m also an atheist so definitely wasn’t happy in that community.

There is some wonderful writing in Unorthodox, as in this evocative passage:

I pinch quarters from the pushka, the box where Bubby puts the charity money, and buy rosy slabs of watermelon to eat on the porch, dumping juice and black seeds onto the flowerpots. Little seedlings push themselves out between the petunias weeks later and Bubby plucks them curiously, examining them before pronouncing them weeds. Biblical law prohibits cutting down fruit trees—even pruning is questionable.

She says:

In this day and age, rabbis are chauffeured in black Cadillacs and have private ritual baths built into their opulent homes. They are the celebrities of Hasidic culture. Children trade rabbi cards and boast of having rabbinical connections … a public school, PS 16, was appropriated by the Satmars and turned into a private school for girls. A massive Gothic structure, the gargoyles were pronounced idols by the rabbi and chopped off.

She commented: “No doubt [Hasidic] girls all over Brooklyn are buying [my] book, hiding it under their mattresses, reading it after lights out—and contemplating, perhaps for the first time, their own escape.”

Ari Hershkowitz (aged twenty-one), the second of nine children, also left the Satmar community in Williamsburg, and now travels internationally, speaking out against the “skewed values”, which he believes have resulted high levels of poverty and ignorance and dependence on government funding for the average Satmar’s day-to-day existence. He appeared in the Netflix documentary One of Us, on former members of the community. He was interviewed by Ori Golan of the Times of Israel:

Pointing to where his side-locks used to be, he says, “I walked two blocks and told the barber, ‘Take them off.’ I then posted a photo of my new look on Facebook and wrote, ‘This is me now, deal with it.’ I went back home late at night. In the morning, my mother looked at me and said nothing.”

After he left home, he rang his mother to tell her that he was no longer religious. She said fine, and hung up—and they didn’t speak again for seven years.

I asked Alexander Gutman, popularly known as the Australian stand-up comedian Austen Tayshus, if he had any experience with Satmars. Gutman is the creator and performer of one of Australia’s most successful songs, “Australiana”. He said, “I am a strong supporter of Israel. I believe that Jews need to be able to defend themselves in Israel and around the world.” Although he was raised orthodox, his father’s family were not Satmars, but Ger, from Lodz, Poland.

Jews settled in Poland during the Crusades, becoming the most significant Jewish community in the world until the eighteenth century. Ger is the largest single Hasidic dynasty in Israel, with over 13,000 families, with the strictest views regarding sexual relations (for example, it is forbidden to say the words bride, woman and girl). The men, uniquely, lift their side-locks away from the sides of their faces and tuck them under their yarmulke.

Gutman said, “To the Hasidim, replenishing the Jewish people, after we were almost destroyed, is a very high priority, and maintaining yiddishkeit [Jewishness].” Hershkowitz described the Satmar Hasidim he grew up with as “Judaism on steroids”. Gutman added:

I’m sure to the outsider, understanding the cult-like extremism of the Satmar Hasidim would be shocking. But as someone who was brought up in an orthodox Jewish home, I am capable of seeing both sides. You can lead a Jewish life and a secular life without going nuts about either. I am not sure whether Unorthodox showed that this is possible.

Some insist that the brilliant Israeli television series Shtisel is less showy than Unorthodox, with better delineated characters. Shtisel concerns itself with a family of orthodox Jews living in Geula, Jerusalem, a moderate Hasidic community, where many of the members practise a secular lifestyle. Shtisel develops its storylines and character arcs over twenty-four episodes, with a third season of another twelve instalments in the works.

Unorthodox is only four episodes long, but takes a courageous peek into the extremely secretive New York Satmar branch of the ultra-ultra-orthodox. Any member of the Brooklyn sect who even visits Israel is expelled from the community. Satmars consider that Jews and Zionists are practically two different species: “The only real Jews are Hasids … even a drop of assimilation instantly disqualifies them from being a real Jew.”

This blood-purity taboo is disturbingly suggestive of Nazi rassenschande, or racial-pollution crimes. Ironically, the Nazis took their legal model from the race initiatives already existing in American law. Forty-five Nazi lawyers went to New York before the war, under the sponsorship of the Association of National Socialist German Jurists, and on their return, codified the Reich’s race-based legal structure, based on the US model. The leader of the group was Ludwig Fischer, future governor of the Warsaw Ghetto. Ira Katznelson wrote in the Guardian:

Although the United States entered the 1930s as the globe’s most established racialised order, the pathways from Nuremberg and Jim Crow unfolded very differently, one culminating in mass genocide, the other, after much struggle, in civil-rights achievements.

Despite the closed society of the Satmars, historians have suggested that without their strict practices and disciplines, the Yiddish language would have vanished long ago. Feldman says: “Yiddish is nothing but a hodgepodge of German, Polish, Russian, Hebrew and other random dialects.”

Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum, the founder of the Satmar dynasty, had no sons and his three daughters died before him. On his death in 1979 he was succeeded by his nephew, Moshe Teitelbaum, who died in 2006. At that point, the line of succession was contested by his two sons, effectively splitting the group into factions, one led by his oldest, Aaron, and the other by his second son, Zalman. Followers of Aaron are known as Aroinys and the followers of Zalman are called Zollies.

There have been violent encounters between the two groups, and the brothers have been in prolonged legal disputes over who should lead the dynasty, which now numbers 75,000. There is a financial motivation as well, as the bulk of Satmar assets are concentrated in Williamsburg. Zalman is Grand Rabbi there, while Aaron holds sway in Kiryas Joel, New York.

Recently, Rebbetzin Soshe, Aaron Teitelbaum’s wife, contracted COVID-19 and was placed on a respirator in a critical condition. Another of the Teitelbaum brothers, Lipa, also came down with the virus. Rabbi Zalman, of Williamsburg, phoned his estranged brother Aaron in sympathy and, after two decades of ignoring each other, the two brothers spoke on the phone. The call lasted only seventy-five seconds but members say it was unheard of and could be the start of reconciliation.

Joe Dolce wishes to thank Shoshana Berkovic for proof-reading this article, twice, for inaccuracies. She is active on social media: Twitter: @Sci-nerd

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