Jun 29, 2020
I didn’t like Unorthodox. But somehow, I still enjoyed watching it. If you’re here for a close analysis of the series, you should read some of the great reviews published since its release on Netflix in late March. On the other hand, if you find this contradiction intriguing, you’re in the right place.
In Unorthodox, the viewers follow the path of Esty Shapiro from her life in the insular Satmar community of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, to secular freedom in cosmopolitan Berlin. Along the way, she joins a group of friends who study music at a Berlin conservatory; is constantly on the run from her naïve and timid husband, Yanki, and his reckless and menacing cousin, Moishe; and reunites with her estranged mother, who left Satmar years earlier and lives in Berlin with her girlfriend. These are hardly spoilers, since all these pawns appear in the trailer and in the first episode. This is another way of saying that nothing in Unorthodox goes unexpectedly. There are no plot twists. What’s left is for us to evaluate how these building blocks add up despite, not because of, the creators’ best efforts.
Viewers and critics with a personal relationship to the OTD experience—that is, going Off the Derekh or designated path, the experience of leaving Orthodox Jewish communities—immediately began dissecting the series on the examination table. On various Facebook threads, folks pointed out that Williamsburg is surrounded by the five boroughs of NYC, where there are ever-growing OTD circles that could help fictional Esty navigate her way in a secular society, and so an escape to Berlin seems a little over the top. Frieda Vizel, an ex-Satmarer, took issue with the visual representation of the Satmar community (their clothing style, their hairdos, the men’s peyes and the women’s sheitels), the implausibility of some of the story lines, and the bizarre solemnity and seriousness of the Williamsburg scenes, as if no one ever jokes around in Satmar.
However, writing for Marginalia, Shaul Magid correctly notes that expecting an absolutely accurate representation overlooks the fact that the series is a work of fiction. Both the secular world and the Hasidic world in Unorthodox are fantasies, intended as comments on the stories we tell ourselves about the worlds in which we imagine we live. In a brilliant piece, Naomi Seidman interrogates therefore not the inaccurate representation of the Satmar “world,” but rather that of Berlin. For example, in her failed marriage to Yanki, Esty suffers from vaginismus, which makes penetration excruciating and thus the very idea of sex traumatic. But in Berlin, she finally learns to enjoy sex when she meets the handsome gentile Robert. This is a painfully familiar cultural trope, according to which a fallen woman can be “cured” of her rebellious mischief by the “right”—in this case, goyish—penis.
As Seidman remarks, while the Berlin sex scene is minimalist and touching, the sex scenes in Williamsburg give us what she refers to as a “pornographic” view in which Hasidic sex is managed like an auto body shop with lube and dilating machinery. “It’s a gaze that sees everything except its own hungry eye at the keyhole,” writes Seidman. She suggests that this hungry eye forces those of us who’ve left Orthodox communities and who have consequently lost actual and symbolic capital in that process to capitalize on personal stories that the secular eye likes, because they serve as a validation of its rightness. Fictional Esty is smart enough to figure that out, and in her audition for the Berlin conservatory, she produces that narrative for her examiners in a truly tender and heartbreaking performance of a Hasidic wedding song, “Mi Bon Siakh.”
I was nodding vigorously while reading all these reviews. Yes, of course, it’s entirely inaccurate. But also, yes, of course, it’s a work of fiction. At the same time, its fiction is based on liberal fantasies of self-righteousness, which are in fact not so different from an Orthodox culture of self-righteousness. I couldn’t make up my mind.
Despite, or alongside, my criticisms of the series, I actually enjoyed watching it. This realization brought up another set of questions: why? Was it the beautiful production? Was it the simplistic and ever-compelling story of liberation from darkness to light? Was it some sort of a geeky intellectual challenge to compare the spoken Yiddish with the translated subtitles?
My answer begins with that moment in the series when we realize that Esty’s mother is a lesbian who lives with her non-Jewish girlfriend—menivlte, in Moishe’s beautifully idiomatic even-if-offensive Yiddish—in Berlin. That story line does not develop at all throughout the series. We don’t know, for example, if Esty’s mother chose to leave Satmar because she was gay, or if she left because of Esty’s drunken father and only afterward discovered her desire for women. Her girlfriend is an entirely marginal figure who barely speaks. And while discovering that her mother is gay is shocking to Esty at first, at no point does she talk about this shock or process it verbally. In other words, the mother’s lesbianism is entirely anecdotal, and serves as one of this series’ many props that mark Berlin as a utopia where Jews and dykes can truly be free. It’s not that I didn’t recognize this liberal fantasy and its obvious flaws—Jews and dykes are as free in Brooklyn as they are in Berlin, and in both cases, well, their respective political conditions leave much to be desired—it’s simply that I didn’t care. There were Jewish dykes on the screen and I was happy.
Admittedly, this is a very low bar. But this small happiness continued as I watched the series, despite my frequent cringing (oh, that dialogue between Esty and Robert in Wannsee, brrrrr), despite the implausible plot lines, and despite the recurring didactic tone. I wouldn’t credit the series’ creators with the happiness I felt. Instead, my (and perhaps others’) enjoyment in watching Unorthodox is connected to larger questions about pleasure, entertainment, and cultural consumption.
Queer theorists have long reflected that queer desire requires the negation of the world as it is known. In order to name one’s desire as it is, one needs to look at the world and at culture—books, films, Netflix miniseries—and retrieve that which is hidden away, concealed, denied, or cemented over by straight desire and, more profoundly, the straight logic of desire. Let’s say you read of a love triangle: a male protagonist and two women. The plot tries to force you to pick one woman for our handsome and annoying protagonist. But then a strong feeling of resistance to the text erupts, a feeling that something is missing. What if you choose the two women for one another, and chuck the male protagonist altogether? José E. Muñoz called this resistant feeling “Feeling Revolutionary”: “Feeling Revolutionary is feeling that our current situation is not enough, that something is indeed missing and we cannot live without it. Feeling revolutionary opens up the space to imagine a collective escape, an exodus, a ‘going-off script’ together.” 1 1 José Esteban Muñoz and Lisa Duggan, “Hope and Hopelessness: A Dialogue,” Women & Performance: A Journal of Feminist Theory 19, no. 2 (July 2009), 278.
Let’s try to go off script with Unorthodox. First, we need to remember that all cultures hide away options they see as undermining their communal existence. Straight culture does that by suppressing the potential of non-hetero desire, such as through the rigid narrative structure of the love triangle. Unorthodox, on the other hand, clearly shows its viewers some of the truths that the Orthodox world suppresses for its members and that Esty must now learn, as Shaul Magid notes in his review: for example, that not all non-Orthodox culture is evil, or that non-Orthodox Jews were also murdered by the Nazis. In relying on such strong narratives of exclusion and inclusion, the Orthodox world is not so different from the straight imagination. But just as queer people learn how to read their desire into hegemonic narratives, so too can dissenters and defectors of other kinds.
A scene comes to mind: I am eight years old, sitting in “Navi” class: the class where students at the religious Mamlakhti Dati school system in Israel are taught the books of the prophets. We are studying the book of Joshua. I am an avid reader and the class is dead boring, so I read on. I get to chapter two, where I meet a figure named Rahab, who is an “ishah zonah,” a prostitute. I get very excited: I am now in cahoots with the prophets because I have just read an obscene word and the rest of my classmates are missing out on the action, listening to Mrs. Cohen expounding devoutly on chapter one. But to my disappointment, Rashi explains laconically that “zonah” means a woman who sells food. I don’t let that small detail devastate my party, though. I take immense pleasure in rolling that profanity on my tongue as I will, in later years, roll other things (dover akher—treyfs and indecencies) on that same tongue.
As I grow older, my appetite develops. Deprived of non-legitimate, non-kosher, exciting textual materials on the most interesting things in life—sex, the body, violence, the destruction of boundaries—I read those out of and into any text that will allow it. The books of kines, laments for Tisha B’Av, are particularly accommodating for my deviant interests. Bellies torn open and filled with feathers, children cooked by the hands of their own merciful mothers, the blood of the people of Israel spilled like water, sainted women raped by brutal men—is all that revolting? Absolutely. Is the history of anti-Jewish persecution horrifying? Of course. But none of that stopped me from having a great time. Who needs Game of Thrones when you have Eikhah, the Book of Lamentations? I learned how to enjoy reading despite a text’s message, and in spite of the didactic framing in which it was presented to me.
Of course, in the eyes of whoever produces or faithfully teaches such a text, I am a failed reader, one who neglects to pay attention to the heart and logic of the text and instead allows herself to get distracted by graphic descriptions on its margins.
Yiddish literature offers us many examples of such failed readers, or scenes of reading failure. The protagonist of Mendele’s Masoes Binyomin Hashlishi cannot differentiate fiction from fact, and that readerly impotence brings him to embark on a fantastic and pathetic exploration mission in the neighboring towns of the Pale of Settlement. Yosef Perl’s Megale temirin and Sholem Aleichem’s Shomers mishpet are quintessential albeit very different examples of the critique of Eastern European Jews’ reading habits and the reformist hope that creating a new Jewish subject and a new Jewish reader would solve at least some of the Jews’ problems. In the non-Jewish European literary imagination, such critique is usually reserved for women, such as Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary, who cannot differentiate reality from fantasy, and thus misunderstand literary conventions of realism. Their corrupted reading of romantic literature makes them go crazy when they go looking for romance in real life, not realizing that such silly desires are limited to the world of fiction.
But there’s no reason for us to subscribe to these standards of reading or watching. Aderabe, to the contrary, there’s much to gain from being a failed reader or watcher, from going “off-script,” from going Off the Derekh. 2 2 In this conceptualization of failure I think along with Jack Halberstam, The Queer Art of Failure (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011). There is, for example, the option of an escape from the part and script written for you—whether that part is written by the Orthodox community that expects you to be a faithful member, or by the secular world, where you are expected to play the character of the “empowered,” newly-converted secular to the satisfaction of, for instance, the self-congratulatory liberal professors at Etsy’s Berlin conservatory.
A failed watching of Unorthodox could let go of the interpretation intended for us by the series’ creators. For example, we could enjoy the portrayal of the relationship between Esty and her grandmother. It touched me, because I too have a grandmother whom I love very much, and with whom there are certain topics I cannot discuss, something not often portrayed on mainstream TV. When watching the audition scene, we could allow ourselves to replay the fantasy that one way or another, one day, we will be able to successfully transfer some of our lost social and cultural capital into our new society, as Esty did when she got into the conservatory on the merit of the Bobover nigun “Mi Bon Siakh.” There could even be some joy or at least a comic relief in Esty’s cringe-inducing conversation with the woman who teaches her about sex—remembering what it’s like to talk about sex in a society where sex is rarely discussed but constantly implied, as in the endless discussions on tsnies. Finally, we could soberly recognize the series’ blindness to the flaws of its own secular society while still holding on to a utopic fantasy of true liberation. I should know; I left one country in search of a better one, but while it turned out that the goldene medine was just as disappointing, a Jew can still hope to find someplace better, can they not?Going off-script, going full-on unorthodox, taking pleasure in watching or reading in spite of a work, rather than because of it, generates what we could call queer pleasure or OTD pleasure. It requires that we let go of our impulse to outsmart, to analyze, to prove; it requires putting our critical mind to rest. We let go of our realist expectations and our need to compare and contrast artificial peyes with real peyes, authentic sheitels with inauthentic sheitels (aren’t all sheitels, by definition, inauthentic?), and heymish Yiddish with (impressive!) rehearsed Yiddish. Instead, we take pleasure in the little pleasurable bits left for us, even unintentionally. Sure, we expect writers and directors and producers to do better, but when it boils down to our pleasure, I’d rather go Off the Derekh.
Thank you to Tova Benjamin for her great suggestions and input on this piece.