Netflix series Unorthodox’s exploration of one woman’s journey out of her insular ultra-Orthodox community in Brooklyn in search of a life of her own choosing in Berlin has captured the hearts of viewers around the world — a fact highlighted by the series’ 8 Emmy nominations and director Maria Schrader’s win for “Outstanding Directing for a Limited Series.” Many binge-watchers were left wondering about the real life “Estys” out there; what happens to the women who make the courageous choice to leave the world they know in search of an authentic, self-determined life?
Their paths often lead to Footsteps, the only organization in North America providing comprehensive services to those who choose to take the journey out of ultra-Orthodoxy. Nearly 2,000 individuals have become Footsteps members since Malkie Schwartz, who left her own ultra-Orthodox community at the age of 19, founded the organization in 2003.
Footsteps’ Executive Director, Lani Santo, speaks with Unorthodox cast members and long-time Footsteps members Eli Rosen and Melissa Weisz about their stories of finding freedom and forging their own paths out of ultra-Orthodoxy.
The video begins a few minutes after our formal program started; it opens with Eli answering the first question: “For Esty, leaving was a dramatic move of getting on a plane and flying off to Germany. Did you have a dramatic moment like this where it became clear you needed to leave? Or was it more gradual?”
Netflix’s ‘Unorthodox’ has become a favorite to binge watch as we hunker down at home these days. The success of this Yiddish language show has raised many questions about its accurate portrayal of Hasidic life in Brooklyn. Check out the video below for a conversation with Eli Rosen, who played Reb Yossele, was the production’s Yiddish translator and consultant, and is a Footsteps member; Abby Stein, activist, ‘Becoming Eve’ author, former Hasidic Rabbi, and Footsteps member; Alexa Karolinski, co-creator and co-writer of ‘Unorthodox’; Chavie Weisberger, Director of Community Engagement at Footsteps; and Rukhl Schaechter, Editor of The Yiddish Forward about the reality of leaving Hasidic communities and how one woman’s story was adapted.
Hasidic communities are facing a unique challenge when it comes to controlling the spread of the coronavirus. I fear that in these places, highly communal lifestyles combined by skepticism about the need for social distancing — at times promoted by religious leaders — are going to cost more lives. One rabbi I know of mocks the ‘hysteria’ around the virus and still holds services in his sanctuary.
The main ZIP code in the ultra-Orthodox hub of Borough Park in Brooklyn has the second-highest number of reported positive cases in New York City. Rockland County, N.Y., has the state’s highest rate of Covid-19 infection per capita, and the second-highest in the country. Authorities say the numbers are partly explained by the communities there where Orthodox residents haven’t conformed to social distancing.
Last week, I lost three close Hasidic relatives in three days to the virus.
I believe a lack of information about this unprecedented threat — and what it will take to survive it — is part of the problem.
Anna Winger was one of the creators behind ‘œDeutschland 83’ and ‘œDeutschland 86,’ the spy thriller series about East German espionage and the ordinary people who became caught up in the Cold War’s machinations. So ‘œUnorthodox,’ a four-part series about a young woman escaping a Hasidic community in present-day Brooklyn, might seem like a departure for her.
It is not. It’s not just that the show, which arrives Thursday on Netflix, shares the intensity, cultural specificity and psychological acuity of Winger’s earlier series. It’s that the story, which tracks its protagonist’s personal journey and peril across continents, is itself a kind of espionage caper, a thrilling and probing story of one woman’s personal defection.
As anti-Semitism continues to rise in our streets and Jewish identities are being stolen by white supremacists intent on stoking division, many in the Jewish community are calling for unity. But an insidious infighting of a new sort has begun to take shape over whether we are allowed to criticize Jewish groups at a time when we are all feeling so threatened. What do we do about legitimate criticisms at a time of rising hate speech against us? What role does for example legitimate concerns and advocacy for better education in Hasidic schools play when a major political party of a county with an exponentially growing Jewish population puts out a shrill video that would make Goebbels proud?
Many believe that in situations like we Jews find ourselves in, criticism is no longer valid. It’s just too dangerous.
The problem, as I see it, is the conflation of legitimate criticism with blatant anti-Semitism, by both by Jewish apologists for problems in the Hasidic community who know better, and by the anti-Semites themselves. The solution lies, as it usually does, in scraping the barrel for nuance.
Imagine you’d never seen The Wizard of Oz. Or gotten sunburned at the beach. Or twisted apart an Oreo and made tooth tracks in the filling. Or pawed at your tenth-grade boyfriend in the back of a Honda Civic. Imagine you’d never learned how fun it was to stay at the Y-M-C-A, or taken scissors to your jeans to make short-short cutoffs. Or shaded in the bubbles on an SAT with a freshly sharpened number 2 pencil. Imagine you’d never heard the song ‘Imagine.’ Or driven a car. Or celebrated Thanksgiving. Or learned that dinosaurs once existed.
Nataly Antar grew up in a Hasidic Jewish community in Brooklyn. Due to the strictness of that society she decided to leave, but that meant leaving behind everything and everyone she had ever known ‘“ including her children. This is one woman’s story about finding her own path.