After watching the Netflix series “Unorthodox,” I have found many issues with how supposed Jewish values are depicted. In a community like the one shown in the series, most of these values are forced; people don’t have the ability to make their own decisions. In the protagonist Esty’s case, she finds that these values have turned into rules controlling her life for the worst, so she decides to leave this strict community in Williamsburg and explore the outside world in Berlin. While I appreciate this honest experience, it has shown me how Jewish values are interpreted in the wrong way, often turning into something forced rather than a choice.
My first problem with the rules depicted in “Unorthodox” is when Esty is forced to marry a man she barely knows. Esty is shown meeting her husband, Yanky, once before her wedding. They exchange awkward conversation and it is obvious that both of them are slightly uncomfortable yet they know that marriage is what their community wants for them. After the initial engagement, Esty must go through a series of steps before the actual wedding. When she goes to the mikvah, I found it disturbing how her body was so scrutinized. The woman checked every part of her body to make sure it was ‘pure’, but I found this extremely invasive to Esty. The purpose of going to the mikvah before marriage is to be cleansed and forgiven for your sins in order to start this new chapter of life. Yet this scene was utterly creepy and it objectified her as this machine that was going to produce babies. For Esty, the purpose of being cleansed is contorted from doing it for herself to doing it in order to have babies. Marriage is supposed to be a joyous time in one’s life– not a time to be objectified and scrutinized. “Unorthodox” twisted the meaning of marriage from a bond of love to a bond with a person whom you barely know. And the worst part is the only goal of this bond is not to live a life with a partner whom you love but to create offspring.
From the night of Esty’s wedding, she is pressured to have children immediately with Yanky. However, after countless tries, Esty finds that sex is painful for her. Even so, she still feels the pressure from her mother-in-law, husband, and community. Esty constantly repeats that she must have kids to make up for the 6 million Jews murdered in the Holocaust. There is this sense of guilt that Esty feels towards having children. I found a problem with this because when a mother has a child, she should genuinely want it. She shouldn’t feel like she needs to make up for a historical event that didn’t even take place in her lifetime. Especially in Judaism, you should be fully emotionally ready for a child in order to equip them with meaningful Jewish values so they can live a Jewish life. Yet in Esty’s community, children aren’t supposed to be made out of joy but rather guilt for those murdered decades before.
Esty’s mother-in-law pressures her to have children most. She comes into her apartment unannounced trying to give her advice and yelling at her for not having kids already a year after she’s been married. She treats her with such hostility, not realizing that other factors like the pain Esty feels during sex are inhibiting her from getting pregnant. Her mother-in-law speaks Lashon Hara, something that we are taught never to do. This mitzvah of having children is now warped into a game where Esty’s mother-in-law pressures her time and time again– even asking Yanky to divorce Esty. Esty’s mother-in-law only performs mitzvot out of selfishness. When Esty’s grandma dies, she brings over food to comfort the mourners. But then she reveals that she has only come to find out where Esty is and if she is pregnant yet. It disturbs me how all these mitzvot that are supposed to be performed out of joy are warped into this community where they are forced on people.
While I think “Unorthodox” provides an important self-discovery experience, I was appalled at how many Jewish values were warped into negative values in this portrayal of the Satmar community. I would recommend “Unorthodox” to everyone because it has shown me the ways Judaism is interpreted in many different sects– yet I think some of these ways are unproductive. In Deuteronomy 28:47, G-d threatens punishment if the Jewish people don’t follow the Torah and mitzvot with joy and gladness. We should follow these commandments with happiness, not because we are forced to. “Unorthodox” represented a Judaism seen as a set of forced laws, though that is not my Judaism.