Sex and Hasidism in Unorthodox and Shtisel

Unorthodox is hot. In Netflix’s critically-lauded pandemic hit, Esty Shapiro (Shira Haas) leaves her Satmar Hasidic community in Williamsburg, Brooklyn to pursue a secular life in Berlin. The first Netflix series with Yiddish as its primary language, Unorthodox is loosely based on Deborah Feldman’s memoir of the same name, which is subtitled The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots. The miniseries progresses as a feminist liberation story: 19-year-old Esty discovers she’s pregnant after a painful, borderline abusive sex scene with her husband, then flees to Europe for German liberalism and better sex. Scandalous indeed.

I watched Unorthodox firmly embroiled in my own religious turmoil. I left Evangelical Christianity at 16 after years of romantic partner violence, then became interested in Judaism in college. Both these aspects of my history were at the forefront of my mind while watching Unorthodox. My knowledge of Judaism enabled me to further immerse myself in a plotline that mirrored my own lived experience with another religion altogether. 

In many scenes, the director carefully weaves Hasidic practices into the story, with Haas learning the Satmar dialect of Yiddish to play Esty and the costume design carefully reflecting Hasidic garb. But these successes are overshadowed by the inaccuracies that Frieda Vizel deftly points out in The Forward. The first episode focuses on a broken eruv, for instance, symbolizing Esty’s ability to leave the Satmar community on Shabbat with religious blessing, thus enabling her plot to escape. But Satmar (along with many other Hasidic communities) typically does not use an eruv on Shabbat at all, meaning that the plot device was developed explicitly for a non-Hasidic reader, someone who passed Judaism 101, but without intimate knowledge of Hasidic customs. 

Unorthodox’s critique of Hasidism could be made about virtually any religion. But the implications of these critiques being about Haredi Jews have higher stakes. Unorthodox offshoots of Christianity like fundamentalist Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses are often demonized as cults in poorly-shot documentaries; but renewed antisemitic attacks — many of which target Hasidic Jews — mean that a feminist liberation story about rejecting Hasidism feels not just religiously offensive but like a failure to read the room. The Jews in Unorthodox aren’t merely represented as misogynistic or backwards. They’re also relegated to a world where, as Vizel writes, “people are cold, humorless, and obsessed with following the rules… [with] everyone go[ing] about muted, serious, drawn, fulfilling the rules and mentioning the Holocaust.”

The brief sketch of Hasidic Brooklyn is colored by this narrative, sepia overlay and all. Often venturing toward a Handmaid’s Tale parallel, the screenplay lingers on core expressions (or repressions) of Esty’s womanhood and sexual agency. This is apparent in Esty’s sexual relationship with her husband, Yanky. Throughout their early marriage, Esty struggles with vaginismus — crippling pain caused by vaginal penetration — meaning that months pass before Esty and Yanky are able to consummate their marriage. It doesn’t help that Yanky’s mother knows everything. The combination of her interference and the inability to sexually perform causes Esty and  Yanky ever-heightening anxiety, finally leading to one devastating sexual encounter in which he penetrates her despite her whimpers. The scene is pornographic not because it depicts sexual pleasure, but because it doesn’t. Instead, it turns an invasive eye towards the fulfillment of the religious obligation to rear children, exciting the viewer only because they know that the Orthodox subjects would rather, you know, not.

This moment is contrasted with the one-night-stand Esty spends with a friend, Robert, in Berlin. Unlike the sepia overlay in Williamsburg, the sunshine in Berlin is bright and clear, with European summer heat on full display. Not only is Germany the backdrop for Esty’s liberation, sexual and otherwise — it drives it. It’s clear what conclusion the story drives us to: this, it says, is what sex should be like.

This dichotomy is repeated throughout Unorthodox. The series lingers on an extended flashback of Esty and Yanky’s wedding ceremony, during which Esty’s long, chestnut hair is shaved to the scalp and she dons her sheitel for the first time. Conversely, the defining image of the first episode occurs when Esty, still wearing her frum clothing, strides into the water and pulls off her wig. This could not be a clearer symbol. The sheitel represents subjugation, and Esty is now liberated.

Contrastingly, the Israeli drama, Shtisel, about to embark on its third season, leaves the lights bright. The series follows Rabbi Shulem Shtisel’s Haredi family as they navigate day-to-day life in Jerusalem. Where the Haredi characters of Unorthodox are drab rule-followers, the Shtisels authentically navigate how to balance their own desires with their religious convictions — and often fail, miserably.

There is little sex in Shtisel, yet, like with Unorthodox, sexuality is everywhere. Shulem’s youngest son, Akiva, lusts after an older divorcee even as he is pressured to settle down. His daughter, Giti, is left to care for her five children after her husband uses a business trip to Argentina as pretext for an extended affair with a gentile. Even Shulem’s 90-year-old mother, Malka, has sex with a stranger in her nursing home after suffering short-term amnesia that leaves her convinced that he is her husband. These characters don’t need to flee to find a form of liberation. Indeed, it’s not clear that they look for liberation at all.

If Unorthodox constructs Yanky and Robert as two extremes on a spectrum of sexual pleasure, Shtisel refuses to aspire to either of them.  Giti’s husband returns from Argentina to pick up the familial pieces, then shatter them again. In an emotional scene, Malka realizes that her actual husband is, indeed, dead. Even Shulem’s dating habits — which mostly revolve around finding widows to cook him supper under the guise of romance — are dynamic and engaging. Their world, while constrained by the limitations of halacha, is often joyous, funny and moving.

There are times where Unorthodox approaches Shtisel’s level of humanity. For instance, Esty’s relationship with her grandmother serves as the most inspiring relationship in the story, a cross-generational connection that transcends distance and custom. And it’s difficult to hate Yanky, Esty’s husband, who serves not as the story’s antagonist but an unfortunate collaborator in Esty’s subjugation. He still cares about Esty’s comfort, but religious obligation supersedes this concern. His repeated pleas for her to muscle through her vaginismus, the series suggests, are not the mere actions of one man attempting to rape his wife, but a reflection of Hasidism’s cultural valuation of a woman’s reproductive value over all else.

This all culminates in the series’ final scene, in which Yanky overhears Esty auditioning for a prestigious music scholarship, choosing to sing “Mi Bon Siach,” a song traditionally sung at weddings while the bride and groom are under the chuppah. This song choice is both rebellious and nostalgic, with Esty simultaneously rooted to her past while rejecting the song’s inherent meaning: her bond to a man. Esty leaving Yanky, for the viewer, is both unsurprising and frankly, cliché.

But Esty’s liberation falls flat, precisely because Unorthodox feeds dichotomies between subjugation and liberation, religious and secular, hyper-aware of Jewish tragedy while blissfully ignorant of it. The black-and-white perception of pleasure in Unorthodox ignores the in-betweens of sexuality and relationships so acutely identified in Shtisel. Instead, Unorthodox constructs a one-dimensional vision of Haredi Judaism that necessarily includes bad sex and worse relationships, forcing the reader to believe that liberation, sexual or otherwise, requires secularization.

This is the problem with Unorthodox. Where Shtisel finds entertainment value in its Haredi subjects’ moral blunders, Unorthodox represents Hasidism as a straitjacket, its characters so devoid of human emotion that even sex becomes agonizing and transactional. In the world of Unorthodox, religious observance cannot coexist with liberation — and liberation is the only correct desire to have. Anyway, cue the sepia.

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