The problem with Orthodox Jewish women in popular cultural representations lies with audience desires for shlock and salvation, not with Haredi society.
The Netflix series Unorthodox, appearing as it did at the heart of pandemic lockdown, caused a sensation in both the Jewish and non-Jewish world.
The four-episode drama offered a tantalizing look at a woman’s escape from her oppressive religious community to a liberal cultural dream – from the oppressive backwaters of Brooklyn to the dynamism of cultural and bohemian Berlin.
Much ink has been spilled on whether the series offered an authentic examination of the Satmar community Esther Shapiro (Shira Haas) leaves. And many who have left the community found her fictional narrative resonating with their own lives, even as it deviated significantly from the memoir by Deborah Feldman on which it was based.
Yet in many ways there was little that was significantly new in the series that had not already appeared in other films like Price Above Rubies (Boaz Yakin, 1998), Kadosh (Amos Gitai, 1999), The Secrets (Avi Nesher, 2007), Esther Kahn (Arnaud Desplechin, 2000) and Félix and Meira (Maxime Geroux, 2014).
Over the years, they have developed between them a series of codes and conventions that we have come to anticipate. The most prominent is how they paint the Orthodox world for a secular audience as a horrific society in which the only salvation lies in escape. Other tropes include sparse conversations, limited soundtracks and a lack of kindness and intimacy. The sense of isolation is heightened cinematically through muted colours and limited palettes.
There seem to be two major themes in such films. The first concerns issues surrounding barrenness and fertility in a marriage that are always depicted as the woman’s responsibility. The second is that a woman has an artistic talent and only through sex with a non-Jewish man can she discover and realise her artistic voice.
Only The Secrets offers a slightly alternative model in its portrayal of a highly educated woman whose homosexuality and love for another woman facilitates her rite of passage. Yet, in the end, it is the musical instrument of her lover’s fiancé that serves their symbolic union. Bringing us back yet again to art as the intoxicating alternative to the oppression of religious life.
In these films, we constantly see a community that is watching and monitoring everything – an extreme snooping that invades every private space. No wonder then that these films also share an obsession with showing us — the secular and often non-Jewish audience — the naked body of the oppressed woman. For a woman who is otherwise shielded from our prying eyes through the modesty codes of the religious society’s approach to dress and comportment, nakedness becomes a sexual fetish. The religious woman must be undressed and exposed to the hungry audiences’ lascivious gaze. The pervasiveness of the image of the naked woman at the mikveh has become a truly tired convention of the genre.
So many of these patterns are repeated in Unorthodox. The oppressiveness and Shira’s innocence are depicted through Haas’ diminutive stature. At 4ft 9in, everyone in the film towers over her. She has no female companions, no friends, the couple do not even share their Shabbat table with other newlyweds like them. The muted colour scheme and grey skies of Williamsburg are contrasted with the vibrant sunshine in Berlin.
The secular world, like a magical land of Oz, offers warmth and friendship. It becomes the colourful world of safety. Here behind the looking glass there are no abusive marriages, naïve women, sexual violence, poverty or unhappiness. This fantasy is common to such films where the modern world can ‘save’ the religious woman from the oppression of her community.
Many of those who have praised the series have appreciated that it talks for those who have left the community. Even if this is only one story, it opens up the conversation for others to talk about their own paths. But seeing this kind of film as a salvation narrative, particularly as the only kind of salvation available to women in a society that appears unredeemingly patriarchal erases the agency of those who stay within the community. It also makes the efforts of the women who work within the community to advance their own situation and that of others – acts that might be considered feminist in other contexts – entirely invisible.
That the directors who have helmed each of these cinematic projects are either male, or not Jewish, speaks to our willingness to accept the erasure of religious women’s narratives of their own experiences. Instead, contrast Unorthodox with the recent award-winning Fill the Void (2014) by the Bobover Hassid Rama Burshtein, in which her religious society is shown as warm and community driven. Our heroine, Shira Mendelman (Hadas Yaron), has female friends, and their relationships reveal the normal tensions shared by women – jealousy, love, kindness, affection. The contrast is illustrated by matching scenes in which both heroines visit a supermarket as part of the matchmaking process.
Unlike in Unorthodox, where Shira is the object of the gaze — peered at and spied upon, judged for her worth as a woman and prospective bride, in Fill the Void, it is the young female protagonist who has control and it is she who is inspecting her intended to see if he appeals and she wants to proceed with the match.
In this way, agency is returned to the female even within the confines of what appears to be a tightly restricted community.
Thus, films like Fill the Void can be seen as part of a movement of women within the Haredi and Orthodox world that is engaging with art, and with feminist perspectives, in order to make a space for themselves and their own experiences.
We would not tolerate this voyeuristic infantilization of any other female or minority community or its ventriloquizing by someone outside it so maybe it is time we rejected frum fetish shlock and instead supported religious women filmmakers as they teach us about a world we clearly do not really know.
*With thanks to the Program in Jewish Culture and Society at the University of Illinois, where this first appeared as part of a panel discussion of Unorthodox.