My perspective is as a woman who grew up and lived in a similar Chasidic community for the first forty years of my life, who was driven out of the community for going against their rules, and whose relationship with my four children was destroyed as a result.
I thought the Netflix series Unorthodox was very good.
Although the Chasidic sect that I was a member of was slightly different, and so the nuances of my own experience are somewhat different, it was still all very, very familiar.
The details of the story were greatly simplified, especially Esty’s experience of leaving, which sometimes jarred because it was less believable, yet I forgave this because the reality is so complex and goes so deep, that every bit of a story of the journey of living there, and leaving, can become too complex to manage in a single storyline. Simplifying it allowed the experience to emerge, and the plot to remain secondary, and this made it more powerful.
The real strength of the series is that, without exaggerating or sensationalising anything, and without doing too much explaining, it shows the reality as it is, and thereby shows the abuse, denial of rights, and mental, physical and emotional violations that are part and parcel of life in the Chasidic community.
Esty is violated right from the very start of her life, when she is born to a mother who has been forced into marriage at a very young age, and who only has the right to have a relationship with her child is if she conforms to strict community rules. At a very deep level, Esty’s emotional safety is immediately compromised.
Whilst this is the case for every single child born into this community, in Esty’s case it turns out that her mother is unable to conform. Esty is then torn away from her mother – a normal, intelligent, capable young woman who is very obviously well able to be a good-enough mother – for the only reason that her mother is not religious enough for her father’s family and his community. Most normal people would think it was a terrible thing to a child’s developing psyche to lose their relationship with a parent, and would consider people who do it deliberately to be evil, but nobody in Esty’s community thinks there is a problem. In Esty’s community, they think destroying the relationship with her mother is mandatory, and re-attachment to another figure is simple and necessary. They all believe it is better for Esty to be with someone who follows the rules, rather than her mother.
Because Esty’s father is a drunken oaf he never remarries and lives with his parents (quite unsafe as a parent, but still a bona fide member of the community because he wears the garb and goes through the motions). Esty is brought up by her grandmother. She naturally seeks a primary attachment figure, and it is her grandmother, a woman who has colluded in and actively participated in alienating Esty from her mother, and who plants in Esty a false narrative that her mother has abandoned her, who takes that role. This is a conditional, unsafe attachment figure for Esty, but nobody around Esty worries about this. Esty has no alternative.
Esty is further violated when everyone around her colludes to support the narrative that her mother has abandoned her for an irreligious life, rather than the truth that they were the cause of her losing her mother.
Once this narrative is effectively stored in Esty, the people around her can rely on her to ensure any relationship with her mother is sabotaged. Esty’s mother continues to visit occasionally, but Esty naturally finds these visits difficult and uncomfortable. There are always other people present as chaperones. Esty doesn’t mind this. She feels better having the people she knows around her, believing they will keep her safe from her mother, who in her mind is the villain.
Esty knows that she has to prove that she is different to her mother. Her grandmother makes it very clear to Esty that her only way of really pleasing her is by proving that she is not like her mother: by being a dedicated member of the community, getting married and have a large family of her own. Esty is very conscientious about doing this and is willing to do whatever it takes.
None of this is explained to us. We discover it by seeing vignettes of Esty’s life in flashbacks as she navigates leaving the community, but through these vignettes we get a sense of the power of the community to create this reality, and the power they have over Esty’s mind – her thoughts and her feelings.
In the vignettes, we first meet Esty when she has grown up and is ready for marriage, so we don’t see the years of conditioning and objectification that have prepared her for getting married and being a wife in that community. We only see the end product, Esty dressed up in elaborate, albeit very modest, clothing walking through a supermarket, knowing she is being examined covertly by a prospective mother-in-law. We are not surprised that Esty doesn’t object to this since she has been brought up to know that this is how it works. The prospective mother-in-law is accompanied by her own daughter, who is being invited to collude and show her own willingness to take part in the objectification. Esty will be expected to do the same one day.
We see a small leak emerging during the meeting Esty has with the young man chosen to be her future husband, when she tells him she’s different. We don’t find out why she thinks that, though, and the storyline only shows us how this is repressed when the young man replies with a meaningless ‘different is good’, without wanting to know more. This is clever, because we see how quickly any idea of ‘difference’ is shut down in the community, as well as the young man’s inability to engage in it. To him, the fact that he is meeting a girl means she has been approved by his mother. He has no personal opinion.
Esty’s mother visits without warning during her engagement, which she finds very uncomfortable. Her grandmother ignores her mother. After mother leaves, Esty’s grandmother ignores entirely that it happened, and only seeks to distract Esty by looking at her wedding dress with her. The dress is lovely, and the unspoken message is clear. Mother is a taboo subject, and the beautiful dress is Esty’s reward for not being like her. It also symbolises the rightful place Esty will soon have in the community through marriage, which is what is important to grandmother.
We see Esty learning about sex and the marital laws from another Chasidic woman, and we see her having her first mikvah experience. Esty knows nothing about her body or about sex and there is nothing about her sexual pleasure, or love. We are not surprised to see Esty go along with it all, and voice no objections. We know, as she knows, that all her life she has been preparing for this time.
Esty’s beautiful hair being shorn off after the wedding is traumatic to watch, because we experience the shock it causes her psyche, as well as her inability to consciously realise how very shocking it is, since she has been taught to normalise it. She has also just been given diamond earrings as a gift by her husband, and feted by the community’s women at her wedding. We know that the gifts and the community’s approval are rewards for her compliance, including shaving her hair off.
We expect sex on the night of the wedding to be awkward and clumsy, so we find the first sex scene unsurprising. What we are not prepared for is to discover that this is the third night, and the third time they are trying to have sex, with Esty’s husband forcing himself on her and Esty believing she has to go along with it. This continues as a theme, with Esty’s husband looking to his mother for answers about how to get Esty to be able to have sex, and Esty being told by her mother-in-law that she mustn’t fail her husband and cause him to lose confidence in her.
Esty’s husband’s behaviour towards her around sex is clearly abusive. What makes it more nuanced is that at the same time we know he is doing it without fully realising that it is abusive. We suspect that given a different background, he could be very different. He is clearly different to the overtly psychopathic Moishe (and yes, the community is full of Moishes). Yet he is unable to do anything different to that which is expected of him, or to think outside the box he has grown up in. We see him struggling with the need to be like other men, whose wives become pregnant immediately after marriage, and blaming Esty as a result. He is also unable to act without his mother’s validation and opinion, and we know that longer term he is never going to be able to separate from his mother. Esty never has pleasure during sex, and her husband never considers it a shared experience. It is just something that he does to her. The scene when he tells Esty callously that he wants a divorce because she isn’t normal, and can’t have children, whilst he can still be normal in his community if he remarries, lands like a physical blow. Even after she runs away and he follows her, on his rebbe’s instructions, to bring her back, his only thought is that it’s all fine now that she’s pregnant.
Esty has no function in her husband’s life other than providing him with children. He doesn’t know anything about her, or have any interest. He expects, as he has been brought up to believe, his wife to live life the same as all the other women he knows, in some amorphous women’s space, something that goes on outside his consciousness and takes place apart from his own and other men’s. He is not able to engage with her as a human being, someone with her own internal world. He has very little access to his own.
We see him making some progress along the way as he grapples with her leaving and trying to bring her back. We suspect, however, that if the rebbe or his mother would tell him to stop going after her, he would immediately give up. Even when he does start to have some inkling about Esty, we find that it is immature, as when he buys her an item of jewellery with a musical symbol. This, we know, is him saying that it is all he can give her, and he can never give her the music which is what she actually wants. When he realises that the jewellery isn’t going to work, he tries to show her that he himself can be different by dramatically cutting off his payos, but we know that this is too shallow. He hasn’t done any of the internal transformation that would make him believable. We know he will go back to his life in Williamsburg and marry someone different who will give him the life he was always expecting, and he will never look for more.
Esty in the meantime has undergone some significant transformations. She has become better at recognising the emotional manipulations and cognitive distortions that have controlled her until then, and has started to counter them. Her grandmother hanging up the phone on her demonstrates how conditional the relationship always was. She has started doing what she actually wants to do, realising that this right has been denied to her all her life. She has also learnt about her own sexual arousal and desire, and has for the first time experienced wanting sex. We are not surprised when she tells her husband that it is too late for the marriage to be saved and she cannot return to the community.___
There are a few small takeaways I’ll mention before I’ll finish with my thoughts about Esty’s mother. Watching it made me grateful all over again that I don’t have to ever live that life again. Grateful that I was able to leave, and grateful for all the help I got from people on the outside, the many hands that helped me cross the divide.
I was reminded again how appalling the men are, how profoundly unattractive, how limited in their capacity to think and feel, how unable they are to connect with women, or even themselves. Moishe was the worst sort, and I know many men like that, but there wasn’t a single one that redeemed them. There was not a single man who was in any way psychologically normal.
I was reminded, too, how appalling the women are. How profoundly ugly, how oppressive they can be to other women, how mothers destroy their sons. How limited they are in their thinking and feeling.
They are all my own parents, ex-husband, in-laws, aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters, friends, teachers, and, yes, my children.___
I must finish with some thoughts about Esty’s mother, because she of course reminded me of myself, the mother who left first, and who had her child torn cruelly away from her.
Esty’s mother came to visit her, even though all visits had to be chaperoned. That must have been excruciating. She watched her child growing up hating her, and being brought up for a life that had been wrong for her, and had profoundly failed her. When she realised her daughter was getting married, she handed her a lifeline, a way out should she ever want it. She came, uninvited, to the wedding wearing a wig and modest clothing, and stood quietly in the background. She didn’t fuss when she was driven out of the wedding hall at Esty’s request. She had her own, fulfilling life and didn’t spend all her time living in hope that Esty would come to her. When she first discovered that Esty had left her husband, and was nearby, she didn’t do anything to chase her. She waited for Esty to find her herself.
Esty’s mother acted like a textbook alienated parent, noble and patient, allowing her child to find her, letting her know her door was open.
I don’t do that with my children. I don’t give them any lifelines, or go to their weddings uninvited. I stay very far away from them. The reason is because they were older when I left, and, after immediately rejecting the lifelines I offered them, were actively abusive to me. They colluded in the harassment and intimidation, and used their power in the courts to ensure I lost my youngest child. Like the mother-in-law’s daughter, they had to prove to their elders that they were willing to collude in order to show their commitment to the community.
Esty was very young – three I think – when the community used the law to tear her away from her mother. She was entirely a victim. My children weren’t.
Perhaps the only one of my children who is like Esty is my youngest. She was old enough when I had to give her up to understand some things, too young to be actively recruited to oppress me, but at the age when she was beginning to be able to used. She was beginning to buckle.
I said some things to her before I let her go, which she will remember. Perhaps they will be her lifeline one day, perhaps they won’t.
What’s more important to me is that I was never going to go back in any way. Not physically or emotionally. No visits, no going to weddings, no contact whatsoever, because it’s far too toxic for me. Even this, watching the series and writing about it, is toxic.
It seems to me it’s important to remember this. We are sometimes invited to understand the community’s perspective, why they are the way they are, and to understand how not all of it is intentional abuse, and how they are often victims themselves. We are told that this is not a true representation, and that not all of them are like this. We are told that they are imperfect, but human, like the rest of humanity. We are told to look at the ills in the rest of society. But this is just mere apologetics, and it’s wrong. At the end of the day the reason why they are the way they are doesn’t matter. It is not about minor imperfections. It is about all of them, and the society that created them.
It’s quite simple, actually. They are all actively abusive or in collusion with abuse. Those who abused, harassed and threatened me were, probably, only about twenty or thirty individuals. But they were actively supported by hundreds, and passively supported by thousands. Not one person in the community (and my situation was famous) supported me in even the slightest way. Not one was interested in hearing my side of things. This is one example, and we only need one example to know this is true. They destroy children’s relationships with parents for the sole reason that a parent chooses to no longer live their lifestyle. This is abusive, and all of them are complicit.
We often hear how lovely they are, how heimish, how warm and inviting. But none of that really matters. The touchstone of goodness is not how good you are to people who agree with you; it’s about how good, decent and respectful you are when you disagree with them. Then you know the true goodness of both people and community. The fact that they may be less abusive, or even quite nice, in other areas doesn’t redeem them in any way. It isn’t six of one and half a dozen of the other. Abuse is always wrong, and when it happens on a communal level, it shows a community that has lost its way to God, to its soul and to humanity.
The truth is that this is a community that is abusive on so many levels – emotional, physical, mental and spiritual – to all its members. The ones that manage to leave are fortunate.
For those of us who leave, it’s like leaving a burning building. You grab what you can and run. And if you value your safety, you never go back in, not for anything.
2nd May 2020