Tuesday, July 13, 2021

Portrayals of Orthodoxy - Fact or Fiction?

Scene from the Netflix series - Unorthodox (Fortune)Updated
Once again I am experiencing mixed feelings. Which I suppose might be my nature as a centrist (small c). The reason I am a centrist is I tend to hear both sides of a story and usually both sides make valid points. In this case my ambivalence is about Kylie Ora Lobell’s harsh - almost angry - criticism of how Orthodox Jews have lately been portrayed in the entertainment media. 

Lobell is a Giores, a convert to Judaism who was converted by an Orthodox Jewish court (Beis Din). In her Jewish Journal article she describes the huge gap between the reality of Orthodox Jews and how they are portrayed - as will surely be the case in  forthcoming Netflix series, My Unorthodox Life. 

This show is about yet another OTD Jew (in this case a woman which seems to be the favored gender of OTD shows like this) who left the fold ostensibly because of its oppressive, primitive, restrictive and insular ways. Once ‘freed’ from her ‘draconian’ past she ends up flourishing in the secular world. Orthodoxy is almost always portrayed that way and contrasted with the far more ‘enlightened’ way of the rest of civilization. Lobell then shows tells of of her own experiences in Orthodoxy which are nothing like the way they are portrayed. 

Kylie Ora Lobell was born into a typical secular American life. She was not born a Jew; and is of English, Irish, Scottish and German descent. Her foray into Judaism came when she met her Jewish husband. After exploring it and finding out how wonderful observant Jewish life is – how warm, accommodating, and giving Orthodox Jews are... and experiencing how welcoming a Chabad Rabbi was of her - she decided she wanted to be a part of that. After a 5 year year period of study, she converted. And now lives as full fledged completely observant Jew. As she said: 

I observe Shabbat, keep kosher, pray every day, cover my hair, and send my child to an Orthodox school.

I understand her frustration and agree with her about how Orthodox Jews are treated in the entertainment industry today. I also agree that in many cases, those that go OTD are dealing with more than the issues that are typically blamed for them doing that. But that does not mean that that all of Orthodoxy is like that. And even those insular communities have a lot of good going on there (not the least of which is what Lobell experienced) that is rarely depicted.

But at the same time some of what they portray is not that far off. As kind and as  warm as the people in these communities are, they are in fact insular and highly restrictive – rejecting virtually everything the outside world has to offer. Their lives are as different from the rest of the world as they can possibly make them. 

What shows like “My Unorthodox Life” fail to do is show any positive side and to distinguish between different types of Orthodox lifestyles. Not every Orthodox Jewish community looks like Kiyas Joel or Williamsburg. 

There is a wide variety of Orthodox Jewish communities that are nothing like that. They are not insular or restrictive.  And just as warm and welcoming. The lifestyles of modern Orthodox Jews and Centrists like myself are not all that different than the lifestyles of non Jews. Even moderate Charedim are not all that different. We all participate in the culture. (Some more than others – but to some extant – all.) As long as it doesn’t conflict with Halacha. 

That said, none of us are perfect. Nor is any stream of Orthodoxy perfect. Each segment has its own challenges. Including their share of Jews going OTD. There is no Orthodox community that is immune to that. 

So when I see a show like this, I tend to see it as truth mixed with a heavy dose of fiction. The entertainment industry has yet to ‘get it right’ about us. They tend to see things through their own narrow lens. Focusing only on that segment they consider strange, intolerant and thereby quite negative. And then embellish that on the screen. I have yet to see any portrayal that reflects anywhere near the Orthodox world in which I live. 

I suppose portraying normalcy would be pretty boring. But that does not excuse them from hiding the truth. It would be nice if for a change a story like this would include the normalcy that is the mainstream of Orthodoxy.

*Update. I was just forwarded a comment published in Forbes made by Julia Haart, the protagonist in this series. It kind of makes my point:

“I am Jewish. I love my religion and I love the people in my community. Fundamentalism, however, has nothing to do with Judaism. Fundamentalism has to go...Fundamentalism can only exist in isolation. The message that everyone else is bad and you are the only ones who are good can only be believed if you don’t meet anyone outside your world. The greatest way to combat that is through education, not anger or hate.”