Netflix has just released this four-part mini-series based on a memoir by Deborah Feldman about how and why she left the world of Hasidic Orthodox Judaism, though as is usually the case with film adaptations, the story has been changed in several ways. The film is about a very young woman Esther (known as Esty), who is a member of the Yiddish-speaking Satmar community that lives in the Williamsburg neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York. As is the custom in the ultra-Orthodox community, she has an arranged marriage to a very young man. The expectation in such marriages is that the woman will start having babies immediately, as many as she can.
Jesse Kornbluth reviewed Feldman’s book and interviewed her back in 2012 and wrote about the hostility she received from her former community for writing about her experience.
There’s no room for nonconformity in this community. “I had to believe everything I was taught, if only to survive,” she writes. And what was she taught? In the slow-track classes for girls, nothing very academic, for a girl could realistically have no higher destiny than marriage at 17 and motherhood a year later.
Can a Hasidic girl be alone with a man? She says: Not even if other women are present. She says: Doors must be kept open. She says: No singing aloud. Blouses buttoned at the neck, skirts to the floor.
On the other hand, the men are apparently given much more latitude to indulge in an extraordinary degree of sexual promiscuity.
Decades ago, when I was reporting a story on New York sex clubs for Playboy, the proprietor of one club showed me a special door that provided Hasidic rebbes a discreet exit when their congregants showed up to be serviced.
I admire that foresight. “Below the belt, all men are brothers,” Henry Miller wrote, but really, it just wouldn’t do for a sect that preaches the kind of chastity for women that the Taliban would approve to have its holy men cavorting with loose women — some surely shiksas — in full view of the members of their sect.
There are other disconnects along the way, but as in so many things, the real issue is sex. Not the act, but what it signifies — male control of women. That old story. We see it in far too many places; dehumanizing women is a key component of fundamentalist cults, from hardcore Muslims to certain Republicans.
Things start to go awry when a year goes by and Esty does not become pregnant, leading to her being seen by the community as a failure as a woman. Her mother-in-law does not hesitate to share her disapproval of Esty with her son Yanky and with her, saying that her faults arise from her father being an alcoholic and her mother leaving her as a child. Esty reaches a breaking point and makes her getaway to Berlin, Germany. The rabbi of her sect sends her naïve husband and his cousin Moishe, who despite being pious and religiously observant acts like a bargain basement gangster, to Berlin to get her back.
In Berlin, Esty meets up with a group of freewheeling young Jewish and Muslim musicians who play in a music conservatory orchestra. They welcome her into their group and she becomes exposed to a world unlike anything she has ever experienced. There is of course an obvious irony being portrayed here in a Jewish woman having to flee to Germany to find freedom and acceptance for who she is.
The series is well done and elevated by the excellent performances of the two people who play the young couple, bewildered by being thrust into an adult world that they are nowhere near ready for. It portrays the close but suffocating feeling of being in a extremely tight-knit community where women have little or no independence and even the men are tightly bound by traditions and rules. The series provides an absorbing window into what life is like in such communities that are normally opaque to outsiders. There is an extended sequence dealing with the preparations for the wedding and the ceremony itself.
There were two things that I learned that surprised me. One is that women are not supposed to read the Talmud, presumably part of the prohibition against women having any kind of serious education. The other is that just before entering marriage, women have all the hair on their head shaved off and thenceforth wear a wig, which seems strangely contradictory. But no doubt there is some rationalization for these practices to be found in the fine print of their religious books.
There is a short companion documentary where the filmmakers and Feldman say that they went to great extremes to make sure that the life of the Satmar community is represented as accurately as possible and not made into a caricature. This was not easy since almost the entire filming was done in Germany and they needed actors who had intimate knowledge of the community, and preferably had once been members, to play the many roles. That applied to the technical crew too. The costumiers had a difficult task in creating accurate replicas of the clothing. It turns out, for example, that the large black cylindrical fur hats that the men wear that are called shtreimels are very expensive since they are made from the skins of six minks and can cost thousands of dollars each. So the costumiers made them out of synthetic materials.
Here’s the trailer.
Here’s an interview given by Feldman on a German public TV station DW where she explains how she ended up in Germany. She discusses the origins of the Satmar community and how and why this sect has such strict rules, and that the fear of female autonomy that leads to such tight control exercised over women is similar to what women experience in extreme sects of Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism.
Below is the documentary about the making of the mini-series.