Warning: Spoilers ahead.
Schneur Newfield, a former member of the Lubavitch community, discussed the popular Netflix drama “Unorthodox,” in an online event held May 17 by Chizuk Amuno Congregation.
Consisting of four hour-long episodes, “Unorthodox” tells the story of a young Jewish woman who leaves her Satmar Hasidic community in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Williamsburg to begin a secular life in Berlin. Chizuk Amuno felt Newfield — an assistant professor of sociology at Borough of Manhattan Community College, City University of New York, who wrote his doctoral thesis on people who had left very religious communities — was an excellent person to lead a discussion on the show, said Rabbi Deborah Wechsler.
“Lots of people have been really interested, and have been watching the new Netflix show ‘Unorthodox,’ so we thought it would be nice to provide an educational opportunity that was based on it,” Wechsler said. “I thought it was a beautiful coming-of-age story. I thought that there was much that was troubling about it, as well. I thought that it was really fascinating to root it in both geographically in Williamsburg and in Berlin … It was almost like the history, meaning the Jewish people’s history in Germany with the war, was almost like its own character in the show. It was such an important part of that.”
Newfield was born into the Lubavitch community of the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn. His parents “grew up sort of your typical American Jews, and then they became ultra-Orthodox Jews committed to the Lubavitch lifestyle,” he said. “So my father’s actually a dermatologist, and my mother is a
Part of this meant that Newfield would attend schools that taught exclusively “sacred, holy studies, non-secular studies,” he said, leaving out many studies normally regarded as fundamental.
“They didn’t teach even the rudiments of English,” Newfield said. “They didn’t teach the ABCs, they didn’t teach two plus two is four, and they still don’t in the schools that I went to.” As such, while he spoke English with his parents at home, he did not begin learning to read English until 12 or 13 with the help of a non-Orthodox relative.
In his youth, Newfield was an active member of the Lubavitch community, traveling to Russia to have a seder there at 18 and spending a summer in Beijing as part of Lubavitch outreach activities. However, he nevertheless developed a curiosity regarding the non-Lubavitch world. Growing up, he knew that his father had been educated as a doctor, and he knew that his father kept copies of a number of different secular publications, including National Geographic, Smithsonian Magazine, and Harvard Magazine.
“So I knew that there were, that [this stuff was] out there, but again when I was very young I couldn’t read these things on my own,” Newfield said. “I would sometimes flip through the pictures, kind of longingly trying to figure out what was going on … I remember constantly looking at all these pictures of these, ‘exotic’ people around the world, but not being able to read the articles themselves.”
Eventually, he began reading what his yeshiva considered contraband, non-Jewish books, even though “most of them were written by and about Jews,” Newfield said. He took care to hide them in his dorm, as discovery could result in expulsion.
In time, he resolved to take the GED, enrolled in Brooklyn College, and received a bachelor’s in psychology. “It was a phenomenal experience getting to know students from all different racial and religious and national backgrounds,” he said, noting that it “really opened up my horizons and helped me to think more broadly about where I belonged in the world.” His book “Degrees of Separation: Identity Formation While Leaving Ultra-Orthodox Judaism,” was published in 2020.
Regarding “Unorthodox,” Newfield said that he knows “that for a lot of people that grew up in the Hasidic community and then left, they’re really touched by the fact that there’s a show, and became very popular, that sort of portrays their story, their struggle, their pain. And they sort of identify a lot with this show, and with programs like it. And I really understand that.” He particularly made note of the many of “firsts,” that the protagonist, Esty, experiences after leaving her Satmar community, such as the first time she wears jeans, or eats a ham sandwich, making clear that, for an ultra-Orthodox Jew, such things are a very big deal.
That being said, there were aspects of the show he took issue with.
One is the community’s reaction to Esty leaving. After her departure, the Satmar rabbi sends her husband, Yanky, to bring her back, with the help of Yanky’s cousin, Moishe.
Moishe is a particularly unsympathetic character. He is shunned by many in the Satmar community, has a gambling addiction, is very friendly with a Berlin brothel keeper, and throughout displays a thuggish persona. Toward the end of the show, he essentially finds and kidnaps Esty, pulling her into a speeding van to tell her that in a few months she will eventually beg the community to let her return. But by then, he says, it will be too late, leaving her with only one other way out. He then leaves her with a loaded handgun by her side.
Newfield found the inclusion of Moishe in the plot deeply problematic, as, in all of his research, he had never once heard of a Hasidic community going to such an extreme to bring an individual back into the fold.
One aspect of the show Newfield did find accurate entailed the Hasidic community’s willingness to use the court system to gain custody of children in cases where one parent wishes to leave the community while the other does not.
“In such situations,” Newfield said, “the Hasidic community will often intervene, quite forcefully in the court system on the behalf of the parent who stays, to try to ensure that that parent gets sole custody of the children.”
Another issue he had with the show is the relative speed with which Esty transitions from a Hasidic housewife to a Berlin college student with her own cadre of multi-ethnic, progressive friends with whom she goes clubbing, which happens in the space of at most a week or two.
“The reality is that this transition process is possible, and many people have done it and have managed to live, to create meaningful, authentic, rewarding, safe, healthy lives,” Newfield said. “But it’s a process that takes years to develop, to figure out who you are, how you want to represent yourself to the outside world.”