Ruthie Friedlander weighs in on her upbringing, and the hit Netflix show
When I was ten years old, a Hebrew school classmate of mine asked me if I lived at the synagogue. In her defence, it wasn’t an unfair question. It would seem, from outside appearances that I could, maybe, live at the synagogue; a nondescript, yet warm brick building on the North Shore of Long Island. “Sometimes,” I responded. And that was honestly the most accurate answer I could give.
My mother and father and step-father are all Reconstructionist rabbis. Before my parents divorced, they co-rabbi’d at the same synagogue, which meant my dad did many of my peer’s bar and bat-mitzvah services and my mom named many of my friends’ siblings. It also meant that-to this day-I’m the resident 'Phone-a-Jew' for any sort of vaguely Jewish question:
“When does Hanukkah start this year?”
“Are you allowed to brush your teeth on Yom Kippur?”
“Can you really not get buried in a Jewish cemetery if you have a tattoo?”
I have to google almost every question or text my parents to answer these questions accurately. I guess I don’t live up to people’s ideas of what a Rabbi’s Daughter looks like.
A lot of people have a lot of feelings about what religion 'looks like' and that’s been made even clearer after the release of Netflix’s Unorthodox. The Satmar community - a very specific group of ultra Orthodox Jews bearing very strict rules, mostly directed at women - depicted in the show, are associated with many Jewish stereotypes (some true, others only true for a very small group of people and certainly not for me).
People that didn’t grow up around liberal Jews and whose first experience of Judaism was watching Unorthodox, may be surprised to learn, for example, that many teenagers wear inappropriately short skirts to synagogue on the High Holidays. Or that I, the daughter of three rabbis (!), dated mostly non-Jewish men throughout my life before marrying a Jew at 32. Another fun fact: there are a handful of my family members on both sides that have tattoos, and I fully expect that they’ll be buried in our family plot.
When I was little we lived down the street from an Orthodox synagogue. The Rabbi at that synagogue 'looked' like a rabbi. He wore a black hat and walked to synagogue, his six children and wig-wearing wife marching behind him. On Shabbat, my family would pile into the Honda, my sister and I almost always in pants, clutching whatever Nancy Drew mystery we would read during services while our parents worked. Or prayed. Or both.
The stories I have of being a Rabbi’s Daughter - the good and the bad - are probably not much different to the stories you have about your relationship with your parents and their professions growing up. The hours they worked were annoying and I didn’t like feeling everyone within the tri-state area felt like they had a right to know about my life, but I think that any Jewish kid growing up on the North Shore of Long Island, whether their parents were doctors or Rabbis would have similar complaints.
I was privileged to grow up in a Jewish community that never took much interest in my own personal relationship with God - an experience that is in stark contrast to how we see Esty grow up; a young adult with seemingly no power to think about God, love, or life on her own terms. My freedom to exist Jewishly-free, I believe, left my relationship with God pretty uncomplicated. I have no idea whether the six Orthodox kids that would walk by our house every Friday night and Saturday morning had a similar experience. They never acknowledged my sister and I. But I can’t really be sure if that had anything to do with us not being 'Jewish enough' or just because they were shy.
To be clear, the Orthodox synagogue that I grew up down the street from is unrecognizable from the community depicted in Unorthodox, but the daughters of that rabbi certainly looked the part more than my sister and I did. They wore long skirts to synagogue even during their peak teen years, which, I just assumed, was not their choice.
Of course there are specific stories I could tell that would make my life seem 'other' to yours. My upbringing had very specific cultural elements that may make a non-Jew interested in watching a Netflix series about me, simply because it is just so different. I imagine that’s how most people - most Jewish people, too - felt while watching Unorthodox. This is foreign to my reality and therefore 'other'. And we all love gawking at 'other'.
But what makes Unthodox so captivating isn’t simply the 'otherness' of the world we get a glimpse inside, but the opposite: that while her circumstances may be very different from viewers’ - arranged marriages and shaved heads, for example - her story is accessible. Don’t we all, at one point or another, look to reconcile the communities we come from, the ones we want to build, and the ones we hope will be a part of our future?
I often thought as a child about how different our lives were from the Orthodox Rabbi's down the street. They never wore pants, which I thought must suck, and before I was old enough to grasp the concept of why the Rabbi’s wife would willingly shave her head, I was pretty creeped out by the idea that she was bald.
I didn’t have enough understanding, knowledge, or foresight to know that, over 20 years later, I, a Reconstructionst, modern, feminist Jew, would be making my own version of post-marriage modesty changes, both conscious and not: rethinking the types of posts I would put Instagram, going by 'Mrs.,'engaging my husband in decisions that, before marriage, I would have made on my own.
It’s strange for any modern woman, or person for that matter, to watch a based-on-a-true-story scene in which a woman is told for the first time how many holes are “down there” - at age 19. But in general, I found many of the themes in Unorthodox quite relatable, on a much smaller scale of course. The themes in Unorthodox, the struggles we watch Esty go through, are similar, significantly magnified, but similar, to those of many women trying to figure out who they are with regards to things like sexuality, family dynamics, friendships and body image.
After all, no matter how you were raised or what you were raised to believe, you’ll always have to reconcile where you came from and where you want to go.
Images | netflix