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April 14, 2020 4:31 am

Are the Haredim Coronavirus Villains and as Awful at Sex as Netflix Says?

avatar by Shmuley Boteach

Opinion

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men pray in a synagogue in the town of Uman before the start of the Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashanah, Sept. 16, 2012. Photo: Yaakov Naumi/Flash90.

Read the news and you’ll probably get the impression that Haredim are villains. They refuse to close their synagogues, wedding halls, and large religious gatherings during coronavirus. They are insensitive miscreants getting people sick. And to be sure, anyone not practicing social distancing in accordance with medical and legal guidelines is culpable.

But what troubles me is why the Haredim attract so much more opprobrium than the drunken millennials on Miami Beach or the partygoers at Mardi Gras in New Orleans. Sure, the Haredim in their black garb don’t look as attractive as the young people in speedos and bikinis in Florida. But both groups were culpable for not distancing and the Mardi Gras especially is now seen as a super-spreader as Louisiana is hit with catastrophic consequences.

All groups were wrong and the Haredim must stop any and all public gatherings — even for the most spiritual purposes — period. But why the singling out only of this group?

My fear is that the unfair portrayal of ultra-Orthodox Jews is becoming the norm in global media.

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I am not a Satmar Hasid but Chabad. The two groups have radically different world-views and when one mentions the words “ultra-Orthodox” they usually mean the former and rarely the latter. But that has nothing to do with how I offended I was for Satmar Jews by the utterly fraudulent portrayal of their lifestyle in the Netflix series Unorthodox.

It was four hours of ugly caricature as I watched an entire community tarred by the awful experience of a single individual. I know the story was based on a book by a woman who experienced terrible cruelty. I don’t doubt it or question the author’s motives. My point is that it is outrageous to suggest, as the series does, that her experience is typical of Haredi women in the United States. And how offensive to Orthodox Jews to suggest that women are seen as nothing more than baby-making machines, harassed by manipulating mothers-in-law, and married to emasculated wimps who lack virility and are God-awful lovers.

Really?

The main character, Esther, flees her community for Germany. It is portrayed like the great Passover escape from enslavement, as if the Haredi community were a giant prison camp. As in many Hollywood attacks on people of faith, this escape is portrayed as liberation from the tyranny of religion. When Esther gets to Germany and is finally unshackled, she can now find sexual fulfillment with a boyfriend, gets to remove her oppressive sheitel, and wear jeans. Free at last.

I hate religious oppression or coercion of every kind. I find countries like Iran who keep their people religious through a rifle barrel to be an abomination. Any kind of Jewish religious coercion is likewise blasphemous. And if “Esther” hates her Haredi life and believes she’ll find fulfillment elsewhere then so be it. Religion is all about freedom of choice, including the freedom to abandon religion and a religious community. If the author was abused or harassed, thank God she escaped. I hope her life is now joyous and satisfying.

But the suggestion that all Hasidim are hostages to political oppression is offensive and absurd. Were the American Muslim community portrayed in a Netflix series as being a prison cell for women, utterly misogynistic, with terrible, medieval sexual practices in marriage and women who were prisoners who cannot escape, there would rightly be accusations of ludicrous Islamophobia. The same is true if a series portrayed the Amish as backward and primitive Neanderthals who won’t even use electricity. People would rightly object to its offensiveness.

Haredi women have repudiated the disgusting portrayal of their community in Unorthodox. The Talmud says men are supposed to treat their wives better than themselves. And this includes satisfying their sexual needs.

It seems that whenever bigots want to belittle a community, they will always caricature their sex lives. When it comes to sex, Hollywood typically portrays Orthodox Jews as miscreants, perverts, and ignoramuses, so I was not surprised by the absurd sex scenes in the series.

Esther and her husband try to have sex for six months, but they’re lost babes in the woods. Esther is convinced she doesn’t even have a vagina.

The young wife — who looks way too young — must go to a coach who treats sex as something robotic. Then when they finally have sex, it lasts for about 15 seconds and Esther’s husband is simply amazed at the feeling of an orgasm. Who knew?

But is such an offensive lie to suggest that Hasidic Jews are so naive and unromantic. Why do Orthodox Jews have so many kids if they don’t ever have sex, don’t know what they’re doing, and don’t enjoy it?  Do the producers think their children are delivered by storks or FedEx?

Twenty years ago I wrote Kosher Sex. Since then thousands of both religious and secular couples have written to me about sexual problems that run the gamut and are not tied to a person’s religious affiliation.

Indeed, religious Jews have far fewer sexual hang-ups than most, owing to Judaism’s liberating views on sex. We celebrate sex and see it as something beautiful. Every sexual position and practice is allowed except sex during the monthly period of separation, which stimulates desire. We also don’t watch porn in part because we want to be excited by our partners rather than strangers.

It might just be possible that Orthodox Jews may have better sex than secular couples because they put so much emphasis on satisfying their wives, which is a Biblical obligation. In Jewish law a wife must climax before her husband. Sex is not simply an act for procreation. It is a passionate and intimate experience. Women are not required to please their spouses, but men are supposed to bring their wives to orgasm.

Is the secular world so much better off? I write books on the subject and I know the data. The average American married couple has sex once a week for seven minutes at a time (which includes the time the husband spends begging). And one out of three married couples in America is entirely platonic, defined as having sex about three times a year.

Orthodox women are also not all plain-looking and mousy like the portrayal of the character of Esther. In fact, if you go to Hasidic neighborhoods in New York, you will find that the women are incredibly fashionable, wearing clothes from the best designers and boutiques.

Even more outrageous than the portrayal of Esther is the depiction of her cousin as a primitive thug with a gambling problem who seems to be a regular at houses of prostitution.

Why are there no Jews with any humanity in Unorthodox? Even Esther’s grandmother is heartless, hanging up on her daughter when she calls seeking compassion and a sympathetic ear.

An Orthodox Jewish life is about going to synagogue for communal prayer, turning everything off on Shabbat for a day of rest, having a family and adoring children. After the Holocaust, where one third of our number was annihilated, we think kids are the most beautiful thing in the world and guarantee our future. Orthodoxy is about honoring parents and giving charity. It is about values and dignity.

The Haredi community is insular. They’re not that impressed with the outside world. I think they’re wrong to reject it and I believe their insularity undermines the Biblical mandate for the Jews to be a light unto the nations. Which is why I don’t live in the Haredi world. But I can’t say they’re completely wrong in fearing some of the influences of secular culture. They see how women are sexualized, demeaned, and degraded. Many don’t have Internet on their phones. I profoundly reject that kind of isolation. But let’s not pretend that everything online is wonderful. If they believe it’s better not to have it, that’s their choice. Should they be caricatured or pilloried for it?

I am not trying to defend everything about the Satmar lifestyle or their beliefs. I disagree completely with them, for example, when it comes to the State of Israel. They believe that a Jewish state should not be established until the messiah comes. They’re absolutely wrong. And their unforgivable opposition to Israel is all the more bizarre given how they — largely Romanian and Hungarian Jews — were decimated in the Holocaust. But I don’t feel any hatred toward my Haredi brothers and sisters. I’m happy to debate them on the issues. The fact that I have disagreements does not give me or anyone else the right to tell them they don’t have right to live as they wish.

If the producers wanted to tell “Esther”’s story, they could have done it honestly without condemning an entire faith and culture of people whose religious convictions are different from their own. There is no need to extrapolate from the negative experience of one individual — horrific as it may have been — to indict an entire religious community. I am just as critical of presenting other communities as one-dimensional. Not all Muslims are terrorists, gays flamboyant, Jews greedy, African-Americans in gangs, as they are too often represented in Hollywood. While those portrayals provoke outrage, the caricatures of Orthodox Jews are ignored. It is time to say to Hollywood: Stop stigmatizing Orthodox Jews. And stop this nonsense about religious Jews having the worst sex imaginable. 

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, “America’s Rabbi,” is founder of the World Values Network and the author of the international best-sellers Kosher Sex and Judaism for Everyone. Follow him on Instagram and Twitter @RabbiShmuley.

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