Some ‘Unorthodox’ Advice for Netflix’s Esty
In recent years, more and more stories portraying the journey of people who have left ultra-Orthodox communities are being told.
The people leaving these communities often cite their inability to pursue a secular education, and their desire to pursue goals outside the scope of their religion.
I’ve followed many of these stories with great interest, as I am someone who was raised in an ultra-Orthodox Hasidic community in Jerusalem.
My family always had a strong belief in living a simple, God-fearing religious lifestyle. As a curious-minded person and aspiring artist, I always yearned to learn what was on the other side of this restrictive community — off-limits things like newspapers, television, movies, and popular music.
My upbringing in an ultra-Orthodox Jewish community has so many similarities to that of the lead character in the recent Netflix series Unorthodox that it seemed like everyone I know called or texted me to ask my thoughts on Esty (the main character) and the show.
Esty shares my passion for music, and — like me — flew to another country to pursue a career in the arts. In the Hasidic community, female singers are all but nonexistent, because listening to the voice of a woman singing is forbidden.
The Hasidic lifestyle portrayed in Unorthodox before Esty leaves for Germany is one that has refused to adapt to modern times. As society becomes more advanced, the community has managed to maintain its values by becoming much more tight-knit than before.
I could easily relate to the depictions of Esty’s upbringing.
Growing up in Jerusalem, I was forbidden to pursue a musical career past the age of 12 years old, unable to sing in front of men, and unable to record albums. When I wasn’t permitted to perform in public as a teenager, I created several Hasidic musicals in Jerusalem dedicated to women, with music restricted to songs about God.
Unorthodox is a series that provides a window into the world of people who have left the ultra-religious life behind. The word “window” is used by Hasidim to refer to a breakout. The breakout is spurred by the light provided by a “window” into the secular world.
Opening my window for the first time was a little scary. I saw a glimpse of the wide culture, but I knew that if I left, I could have lost everything I had ever known. Despite these fears, I kept the window open — and moved through it.
I then began my discovery of a new world, a journey that has taken me to Switzerland, London, and ultimately the United States.
I looked through my first “window” during a trip to an ultra-Orthodox high school in Switzerland. It was an international school where I received my first exposure to Hasidic girls from all over the world, who brought their own unique styles of fashion and behavior.
After school, I would often take walks along Lake Lucerne. This was the first time I ever encountered non-Jewish people. I was surprised to be greeted with the word “Grüezi” as a friendly hello, and this made me feel welcome. I was also impressed to spot some Swiss women, dressed in Hasidic clothes, simply because they liked the way the clothes looked on them.
Another window led me to a religious trip to London, when my uncle opened a synagogue. The religious purpose of my visit was the only reason my parents allowed me access to my passport, and permitted me to fly on my own.
The dramatic scene where Esty leaves Williamsburg seemed a bit unrealistic to me. Esty left her home right before a traditional Shabbat dinner, when everyone was walking to synagogue prayer. This is a time when the community would have been most aware of any strange behavior by one of its members.
In the show, someone in her community spotted her walking fast in contrast to people calmly walking to a synagogue prayer — but no one stopped her. In the Jerusalem of my childhood, there would have been “community police” who very likely would have noticed her attempt to leave and would have stopped her.
Esty explains her flight from the Hasidic community by saying “God expected too much of me, and now I need to find my own path.”
Today, some members of the Hasidic community are also trying to find their own path. After years, they have learned that in order to survive, they need to find ways to adapt to modern-day society by finding jobs in high-tech fields.
Esty’s survival requires a great deal more. She is going on her journey alone and doesn’t seem to know someone like me who has traveled a similar path to hers. She is living in a new country where she doesn’t know the culture, and doesn’t have money, a job, friends, or a GED education. This is like starting her entire life from zero, years behind everyone else.
My parents respected the new direction that I chose for my life of living in New York. Even though they didn’t agree, they realized that they played a role in my journey by sending me to study in Switzerland and London years ago. Perhaps this was an outcome of their decision.
If I happened to run into Esty, I would gladly share some hard-earned truths I’ve picked up over the years.
I would tell her to please not feel that she has to leave everything the community taught her behind. Many of these values will serve her well wherever she goes and whatever she decides to do along this journey.
I know this because these values — compassion for others, respect for elders, modesty, and humility — have kept me grounded as I’ve faced new challenges, people, and cultures.
And I would say, “Good luck Esty!”
Ayelet Raymond is a film and musical director who lives in New York City. She collaborated with young Broadway performers to create the American children’s television show My Hebrew Land.