“Unorthodox” Isn’t Antisemitic, But The Overrepresentation Of Dysfunctional Jews Is

A couple years ago, on a plane ride home from L.A., I sat next to an ex-Mormon woman who had an abusive childhood and suffered from bi-polar disorder. As she described the extreme and loveless environment she grew up in, not only did my heart break for her, but it also recognized her pain because of the stories I’ve heard from our members of Makom. There are dysfunctional people in the world, and when those people practice religion (no matter what the religion is), the abuse and the religion have a way of melding into one, turning the religious experience rotten.

And on the topic of dysfunctional religious people, Netflix’s “Unorthodox” is up for an Emmy. It’s not surprising. This series has been a hot topic for the last several months. In fact, it was so popular, there are several networks in the process of producing their own ex-Hasidic shows – because the viewing public wants more crazy Jews!

While some Orthodox Jews have called it antisemitic, I don’t believe it is. Even if the truth is painful, the truth isn’t antisemitic. Of course this series represents the most extreme and dysfunctional in the community, but several members of Makom told me they recognize parts of it or much of it from their own traumatic Jewish upbringings.

While I believe that we have to speak about our problems in order to be able to fix them – we do this from time to time here as well – I recently got to thinking about how much traditional media represents the problems in the Orthodox community compared to other religions. I started to wonder how media representation of crazy religious Jews correlates to the number of Jews in the world vs. the representation of other crazy religious people compared to their populations. There’s no reason to believe that Jews have a higher rate of dysfunction than other communities, so we’d expect that such stories would correlate to the population of each group. I think it would be reasonable to say that the media should represent a group according to how big it is. We don’t hear about Lichtenstein or Guam too often, because they’re small countries without too many people.

There are almost 15 million Jews in the world. Muslims, in comparison, number at close to 2 billion. That means there are 133 times more Muslims than Jews in the world. There are almost 2.5 billion Christians. That means there are almost 166 times more Christians in the world than Jews. If the media represented a community based on its population, we’d expect there to be around 133 times more crazy religious Muslim stories and 166 times more crazy religious Christian stories in popular media than there are Jewish ones. But first we have to look at how many stories, both real and fictional, have come out about religious Jews in the last couple of decades.

A quick Google search shows that there’s about a dozen ex-Orthodox Jewish books and around 10 TV shows and movies depicting the dysfunctional parts of the Jewish world that came out in the last 20 years. Many of the memoirs and movies have received tremendous media attention. Therefore, if all things were fair, we’d expect approximately 2660 books, shows, and movies depicting religiously abusive Muslims and 3300 books, TV shows, and movies depicting dysfunctional Christians, with a large number of the books, shows, and movies receiving serious media attention.

But of course, the numbers are no where even close to this high. In fact, I struggled to find examples of anything in the other religions like the regular attention the Hasidic Jewish community faces. There’s the reality TV shows “Breaking Amish” and “Return to Amish,” but this is not really about ex-Amish people who reject their upbringing. There is a part of the Amish religion called “Rumspringa” where Amish adolescents leave the community for a while, and then return, which this show captures.

There’s “Ramy,” a newish TV show which is about a current (not ex)Muslim, but there is a debate about how positive the Muslim portrayal is within the Muslim community. Yes, we must acknowledge that Muslims are often depicted as terrorists in fictional media, but according to this study, when their religion is covered, it’s usually done in a positive way.

There’s “Jesus Camp,” a documentary about born again Christians that the Evangelical community did not consider too favorable, which was nominated for an Oscar. There’s “The Book of Mormon” as well, which is on Broadway and makes Mormons look crazy. And finally “Educated,” is a book about an ex-Mormon that was on the best-seller list for a while last year.

I’m sure there are a few more examples in the last two decades, but nothing that I could find that had major media attention. In fact, on a Reddit thread where a person was looking for a memoir about a Christian leaving Christianity, one commenter couldn’t think of anything, but linked to a “great book” about an Orthodox Jew leaving her religion.

We could come up with several different theories as to why there is a disproportionate focus on crazy Jewish stories as opposed to other religions, but it doesn’t really matter. What does matter is the cumulative affect that regularly hearing about messed up Jews has on the world when we are small in number. It makes us seem dispro- portionately bad.

This incites antisemitism (there are several recent examples of antisemites quoting headlines as to why they hate Jews), it makes less observant Jews falsely believe that dysfunction and observance is one and the same, causing them not only to harbor negative feelings towards their Jewish brethren, but also preventing many of them from getting to experience the richness and meaning in Jewish rituals and Torah study. And finally, it makes many Jews who are currently Orthodox feel ashamed, causing some to even doubt their observance altogether.

Yes, we should know what our problems are. Yes, we should work to fix them. But we don’t have to be the stars of “the crazy religious people show;” let us have a small part in it.

Our stories can be shared. But not overshared.

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  • Avatar photo Ayelet says on August 20, 2020

    Amen to all of this!!

  • Avatar photo Luftmentsch says on August 20, 2020

    There is also Unfollow about a woman who left Westboro Baptist Church, but you’re right that there seems a lot of focus on dysfunctional Jews. I suspect part of the answer is that there are lots of Jewish writers, so they write about their own experiences, or about those of their own community to avoid accusations of bias or xenophobia.

    That said, I’m working on a novel of my own set in the frum community (my community, I should say), but I worry about the balancing act of wanting to talk about some issues that concern me, but not wanting to look like I’m doing a hatchet job on frum life, which is not my intention. It’s hard sometimes to be realistic without sounding critical.

    • Avatar photo Allison Josephs says on August 20, 2020

      I understand we can theorize different reasons Jews are overrepresented. But at the end of the day, why doesn’t matter. It’s what it causes that does. And it causes real problems and we should start letting media outlets know they can ignore us for a while.

  • Avatar photo Ann says on August 20, 2020

    I thought it was antisemetic. Remember the scene where Esti’s father, a Jewish landlord, threatens the beautiful non-Jewish piano teacher for his rent money? That scene literally could have been in a Nazi propaganda movie.

  • Avatar photo Yael Levy says on August 21, 2020

    True. We need a Bechdel Test for Orthodox Jewish media. We can call it the Josephs Test!

  • Avatar photo Steven Brizel says on December 13, 2020

    House of Mormon or any of the not so quiet comments about the large family of Justice Barrett could have been easily made Orthodox Jews as well in this post modern and very secular society


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