We see Hasidic women in Hollywood all the time, but far too often they are negative and over the top fictional portrayals. Many real-life Hasidic women, especially in more insular sects like Satmar, have no idea what Hollywood is. But then there are women like Bylu Wertheimer.
Wertheimer first attended and then taught in Satmar girls’ schools before starting the unlikely journey of becoming the creative director at a corporate video company. “My side interest and hobby was always in drama, specifically acting and scriptwriting. I loved to develop a storyline and characters (check out this clip of Wertheimer explaining the character to one of her actresses) and different messages. It is just an incredibly powerful tool, to connect with different messages to an audience.”
Born and raised in Monsey, New York, Wertheimer now lives in a satellite community nearby. She went from creating local school plays to doing a bit of educational filming in the schools. That evolved into working in the commercial world. While she doesn’t operate the camera, she helps to coach and script messages that businesses can use to promote or highlight aspects of their work.”I’m not very techy, you wouldn’t trust me with your actual camera gear, so we bring them in and we get the job done.” She is now the Chief Creative Officer of The Slingshot Guys. (Check out this clip of her speaking about her company on a panel.)
While Wertheimer didn’t grow up in a world influenced by Hollywood, she was aware of it. Some of her classmates were, other of them weren’t. “Just like there were girls that dream about becoming a scientist, it doesn’t really happen, but we do discuss and dream about what that would be.” There was encouragement for the girls to shine despite not seeing acting as a career. “For me, it was a given that a professional drama environment wasn’t for a nice Jewish Hasidish girl.”
Still, she continued to pursue her interest however she could. “As young teenagers, we would have that discussion, what would it be like to live in a world where we could take our talents further. I have to give my particular school, and the school I taught in, a lot of credit for very actively, within the realm of what was allowed (i.e.: not performing for a mixed audience), there was a very strong emphasis on developing the girls’ talents, both in school, and in camp.”
Teachers, principals and the parent body all influence the community’s guidelines. That’s how one Hasidic community can differ from another one. Wertheimer used to run the girls’ division of the Satmar girls’ day camp. “A lot of parents would call in and demand different reforms or different restrictions that they value and they want their kids to conform to, and they want to reduce the peer pressure… whoever is pushing for what they consider their perfect version of rules versus freedom.”
Wertheimer credits her parents for raising her in such a healthy way, “They tremendously encouraged us to be honest. Honesty was the number one thing in our home, and there was no phony business tolerated. We had to be true to ourselves. I was always allowed to say ‘I wish there would be a professional avenue for me to advance in drama,’ which I eventually found in the commercial corporate world.” That validation, “was a strong key for me to be able to use my talents and also find a niche that would be acceptable to my family and true to my values.”
Wertheimer initially didn’t have her own social media, but now has access for business. On seeing the representation of Hasidic Jews in the media, she says, “On a certain level, [Satmar] would never really care about what we saw in the media. We would do our own thing and what we think is right and that’s it. But on the other hand, there [recently] have been many approaches to take out specific ads to clarify our position in a very professional PR oriented way.”
While there are also organizations that help people who are hurting in the community, she has seen a shift where “not all people who were hurt want to leave the community. Which means there is a path to being hurt and being able to differentiate between that and [having different values or outlook on life, which is more of a reason to leave.]” Conversely, she has seen people leave the community who weren’t hurt but just wanted a secular lifestyle.
Wertheimer’s company had now moved into social media management. “That was a Covid response. Both because of social distancing and [with filming], being in personal proximity was difficult. It ties in with the theme of being honest with what your restrictions are and still finding ways to make the core of what you want to do work, which is the same pattern that led me to video production.” As she reflects on her journey, this mirroring is clear. “As I was looking at the restrictions, I was able to carve a path. Now with Covid the same thing happened.” She can still do storytelling and writing and “everything we love, but on more of a budget-friendly, long-term commitment.” She realizes, “That’s really the theme… knowing your restrictions and [that they] are not necessarily a hamper or a lid on what you can do. It carves you in a certain direction… leading you in a way that you can celebrate where you come from and also where you lean and not sacrifice either.”