After we recently reported on the offensive and inaccurate portrayal in NBC’s “Nurses,” and its subsequent removal, we thought it was important to explain how other episodes have missed the mark when depicting the Orthodox community in order to inspire TV writers and producers to do bettter.
In season 9, Law and Order SVU had to produce their token “hasid” episode (called “Unorthodox”), like most TV dramas feel compelled to do. While they don’t make the Hasidic Jews turn out to be the molesters in the end and they do throw the head rabbi a couple of bones by having him have some wisdom, so much of this episode ranges from inaccurate, to cringy, to showcasing the most stringent Orthodox opinions and practices out there, to being downright offensive. Probably the most incendiary moment is when one of the cops whispers into a Hasidic man’s ear, “I know guys like you can’t stay away from little boys, it’s only a matter of time.” I watched this clip several times and asked myself how it would look if it were with an imam or a Tibetan monk, and I am sure it would be just as outrageous and appalling. “Guys like you…”
The issue with always showing the worst types of people from a community is that your average viewer has no idea how many kind, honest, and reasonable people are out there. We all seem like a bunch of creeps. The issue with always showing the most stringent opinions and practices in Orthodoxy, is that the audience has no way of knowing that most Orthodox Jews do not observe the customs and strict practices being shown on screen. The best Hollywood seems to be able to give us is being annoying pedantic weirdos that occasionally have some wisdom.
Let’s do the blow by blow with each scene featuring Hasidim:
- They’re zealots The episode begins at the hospital. We learn that a ten year old boy named David has not only been recently raped, but he’s endured this trauma on numerous occasions. His mom, Rachel, emerges and explains that her husband, “got mixed up in some crazy stuff.” Detective Stabler asks if it’s “drugs,” she responds, “Religion. He became a zealot.” Lost all interest in me, started spending all his free time with the rabbis.” From this description, Detective Stabler is able to surmise, “He’s Hasidic.” Which Rachel confirms. Now let’s state for the record that when unwell people get into religion (or unwell people are born into religion) it is almost never a good thing. So if someone is not emotionally healthy and then becomes a ba’al teshuva (returnee to Jewish observance), they will likely go off the deep end. Of course such people exist. But if a TV show is going to have a single episode in over 20 seasons where they introduce the viewer to Orthodox Jews, it’s not fair that we get introduced to an unhealthy one.
- And misogynists Olivia Benson tells her colleague that he’ll have to speak to the father because “Hasidic men don’t appreciate women giving them the third degree.” Again – there is truth to this among some of the Hasidic population. But being that most viewers see all Hasidic Jews and Orthodox Jews as the same, this is just another chance to in get a zinger in about the religious community. So far, we’ve learned that they’re “zealots” and “misogynists” and we’re only a few minutes into the story!
- Those peyos and fake beards When peyos are long and curly – which they aren’t always – they have a tighter curl than Hollywood seems capable of. Beards they should know. All men can grow them. They consist of a more coarse hair than Avi, David’s father has (and several other hasidim later on have) when the detectives come visit him. Hasidic Jews also have shorter hair than these actors are sporting.
- The weird way they talk So many Hasidic characters either have totally off Yiddish accents, which we see later, or when they speak English, they almost sound like they are in a Shakespeare production, with a fine ellocuuuution. That’s how David’s father, Avi, sounds. They never just sound chill. Like normal people speaking English. This contributes to their otherness.
- Orthodox Jews must constantly remind outsiders how much we look down on them. When Avi starts talking, he tells the detectives that his son couldn’t have been molested in his community because “these unspeakable things only happen in your world.” Now I’m sure there are clueless people in the Orthodox community who don’t know or don’t own up to the fact that abuse happens everywhere. And there are certainly those who look down on outsiders, but, again – why must we only be represented by the most obnoxious, ignorant people of our community?
- Having Orthodox Jews proclaim phrases in Hebrew they’d never say When the detectives want Avi to tell them where they can find his son’s tutor, Yankel, he angrily proclaims, “Yehareg ve’al ya’avor, ” which means “Let him be killed rather than transgress” and refers to the requirement to give one’s life rather than transgress one of the three cardinal sins – of committing murder, sexual abuse, and idolatry. Despite the fact that Munch (the Jewish detective) appears to be a bit of a Talmudic expert and explains it means “a life for a life,” this phrase is never used this way.
- Having the outsider try to teach the Orthodox Jew some Torah I’ve seen this theme in more than one show. The Hollywood writers find some verse from the Torah that they confront the religious Jew with to tell him how he has lost his way. Unfortunately, the writers regularly seem to botch this. Munch, tells Avi, “the Torah forbids you from lifnei iver,” from turning a blind eye. This is wrong. Lifnei iver literally means “don’t put a stumbling block before a blind person, or colloquially means, “don’t test someone who’s weak.” What Munch meant to say was “al sa’amod al dam reyecha” – don’t stand idly by your neighbors blood. If only there were some actual experts on Torah that the writers of Law and Order SVU could have consulted!
- Repeat offenders – As the detectives enter the yeshiva, in search of Yankel, one notes that he’s been here before to deal with a complaint. Another jab to remind you how many lowlifes are in this small community.
- Mesira – Which brings us to cover-ups. Now let me say right now, so it is clear, that there have been a concerning number of child sex abuse cases and cover ups in the Orthodox Jewish community, and continue to be in the more insular circles. No one has statistics on how our community compares to other places like prep schools, Penn State, US gymnastics, Hollywood and so many more communities that protected their own and relied on tribalism over keeping kids safe. Outside of the Catholic Church, which is in the same boat – what separates Orthodox Jews and these other communities is that we are attempting to live a holier life. Nevertheless, human beings fall short. It is especially hurtful when those imperfect human beings use Judaism as their excuse for falling short, which brings us to Mesira. The prohibition to not rat Jews out to secular authorities was created for a time and place when going to secular authorities meant that the Jew would never be seen again, no matter the severity (or lack there of) of his crime. It was meant for a time and place with systemic antisemitism, as was the way of the world for generations. Thankfully, while the U.S. legal system is not perfect, it is by and large a fair one. So Mesira should not apply in this time and place and no other Orthodox groups except most Hasidim believe it applies. I believe prevailing Hasidic opinion still backs Mesira because this community was THE most ravaged by the Holocaust in that its members were either decimated in the camps, or all the survivors came to the U.S. together and went insular, terrified of the outside world. There is no other Jewish community comprised of nearly 100% survivors or descendants of survivors living in a closed system. While the detectives are correct that stepping into Williamsburg means they are in a place where Mesira is practiced, the entire rest of the Orthodox Jewish world considers this a wrong practice. This is important context that a viewer would miss.
- The unfriendly Orthodox Jews When I’ve visit most organizations or institutions, the receptionist is usually pleasant and friendly. Not in Hasid-land. The young woman at the desk who greets the detectives is stern, confrontational, and has the dour look TV Hasidim always have. We later learn that her name is “Faith,” which literally no woman in Williamsburg would have. “Faige” (a totally different name) would have been a more realistic option. Then again, she is given a strong voice, so I guess there’s that! There is a flyer at her desk proclaiming the innocence of Yankel. It’s in English, which makes no sense. If TV writers insist on going to the most insular parts of the Orthodox world to tell stories, there are so many cultural elements they will get wrong if they don’t have exceptionally qualified advisors telling them not to make flyers in English.
- More bad beards, peyos, and accents The detectives let themselves into a closed meeting that Rabbi Iskowitz “the head rabbi” is running with Yankel and some other men. His accent sounds like Krusty the Clown’s father – almost with a Russian, old-timey Yiddish tinge. This is not how modern day Hasidic Jews speak English. The rabbi makes it clear that he doesn’t respect U.S. law – again this perspective certainly (and sadly) exists in certain circles, even though Jewish law requires us to follow the law of the land (Dina d’malchusa Dina), but only being exposed to this take yet again will lead many viewers to believe this applies to all religious Jews.
- “I know guys like you can’t stay away from little boys, it’s only a matter of time.” Detective Stabler delivers this cringeworthy line. We work with many child sex abuse victims in our division, Project Makom. So the unfathomable pain that comes from molestation and a cover up is something we know too well and abhor. At the same time, the image of the Hasid being “the kind that can’t keep his hands off of little boys” feels nothing short of Nazi propaganda, because child sex abuse is a worldwide problem and it is dangerous to pretend that only some communities suffer from it.
- The Hasidic couple who has to secretly fool around, instead of getting married The next scene is so bizarre. At first we think Yankel is taking another boy somewhere to molest him, but then we find him on a couch with Faith, him, literally sounding Russian, trying to get her to kiss him. The couple proclaims that they have an unrequited love that has been going on for a year, so they have to sneak around. We are given no reason that they are not married to each other or someone else. But Detective Stabler does suggest they leave the community, the hope that all viewers have for these “sad” Hasidic Jews. They then reveal they snuck to a movie the day before. Again – this is not typical Hasidic behavior in the most insular circles, but more modern Hasidim watch some movies as do many other groups of Orthodox Jews.
- “He’d rather everyone think he’s a perv than admit that he’s making out with his girlfriend at the movies” Back at the station, Detective Cragen says this priceless line. I’m pretty sure your average Hasidic man wouldn’t want to be accused of either thing. But it’s another opportunity for a jab.
- Kehilat Moshe, the fictional Kiryas Yoel – “It sounds like a cult.” David has been kidnapped by Avi and taken to “Kehilat Moshe,” which is meant to be a fictional version of Kiryas Yoel. This is one of the two most insular and extreme Hasidic communities in the entire country, so not exactly a good way to show viewers the most common Orthodox practices. At Project Makom, we deal with members who grew up there who found their experience to be abusive and intolerable. At the same time, I have spoken to Hasidic Jews who live there and are happy. While they admit their community is not perfect, it works for them and they don’t want to leave. It is certainly not a place that would be the right fit for me, but I can respect the people who are happy there and don’t believe we need to “save” content people who live different lifestyles that we have. On this show, we are only presented with how crazy this “upstate shtetl” is. “They have their own ambulance corps, schools, and police.” While this is all true, the community created this self-reliant system because they were so terrorized by the Holocaust. Munch then notes that every family up there has “at least six brats.” Seems like a really unnecessary swipe! Then Rachel notes, with a sourness in her voice, “They’re encouraged to pro-create.” Um – yes, they are trying to repopulate a community that was decimated a couple generations ago by the Nazis. Now birth control has its place in Jewish law, but more right-wing, like Kiryas Yoel, use it less readily. And if a couple is struggling to manage life and is denied access to birth control, this is certainly a problem. At the same time, many couples are excited to have large families, which is why Detective Tutuola’s next line, “It sounds like a cult,” is unfair. Our members who hated their experience there might call it that, but the happy residents would not. As with most things in life – it’s complicated. Rachel then narrates factual details about the community about long skirts and no movies, but with so much contempt in her voice. Would she narrate the Amish this way, I wonder?
- Secular society is morally bankrupt – The grand rebbe is now a suspect, because he brought David upstate. While being questioned by Detective Stabler, the rebbe goes into a monologue in his awful Yiddish accent about how morally bankrupt secular society is. Now I will not deny that there is a sizable number of Orthodox Jews who believe their way of life is superior to other ways of life, but it is so socially off to tell someone that, yet so often on TV, the Orthodox character pedantically tells the “Gentiles” why their world is so bad.
- A final redemptive scene with the rebbe – The rebbe, now the third Hasidic Jew accused of molestation, is also the third vindicated. As he’s let out of jail, he encourages Detective Stabler to not try the new suspect – a 14 year old boy – as an adult. Rather, he tells him to try to understand how this abusive teen got this way. It is a nice ending, showing the rabbi’s wisdom, though does not undo the numerous jabs dealt at the community earlier on.
It seems that TV shows are willing to acknowledge that we Orthodox Jews do indeed have some wisdom, but they make us so extreme and unrelatable that the viewer is quite confident that our wisdom is not worth the trade off for all that crazy. Attempting to create communities like Williamsburg or Kiryas Yoel is such a heavy lift, as the cultures are so different than what Hollywood writers know, that they will undoubtedly be anywhere from flagrantly wrong to downright offensive when they try.
So how could an Orthodox Jewish character make it to Law and Order SVU in a way that Hollywood could probably get right with a little help? Make one a lawyer or a judge. Or feature a woman like Shira Berkovits, an Orthodox Jewish lawyer and psychologist who developed Sacred Spaces to help Jewish organizations create environments to prevent sex abuse. Yes, we are used to the oft-repeated Hasid as molester story, and our community must continue doing the work to make kids safe and punish abusers. But it doesn’t mean that there is no good to report either.
TV dramas should be an opportunity to get to understand experiences outside of our own, not have inaccurate caricatures repeatedly showing the same scenarios over and over and over again. Hollywood can and should do better, and this Wednesday, we’re going to 30 Rock (with livestream available for viewers to watch and participate) to make our voices heard. Learn more and register here!