OpEd: Sharing my Chassidic Perspective of ‘Unorthodox’ – Change Comes from Within

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NEW YORK (VINnews/Ruchie (Rachel) Freier) — Requests to speak and share my perspective after the recent release on Netflix titled Unorthodox, jolted me out of my social distancing state of mind, but didn’t propel me watch it.  I assumed this was just another movie with a distorted portrayal of my community.

Then a good friend from the broader Jewish community who saw the movie called me and asked “Are all Chassidic marriages arranged and begin loveless?” This propelled me to watch it and determine its accuracy.  This movie is fiction, based on the memoir written by Deborah Feldman with the same name.  When the book was published, I challenged the author and wrote about it https://vosizneias.com/2012/02/20/new-york-op-ed-a-vindication-of-chassidim-with-conviction-of-eternal-judaism/.

While the actors and the plot were captivating and most of the costumes authentic looking, the Yiddish dialect was choppy and most of the scenes could never have taken place.  Unorthodox contains intrigue, suspense, fiction and fantasy to keep the viewers’ attention.  Perhaps it reflects the experience of one woman and in doing so unwittingly or intentionally depicts Chassidic men as either naïve or shysters and women as subjugated, unloved, uneducated, unhappy and without opportunity.

Education and Opportunity

Esty, the main character runs from Williamsburg; she then cries to her newfound friends in Berlin, that she has no education and no opportunity.  The resistance by Chassidim to higher education dates back to the post Holocaust era when the American colleges were swept by the Hippie Movement and its ideology.  Perhaps other parents also worried what negative influence that counterculture would have on their children.  While Chassidim are non conformist in tradition and values – opportunities change.

During the past twenty years, educational opportunities for Chassidim have changed dramatically.  Colleges that catered to the needs of Chassidim began opening their doors.  Classes, assignments and exams that respect the Shabbos and Jewish Holidays, and separate classes for men and women were introduced.

Interestingly, more Chassidic women and girls than men and boys have graduated from these colleges and have successful careers in such areas as special education, occupation therapy, physical therapy, nursing, social work and accounting.  While the opportunity for higher education is available, its value to Chassidim is secondary to building a Jewish family.  My husband and I both graduated Touro College after our marriage.   Some of our children are attending college and some are not — it is their choice.

My journey in earning a law degree was chartering new waters.  It began in the 1990’s at the age of 30 and culminated ten years later.  After practicing law for ten years, I ran for Civil Court Judge and won the seat in the 5th judicial district.  Since then, I have counseled countless Chassidic men and women interested in studying law.  One of the women is a grandmother from Boro Park, who recently served as my judicial intern and is now a criminal defense attorney.

Marriage and Intimacy

What exactly is an arranged marriage?  To Esty, it precluded love and intimacy – but that is not the norm among Chassidim.  At the age of 18, I got married in Chassidic tradition, and was prepared for the “first time,” which is a unique experience for any woman regardless of age and background.  I was told that love is not instant gratification but something that grows as couples grow together.

During the past ten years, I have marched five of my six children to the Chupah (marriage canopy) as well as several surrogate children who needed a mother to marry them off.  None of the marriages were quite so awfully “arranged.”  It all begins with an introduction (the matchmaker, the Shadchan can be any acquaintance) followed by parents’ research into the family and prospective boy or girl.  If all information is pleasing, “arranged” family meetings and private time for the boy and girl take place.

While different families have different customs for the duration and number of meetings, and the period between the engagement and wedding; in all families the girl has the last word; the engagement cannot be finalized without her express consent.

Chassidic girls are generally more sought after than the boys, regarded as the premium, and have the upper hand in the matchmaking process.  Brides have women mentors (Kallah teachers) and grooms have male mentors (Chosson teachers) to consult with, prepare and follow up with after marriage.

The scenes of the mother in law meeting in the supermarket and subsequent meddlesomeness in her son’s intimacy, as well as the Kallah teacher were ridiculous exaggerations and condescending.  The underlying message we aim to imbue is that if you want to be treated like a king, treat your wife like a queen and vice versa.

Preparing our children for marriage is about fostering a young, tender relationship imbued with Torah values and knowledge that husband and wife are forming a bond between themselves and G-D, a link in the chain of eternal Jewish heritage. When my oldest daughter was engaged, one of the first things my son in law said to me was “I hope I will be a good husband.”

 

Most disturbing was the inaccurate scenes of marital intimacy, more akin to spousal abuse than Chassidic relationships.

While spousal abuse exists in every society, I grew up seeing my parents and grandparents address eachother with warm affection in the privacy of our homes. The bedroom scenes in the movie were not even in accordance with Jewish Law, the Halacha. The lingerie shops catering to the Chassidic community will most likely not display intimate wear in the storefront window, but we know where to find them. Were the filmmakers clueless and inept in their research?  Was it the intention of those who left our community to paint a picture of Chassidic marriages as unromantic, dull and devoid of affection?

93Queen

When the talented Orthodox documentary filmmaker Paula Eiselt contacted me in 2013, I resisted.  I had no interest in a documentary about the formation of Ezras Nashim, the first all women’s volunteer EMS agency.  She persisted, explaining there was much negativity in media about Chassidim, specifically portraying women as mindless baby machines.  That a documentary about Chassidic women bringing change from within by standing up for what they believe in — modesty in pre hospital emergency care for women by women — would portray the true spirit of Chassidic women.

I was unconvinced that the benefit would outweigh the risk to my family until Paula argued that such a film would create a Kiddush HaShem (sanctification of G-D’s name) to multitudes of people with no exposure to the Chassidic community.  After consulting with rabbis and receiving their blessings, the project began and culminated five years later in the release of 93Queen.

Ironically, the scene where Esty’s grandmother suffers a heart attack, Chassidic female EMTs in purple vests respond to the call and perform CPR.  These EMTs were dressed in the purple vests resembling Ezras Nashim’s uniform.  Unfortunately, that too is inaccurate as Ezras Nashim continues to confront incredible challenges including launching a branch in Williamsburg.  While our community embodies magnanimous kindess, Chessed, there are areas where change is needed — real change will come from within, not from those who leave.

The Holocaust and Praying at Ancestral Gravesites

As a young girl, I would snuggle next to my beloved great aunt Hayuneni ob”m, who told me stories of life in Keresztur, Hungary, describing her father, my great grandfather, as a respected, soft spoken Chassid. When my great grandmother walked into the room, he would tell her in Hungarian “Hayuka, see the sun just shined into the room.”  I admired the strength of Hayuneni and her sisters, who ran the family business when war broke out and then survived the concentration camps.

This year due to the Coronovirus Pandemic, I was unable to travel to Keresztur on our family’s annual trip to pray at our ancestral gravesites and the gravesite of Reb Shayele of Keresztur zt”l on his yahrtzeit.  To Esty, the Holocaust was a burden to procreate; and while, the movie has a scene of Moishe and Yanky praying in a German cemetery, the significance of the Chassid’s connection to the past is lost.  Chassidim pray for the future while venerating the past, holding our ancestors in high regard, as we balance life in present society.

Chassidism

The Baal Shem Tov (Rabbi Yisroel Ben Eliezer 1698-1760) founded Chassidism on the premise that every Jew is connected to and should serve G-D with joy; that the Rabbi serves as a conduit between him and G-D.  Over the centuries Chassidism has flourished into many diverse groups with variations in customs and degree of insularity.

While many individuals chose to join the Chassidic community and raise children in Chassidic fashion, there are families with children, like Esty and her mother, who left the community to forge their own destiny.   I have spent years counseling Chassidic youth at risk (a phenomenon that exists in many communities) and changed as a mother when I learned about the resulting Off the Derech (OTD) phenomenon.  While our community cares for its own and excels in philanthropy, it needs to change from within and recognize the damaging repercussion of rejection.

My youngest grandson, Meilech, was born 8 weeks ago, just before COVID-19 hit Boro Park.   He is named after Reb Elimelech of Lizensk zt”l (Rabbi Elimelech Weisblum 1717-1786).  As I cradle my grandson, I am comforted that while I and thousands of Chassidim could not pray at the gravesite of Reb Elimelech zt”l, for this year’s yahrtzeit, due to social distancing policies, I now have a grandson to carry his illustrious name.  I thank G-D for His Divine Guidance in blending my professional aspirations with my Chassidic convictions and values while reaping Nachas, the pride, joy, warmth and love of the Chassidic home.  May we all merit the Nachas, joyous fulfillment of the Sheva Brachos, the seven blessings recited under the Chupah, which refer to the bride and groom as loving friends, Re’yim Ahuvim.

Ruchie (Rachel) Freier lives in Brooklyn New York with her husband, Tzvi Dovid, their children and grandchildren. She earned her JD at Brooklyn Law School and was elected as a Kings County Civil Court Judge in 2016.  She is a volunteer paramedic and director of Ezras Nashim, the all women’s Basic Life Support First Response Agency and can be reached at [email protected]


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