As said often: transparency is the hardest thing there is, if only because we cannot be transparent and sweep things under the rug. This applies to any situation, especially within closed-up communities. So, let me stick to transparency and grace in my response to this interview with Rabbi Yanki Jacobs by Chantal Suissa. This conversation is about the successful Netflix series called Unorthodox, in which the Jewish ultra-Orthodox Satmar community comes into the picture.
Hasidic movement Chabad
Similar to Yanki Jacobs, I am not from the Satmar community, but I know it from up close. I grew up in a family in which various Jewish movements were mixed, with the Hasidic movement Chabad as the main one, as is the case with Yanki Jacobs. In fact, Yanki Jacobs’ mother went to the same Jewish ultra-Orthodox school for girls as my mother and I was later taught by his mother at the only Jewish ultra-Orthodox school that we have in the Netherlands, namely the Cheider.
Not measuring everyone by the same standards
First, Chantal Suissa is a friend and someone I respect. I think it is cool of her and partly justified that she facilitated a different opinion via Nieuw Wij in response to the Netflix series Unorthodox. Justified, because we all need to realize that art is about expression. Unorthodox is one story, just as my book Exodus from the lighthouse, Shadow behind and face towards the sun is one story. Even though there are many similar stories that speak for themselves. Those who investigate will find more, for example the books by Chaïm Potok and Pearl Abraham and also the recent autobiography Cut me loose by Leah Vincent. Previously, Netflix released the documentary One of Us and there is a documentary by Anna Wexler that is also called Unorthodox and that can be seen via YouTube.
Regardless of what we are talking about, we should never measure everyone by the same standards and generalize. This also applies to other communities. In other words, there are beautiful people within the Jewish Orthodox community, who are allowed to fully choose how they want to live, as long as it does not harm others and they comply with civil laws and regulations. And my criticism of the Jewish Orthodoxy is certainly not an end in itself.
To put things into perspective too easily and to ignore coercion
Immediately after the success of One of Us, the Jewish ultra-Orthodox community arranged an interview with Oprah Winfrey for Supersoul Sunday. Again this time: since the success of Unorthodox, a lot of time has been invested in PR to respond worldwide. For example, Rivka Slonim, linked to Chabad, has given many international presentations to transmit how she deals with these productions as an ‘Orthodox feminist’. I attended such a Zoom meeting, with a mix of support and annoyance.
Coming back to the response of Yanki Jacobs via Nieuw Wij: no matter how many good things he conveyed in that piece, it is much too easy to put things into perspective this way. It also ignores the biggest problem within closed-up communities, namely coercion, with all its (transgenerational) consequences. That is why I really believe that it is hopeful to speak about Unorthodox and One Of Us in the public debate.
After all, maybe the damage and consequences of Orthodoxy and coercion in my life and in the lives of many others may not have been in vain at a collective level. Who knows, we may be able to prevent more in the (near) future, through transparency and stories like these. We may be able to stop mechanisms that no longer serve and that stand in the way of humanity or existence.
What coercion can be
Coercion is in the dangerous dogmas, brainwashing, rules of faith and the steps that need to be in synch with everyone. Coercion is embedded in ultra-Orthodoxy and is even more complex within Jewish Orthodoxy because of post-war suffering folded in the community and because of the unresolved transgenerational trauma. Coercion is not only about seriously disturbed family ties, but about the way religion is experienced. In my personal life, I know both. I dare say that it is very difficult to know where illness or disturbed family ties end and where religion begins. Everything merges, strengthens and maintains each other. There are no boundaries. That is why there is a phenomenon called harmful traditional practices.
Coercion is having no choice or freedom. Coercion is how some use religion to put men versus women in disadvantageous positions opposite each other. Coercion is how many, especially in the past, have been married off and how everyone in the Orthodoxy condemns each other’s family on piety, background, status and other matters under the heading of ‘suitable for the marriage market and a future Jewish nest’. Coercion is physical and mental violence, repressed sexuality and lack of education, information, social contribution or resources. Coercion is fighting for your life. Coercion is not mixing in and therefore no acceptance, diversity and inclusivity. Coercion is a web with its own power structures, in which someone is pulled if that person wants to step out, or is worked against. Coercion is not being able to decide on your own body, mind and course in life. Coercion is no self-regulation and humor, not admitting mistakes, a smoke screen of love, looking away from abuses and indeed sweeping things under the rug. Coercion causes people to go 180 degrees the other way in the long run and cultivate an aversion towards the Orthodox environment of origin. Coercion ensures that the experience of religion blocks pure and individual spirituality.
Children are never owned by parents
It should be clear by now that I am staying away from concrete stories. That I am only giving the general outline with grace and without wanting to be suggestive. After all, if you want a concrete story, you can read my book. The biggest problem with coercion is that steering starts at a young age. Children grow up in a certain way. Although they quickly sense at their core whether this really suits them, they cannot respond to it, or realize what such a start in their lives will mean in the long run. The mentors they need are not in their midst, so step by step, they will have to do it themselves. It is about time that we realize that children are never – never – owned by the (Orthodox) parents. Side note: children are also a gift and not a given.
Stick and change plasters on wounds until not necessary
We can argue that the outside world often sees no difference between one black kippah and long coat and the other black kippah and long coat. However, we can never claim that these closed-up communities are the same as a family in which everyone becomes a doctor and one just wants to become an artist.
Children and / or adults who want to get out of the Orthodoxy cannot always do so and cannot always come out unscathed. They carry their history with them and often spend decades sticking plasters on the wounds and changing them over and over, until one day it no longer is necessary. In other words, we can take a child out of the Orthodoxy, but we cannot take the Orthodoxy out of the child, with all the joy and suffering that comes with that.
Groundbreaking for the community
Labels like the Orthodoxy are indeed for supermarkets and not for people, as Yanki Jacobs rightly puts it. That is precisely why we must dismantle the old mechanisms that stand in the way of humanity within closed-up communities as soon as possible. That is partly a grueling process and it comes with trial and error.
An Orthodox rabbi came to me in 2018 and said: “I read your book. What you have done for our community is groundbreaking”. Whether this was said to comfort, or with full conviction, I will never be 100 percent sure of. What I do know is that Exodus from the lighthouse, Shadow behind and face towards the sun will be read with different eyes in a hundred years from now. This is just as true for how other similar works and stories will ever be viewed again.
First of all, a Jewish woman
Anna Wexler’s family in the documentary Unorthodox told her that she chose the Jewish Orthodoxy as the theme for her film because she is always brought back to it. Anna Wexler did try to remain impartial in her film and she followed the religious course of the lives of some people. Maybe, it is the same for me. However, I do criticize openly if necessary and stand up just as much for my Jewish fellow people when I find it necessary and fair.
My Jewish identity is totally inconclusive, as humanity is paramount in my daily life. This means that I stay away from labels. The only label I wear is Dina-Perla and even that one is worn while winking at the world. Still, I honor my life as a Jewish woman, especially since my Jewish fellow human beings have known what fighting means for centuries and six million people have been killed due to a label. For that reason, my job is to be a Jewish woman with my head held high and to take this more seriously than I often tend to do.
My spiritual self once said that I might as well have been born a Muslim, Buddhist, or a Christian etc. Recently, someone pointed out to me that my ‘neshama’, thus soul, does not rotate in that manner in different lives and therefore simply remains Jewish. Who will know for sure? It is up to each individual and to me what meaning we give to the matters of our lives. Yet, that is secretly why, despite everything, I love so many of my Jewish fellow people, including the black coats and hats and sometimes excluding the beards and wigs.