Unpacking Unorthodox

Join a Chabad Rebbetzin to Learn what Chassidic Life (and Marriage) is Really Like

The Boulder County Center for Judaism invites you to a Zoom conversation (Tuesday, September 1 at 6:00 pm) with Miriam Lipskier, co-founder and director of the Chabad Student Centre at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. She, and rabbis and rebbetzins across the country, have been fielding questions raised by the 2020 Netflix mini-series “Unorthodox”, which is loosely based on Deborah Feldman’s 2012 book “Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots.”

The mini-series depicts some of the difficulties Feldman experienced growing up in a tightly knit “ultra-orthodox” Chassidic community in Brooklyn, NY. She presents an intrusive, overbearing mother-in-law demanding to know why she is not pregnant yet; a husband unable to stand up to his mother; a male-dominated culture; a physically painful intimate relationship; and a stifling sense of required conformity. Her mother went “off the derech” (path) years ago for a more secular life in Germany and, following several additional difficult experiences, Deborah decides that is the road for her and runs away, leaving her bewildered husband to travel to Germany to find her.

The depictions of life within the Satmar community, known for their precise and somewhat austere interpretation of Halacha (Jewish law), raised many questions from within and outside the Jewish community. That curiosity, and the misconceptions and erroneous mythology it revealed, led to the creation of this presentation, which includes a “no-holds barred” question and answer session with Mrs. Lipskier.

Mrs. Lipskier has been teaching about Judaism, Jewish life, and spirituality, including the counseling of brides-to-be, for over 18 years. The Chabad Center she and her husband have created is a vibrant community serving a multitude of Jews in a variety of ways. As the mother of eight children, she is able to imbue her lessons, especially those for women about to be married, with wit and humor to help them enliven and elevate their most intimate relationships.

In a Whatsapp interview, Mrs. Lipskier answered some questions in advance of the presentation:

LD: Have you read the book and seen the mini-series?

ML: Yes, I read the book when it came out and saw the mini-series. I have also seen quite a number of interviews with Deborah Feldman and read many works by other Hassidic women who have left the community and gone on to other paths. I have also conducted extensive interviews with women who are still part of the Satmar community to learn what’s fact and what’s fiction because, while I am a Chassidic woman, the Chabad focus is different than Satmar in many broad perspectives.

LD: Do people really think that one person’s marriage represents all orthodox marriages? I mean, people watch movies all the time about people having marriages more difficult than this one and no one assumes that all Catholic marriages or all Amish marriages are like that one. I chose the Amish because they are another group who dresses and lives differently than the average American, so there is more ignorance and thus more confusion about their lives.

ML: I think this is an accurate point, that most people won’t assume that just because they see one marriage on the screen it is a depiction of an entire community or an entire way of life’s marriages. That makes sense and I think that most rational people would conclude that.

However, for some reason – either the way it was depicted or the nature of the sexual dysfunction, many people came away feeling there is very little intimacy, connection, romance, or warmth in the intimate relations within the whole community versus it being an issue just with this couple.

The amount of times this question has come up and the intensity and detail with which it is asked, shows that many people actually do  question the overarching concept of intimacy in Chassidic communities. Sadly, more people than I would have hoped or imagined did, erroneously, conclude that perhaps this is normative in a Chassidic community and that, generally speaking, their private lives are pretty dysfunctional.

LD: The image of the awful, intrusive, “my son is perfect and you don’t measure up”, controlling mother-in-law transcends religion. My Jewish and non-Jewish friends found her so overbearing that she seemed like a caricature rather than a real person (although there are many real people out there who are just as bad). As a result, this did not seem like a “jab” at Chassidic families, or even Jewish families, but at the universal understanding that while some mothers-in-law are gifts from G-d, others seem to come from elsewhere. Have you received questions that indicate otherwise?

ML: I think you’re right; overbearing, intrusive mother-in-laws are pretty universal, specifically Jewish universal. Jewish mother-in-laws are known – and it’s not Chassidic or Orthodox mother in laws – Jewish women are not known for hands-off, or live and let live. They may have invented the helicopter-syndrome. In any community, you will find some mother-in-laws who are in line with that caricature, just as you will find many who are respectful, give space, are loving in appropriate ways, and are helpful in appropriate ways. What I think we can all learn from this awful mother-in-law is to tone down our own tendencies if they happen to go in that direction.

LD: In the same vein as the image of the mother-in-law demanding to know why Deborah isn’t pregnant yet, the interaction where the Israeli woman tells the non-Jews about the Orthodox, she talks about conformity, not thinking for themselves, and that, “the women are just baby machines.” This is not an uncommon perception, not only among secular Israelis, but among secular Jews worldwide (and likely more so among non-Jews). Deborah’s indignant response, “I am not a baby machine” stood for a negation of the rest of the comments as well. The group tried to say that was not what she meant, but Deborah is no fool and said she knew it was exactly what she meant. This seems like an example of how even Jews have prejudices and biases against those whose lifestyle we don’t understand (or even disagree with). I would like to hear your thoughts about that interaction and the idea that Orthodox women are valued solely for bearing children.

ML: There is no way to explain away or excuse someone’s wrong behavior. If you ask, “Is it true that someone could be made to feel that her worth and value are solely dependent on whether she has children?” That could be an individual’s real-life feeling based on real-life fact. There is nothing we can say to negate that person’s experience, except the fundamental thing, which is the purpose of the presentation, and that is “What is the Jewish perspective? What do Halacha, Torah, and traditional Jewish perspectives say?”

The question of children and whether having them is a woman’s only role in Jewish life comes up a lot. It’s an important question and one that I spend time focusing on during the presentation. The answers are based on Biblical verses, Torah, Halacha, the Code of Jewish Law, Maimonides, and other codifiers of Jewish law.

Unfortunately, sometimes there are things that ripple down within a community that are not what the Torah prescribes or even against how Torah views things. This would be an example where the Jewish perspective is that every person contributes in a different way. Some may do it by raising wonderful people, but not everyone does. G-d and the Torah certainly acknowledge that, so, when community members do not acknowledge that and mistreat people, or look down at people, or abuse people for not having children, it is not something that’s sanctioned by G-d. It is not something condoned by the Torah. It’s the result of human failings and misconceptions.

For example, the Biblical verse that instructs us to ‘be fruitful and multiply’ does not specifically mention children. It says ‘be fruitful and multiply’, which is a little bit odd, because we’re not fruit trees, so what does it mean. It’s not very clear or specific, yet all the commentaries agree (which is quite unusual as they mostly don’t agree or agree to disagree) that in many cases the phrase can be understood to mean have children and transmit your values and teach them to be good people.

However, some people don’t have children, either because they didn’t want them or because they were not blessed with them – after all, that’s not in our hands to the degree we’d like to think – how do they obey the commandment to be fruitful and multiply? The answer is, in other ways. Whether they contribute to the arts, the sciences, philanthropy, writing, teaching – there are so many ways a human being can leave fruit and a legacy behind. It’s not that there’s only one way to fulfil the commandment or to be a contributing human being. That comes straight from the Biblical verse and that’s why it’s actually wrong to say about any human being ‘you only have one job and it’s to be a baby machine’. That idea is fundamentally false from a Jewish perspective.

LD: In talking with my Chabad friends (specifically young women in this case) about this series, one objection to the relationship between mother and son was, “No Orthodox young man would have such an intimate conversation about sex with his mother. It just would not happen.” Is this the case in your own experience? Or is this another example of one dysfunctional parent-child relationship standing in for all Chassidic mother/son relationships?

ML: I’m with you in that how a family practices tradition or what community they happen to be a part of, is not going to indicate how functional their relationships are. You have beautiful, warm, loving families in the Chassidic community. Obviously, no one’s interested in doing a Netflix series about a wonderful family who’s respectful and gets along and resolves their problems in a healthy manner, but it does exist. And, there are children who have open, helpful, healthy relationships with their parents where they would discuss intimate issues within healthy boundaries and others where they wouldn’t feel comfortable, and everything in the middle. So, again, I’m with you in that taking this one family and superimposing it on an entire community’s way of life is obviously a big problem.

I think the root of it, in this case, is that it’s very visual. You’re seeing and you’re feeling and you’re getting caught up with the story and, if you know relatively nothing about this community, it’s easy to walk away with all these misconceptions about “This is how they do things” and “This is how all their relationships are.” I agree that anyone who is a thinking person, who would spend even a moment analyzing that, would come to the conclusion that this is just one family and doesn’t represent everyone. That is why having this discussion and shedding some light on what are Torah values and what are Jewish customs and what are regularly practiced behaviors versus what’s unique to this specific dysfunctional family is so important.

LD: The one thing that did seem to represent more than one family, and which does present Orthodox Judaism in a poor light, was the trip to bring mother and child back, by any means necessary, followed by the threat that someone would be back for the child. Although the threat is delivered by someone clearly incompetent to follow through, the implication is that someone will pick up where he failed. This is important because there have been documented cases where this has happened, so it is not a stretch for the uninformed imagination to assume it is common practice. It would be great if you could comment on how far, in your experience, “the community” is willing to go in order not to “lose” a child.

ML: While there are documented cases, I think it is also a misrepresentation of the community. As much as a community would, in theory, like to have children stay within the context of their community, their schools, their traditions, their families, and what’s familiar to them, at the end of the day, and no matter which parent is leaving, it doesn’t really matter because the way that these cases go down is that there are lawyers, there are judges, there are juries, and, as in any divorce and custody case in any community, who has the better team and who puts more money behind that team will have an impact on the ultimate result. This is not about one community but, sadly, reflects larger issues within our justice system.

However, for every one case where you see a community making strong strides in terms of trying to keep a family in the community, there are probably three cases where someone left and they’re gone and that’s that. Yes, there was a court battle and it was unpleasant or painful but, sadly, that’s just what occurs when a family falls apart.

This is not so fundamentally different from what we have already discussed. It’s depicting an entire community based on the cases – and there have been cases – where the community was aggressive in trying to keep people within it. We also have to consider who the community is. It’s usually family members backing one side against the other and maybe having the means to do so effectively. But for every one of those, there are families who, no matter how much they want the kids to stay, don’t have the money or connections so the kids are taken out of the community and are not living amongst family, or in the school systems, or even in any form of an observant life. I think that actually happens more. It’s just not recorded because, what kind of story is it if it goes: we wanted to leave, we didn’t want to be part of the community, so we left, and now live somewhere else and we’re not observant. That doesn’t get so much traction, although it does happen.

Child custody is a real issue, just like sexual dysfunction is a real issue, it’s just not an entire community issue. Also, I think more today than 10 or 20 years ago, people in the community have a lot more compassion for individuals and their choices.

In fact, there is a group in Satmar today, somewhere between 350 and 500 moms whose kids have chosen different paths in life and who, instead of cutting them out or rejecting them, actively work to keep those relationships strong and loving and understanding, despite the challenges. These moms operate as a support system for one another.

So, this is another example of “we’re going to paint the entire community as intolerant to anyone’s choices” and as though everyone’s oppressive and everyone’s fighting to keep everyone down. While there are examples of that, and any occurrence of it is too many, it is not the broader truth and it does not represent the majority. You don’t hear how those other stories end because they don’t get any media attention, just like all the happy, functional families, Orthodox of not, don’t get any air time.

(This interview was edited for length and clarity.)

Clearly Mrs. Lipskier is an engaging and thoughtful woman whose goal is not to imply that the Chassidic community is flawless but rather that it is made up of human beings, some of whom you’d love to have over for Shabbat dinner and some of whom you’d cross the street to avoid. In the process, she uses her extensive knowledge of the Chassidic community and its traditions, as well as Torah, Halacha, and people to debunk some myths, correct some misconceptions, and shine a light where there might be murky darkness.

Please join us for what is sure to be an educational and enjoyable evening.

The event is free; however, in order to receive the link to enter, you must register by emailing boulderjudaism@gmail.com. If you have questions you’d like Mrs. Lipskier to answer, submit them to Chany Scheiner, co-director of the Boulder County Center of Judaism, by text (720.422.6776) or email (lbkosher@gmail.com) by noon on September 1st.

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