There’s a new show on the BBC called Extreme Wives with Kate Humble. It offers viewers like Humble – who describes herself as a “white middle-class woman growing up in Britain … enormously privileged … free to make choices, to state opinions, to be independent” – the chance to voyeuristically peer into the lives of women who are her “extreme” opposites.
In the second episode, Humble examines the lives of Haredi women – a strictly Orthodox Jewish sect – and visits Israel, making religious Jewish women’s observance seem exotic. She could have easily interviewed communities in Manchester or London, where there would have been no language barriers. In Israel, she finds women contentedly running large families while also working outside the home. Failing to find the oppression she is looking for within the community, she instead looks for women who have left.
Humble’s series is not the only recent television documentary to focus on the plight of Orthodox Jewish women. One of Netflix’s latest productions, One of Us – released in October 2017 – chronicles a series of tragic stories that come together to paint a very dark picture of the Haredi community. The community we see here is portrayed as monolithic and traumatised by the Holocaust – insular and unforgiving, with a mob mentality. And as all of the people tracked by the film leave the community because they are abused, the film offers two confusing messages: first, that abuse is (more) rampant in the Orthodox community. And second, that those who want to leave the community only do so because they are abused. This simplistic messaging erases those who leave because they are atheist or reject religious teachings, and it hides the abuse of religious victims who remain devoted to God.
In an effort to combat abuse, Britain’s Jewish community marked the UN’s annual International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women (IDEVAW) with a weekend focused on domestic violence in the Jewish community. And during Shabbat on November 25, rabbis delivered their weekly sermon on the topic of abuse – shattering the persistent culture of silence.
This willingness to speak out reflects a growing consciousness in the Jewish community about domestic and sexual violence. The development of organisations, shelters and legal services demonstrates this change. Yet the media and popular culture both in the UK and the US continue to fetishise the religious community, latching on to domestic and sexual abuse as if they are endemic to the entire Haredi Jewish world.
Dreams of leaving
The fly-on-the-wall style of One of Us follows three stories: Luzer lives in a trailer and is barely able to support himself as an Uber driver after the poor secular education he received in his community. Ari is a teenage drug addict, raped by a camp counsellor. And Etty is a victim of domestic abuse who loses her seven children when the community uses its social, political and financial power to win the legal custody battle.
The film uses haunting, old world music and dramatic techniques to emotionally manipulate the viewer. Etty, for example, at first appears in shadows. Theatrically, she exposes her face to us about 30 minutes into the film, dramatising her rebellion against the Hasidic community. Even more emphatically, she takes off her sheitel – the head covering that marks her as a religious married woman. The liberation of her hair, a common trope in American popular literature and film, symbolically demonstrates her liberation from an oppressive, patriarchal culture, and asks us, the non-Hasidic audience, to root for her – and condemn her community.
Luzer’s story comes with fewer gimmicks but serves to tell a partial truth. In the film, we see Luzer in his trailer, auditioning for parts, and failing to find success. Yet, this same Luzer Twersky played a starring role in the critically-acclaimed film, Felix et Meira (2014), which debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival, where it won the award for Best Canadian Film and was submitted for the best foreignlanguage film category at the Academy Awards. He then featured in the Amazon prime hit, Transparent, playing Mendel in the second season (2015).
Ari is still a teenager. Perhaps this is the most optimistic portrayal: his parents are paying for his drug abuse treatment centre even though he cuts his sidelocks and changes his dress. But we are left unsure of what will happen to him.
It is the the focus on Etty, in particular, that is part of a pattern in popular culture of depicting religious women as victims. As we have found in our research, this kind of portrayal offers an opportunity to condemn the patriarchal structure of religion while offering a titillating view of the private and intimate lives of religious women. This perspective, which is no less sexist and patriarchal, erases Jewish women’s agency, making them objects in secular society’s gaze. Increasingly, as religious women produce their own art, they are able to reclaim their subjectivity and represent the diversity of experience that is otherwise absent.
The Haredi community has been waking up to the issues of domestic and sexual abuse. Groups such as Project S.A.R.A.H and Shalva in the US, and Kol V’oz in Israel work within the Orthodox community to help women leave abusive relationships and develop social structures that provide women with support networks. Some of their most important work has been in educating community leaders, particularly men, including rabbis, to speak about domestic violence and abuse, and to help them construct religious sermons that condemn such behaviour.
At the same time, non-profit organisations helping Orthodox Jews who leave their communities have sprung up: Footsteps in the US, Mavar in the UK, and Gesher in the EU. They provide networks, skills training, as well as social and legal support.
Courage to leave
Over the course of a month, One of Us has garnered a great deal of media attention, and interviews with the cast have helped create a hubbub around the film. But by conflating the issues it raises, it does little to help those experiencing abuse within the Hasidic community.
For those like Luzer, leaving may bring professional success. But for those like Ari, who experience sexual abuse, the costs of social ostracism may discourage them from speaking out. Worst of all, for women like Etty, the film shows that in Hasidic Judaism, leaving an abusive marriage means leaving your community and leaving your children. But as for women everywhere, there are good and bad divorces, there are victims of abuse, there are shared and sole custody arrangements, and there are compromises.
There are no doubt instances where Orthodox communities are complicit in tolerating abuse. But it’s time that documentaries began showing sensitivity to nuance. If they continue to portray women’s experiences of divorce negatively even in cases of domestic abuse – and if they suggest that women who want to leave their marriages will lose their children – many women may find this too high a price to pay and instead be encouraged to keep silent and stay.