Netflix’s Unorthodox is one of the biggest shows of 2020 so far, following the story of Esty, a young woman who flees life in an orthodox Jewish community. Here, Frieda Vizel explains how she too escaped life in a super-strict Jewish community – and why she has no regrets.
Growing up, Frieda Vizel vaguely knew she wasn’t like other children.
“I would go to doctor’s appointments, or on school trips, and everyone would stare,” she says. “You have a sense that you’re the subject of great curiosity, but that was really the extent of my awareness of the outside world.”
Vizel spent her first 25 years as a Satmar Hasidic Jew, before making the scandalous decision to take her young son away, leaving her family behind as she attempted to forge a secular existence.
The Hasidic sect is one of the most closeted anywhere; miles apart from mainstream Jewry, it is a private population with its own language (Yiddish) and its own extremely strict religious rules. In this male-dominated world, there is firm gender segregation; arranged marriage is the norm and birth rates are incredibly high (Vizel is one of 15 children).
Men grow forelocks and wear long black coats – a throwback to the dress code in 18th century Ukraine, where the movement originated. Married women cover their hair with a wig or scarf, and rigorous modesty rules must be adhered to. Religious instruction takes priority over academic study, and most never learn English.
Many Hasids live in New York state, in areas like Kiryas Joel, where Vizel grew up. But there are also communities here in the UK, in east London, Manchester and Gateshead, and the high birth rate means that numbers are rising. At the last census, almost 4,000 Jews said their main language was Yiddish.
Generally speaking, Hasids keep a low profile. They are born into the community, and relatively few leave – not least because religious leaders will go to great lengths to stop them, and because they lack education, surviving ‘outside’ can be an impossible task.
But against all odds, some do manage to leave, as Netflix’s hit series Unorthodox makes clear. Based on a memoir by fellow New Yorker Deborah Feldman, the show follows a woman, Esty, as she embarks on a secular life in Berlin after a difficult marriage. Leaving the community is no easy decision for her, both emotionally and practically; meanwhile, Esty’s husband chases after her to force her to return.
When Vizel left her own community 10 years ago, age 25, she took her son with her. She divorced the man she married at 18 after meeting him just once. Unlike Feldman and Esty, Vizel was relatively lucky; her marriage wasn’t troubled. She simply had a gradual awakening that she wanted a different life.
“I was always curious,” she says, her slight accent a reminder English is her second language. “It wasn’t as much about the outside world as it was about pushing the envelope within.”
She tried endlessly to fit in with the Hasidic community as child, but always felt she stuck out “like a sore thumb”. Still, she never doubted that she’d fulfil the destiny of all Hasidic girls, by marrying young and bearing children. As a child the main excitement was when a sibling got engaged; she and her friends would constantly stage mock weddings.
“You’re thinking ‘we’re all going to marry, but who will have a great wedding?’” she says. “It wasn’t a matter of wondering if I was happy or not.”
There was no sex education. “It’s put off until a month before marriage, although that doesn’t mean we couldn’t put pieces together,” she adds. Nor was there any concept of extramarital relationships; Anne Frank’s Diary crystallised in her mind as a romance, so alien was the idea of a teenage passion. “It took me years to realise that it is one of the most prominent Holocaust narratives.”
Unlike Esty, Vizel conceived quickly, but her first pregnancy ended in a stillbirth. “That was a part of what changed my trajectory, because afterwards I was a little withdrawn,” she says.
While her friends were out pushing buggies, she began watching films in secret. Television is taboo in Hasidic society, as are secular films and books, but Vizel says there were always ways to get around this, usually by watching on a ‘work’ computer.
One of the first films she watched was Home Alone, viewed in black and white through the tiny viewfinder screen of a video-camera, with no sound. “I couldn’t wait to see more,” she says. She and her husband began covertly buying DVDs. They had no basis for what to choose; Gangs Of New York left her shocked. “You’re so not used to the visual medium.”
Next she discovered how to dial up to the internet, and started browsing online, lapping up celebrity gossip about Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt’s split. “It was a progression of getting more and more access, and then boom – I found blogging,” she says.
Music led to Esty’s departure from her community, while for Vizel, it was discovering people writing about her community. “It was absolutely shocking to me because I’d never spoken to anyone who had left before,” she says. Now a new mother, she started to blog under a pseudonym. “It really changed my whole experience of myself, my feeling of how serious the community’s judgment is, how afraid I should be. It was transformative.”
Initially her husband was supportive, but he soon began to feel she was going too far. But Vizel didn’t want to stop. “I was getting to know men for the first time, and able to talk to people I’d never have met,” she explains.
However, frightened by the implications, she soon stopped blogging. “But by then the cat was out the bag,” she says. “I was no longer able to think in the way I had. It was impossible to make myself fit in anymore.”
She tried to persuade her husband to move to a (relatively) more modern community in nearby Monsey, where the rules are almost as strict but with more openness to wider society. He refused. They began arguing constantly, until eventually he told on her to his parents.
Out of the blue, she was summoned by the rabbi’s wife. “She told me that if I was going to keep up with this, I could leave, but I would lose custody. I don’t think I’ve ever felt that angry before,” she recalls.
Vizel and her husband went for counselling – “to a bunch of different rabbis and supposed experts to cure me” – but eventually, her husband gave in and left. “He knew I had my eye on custody. I had seen what happened to another girl who lost custody and I was like, I’m staying in this marriage forever.”
Even after that, she bided her time to make sure she kept her son, dealing with the whispers and intimidations. “I didn’t trust he would give in, or that he’d be allowed to,” she says. The tactics she experienced weren’t as dramatic as in Unorthodox, but it was an uncomfortable period. At one stage, she says, the rabbis blocked her son from attending a Jewish school, despite the settlement with her ex preventing her from sending him to public school. Vizel had no choice but to home educate him for a year.
Eventually she made it to Monsey, where she lived in a basement and managed on the salary from her job at a business in Kiryas Joel, to which she would return each day, still in her long skirt and wig. “It was its own humiliation,” she says. “The company fired me when people were gossiping, because they were worried it would affect their business, but then they rehired me in another office.”
Her parents were devastated, even though she planned to remain strictly Orthodox (she is no longer religious). “I can’t even talk about it without it hurting, even just thinking about it,” she says, her voice wavering. “They knew this opened the door for me – from there I could go anywhere. And they were right.”
Becoming slightly less religious was a far bigger move, psychologically, than any of the changes she made to her life since leaving the community, including moving to Brooklyn in 2018. “After [I became less religious] it was very different,” she explains. “I suddenly had freedom.”
In Unorthodox, Esty embraces secular pastimes; this, says Vizel, rang true with her own experience. “Some of us follow the script a little, like we have to try clubs, we have to try the beach. We go through this checklist.” But in reality, it was the smaller things she found most liberating.
“Learning to ride a bike was a very big deal, I still have some scars,” she says. “It was exciting, to go to a co-ed gym, to interact with men, all that flirting and fun, and the not fun part [of dating]. There were so many little moments where I felt like I’m flying, I have wings.”
She built a network of friends who had also left the community, finding the common language and shared jokes to be vital sustenance in her new life. “It’s hard not to feel very different (from others),” she says. “It used to hang over every conversation with an outsider.”
Today, as a tour-guide of the Hasidic area of Williamsburg, she meets people from all around the world, but who still share a culture. “They have common references, common concepts of what makes life meaningful. Those things are different in the Hasidic community, it makes it hard to connect.”
Her son has a relationship with his father, and Vizel remains in contact with her family. One brother left the community recently. “It’s hard to watch your parents relive the trauma,” she says. “The course I took worked for me but it came at huge cost to my parents, who see the world very differently.”
Unlike the portrayal in Unorthodox, Vizel doesn’t only have negative memories of her childhood. Watching Little Women recently, she recognised the fun the sisters had; life was filled with playground games and children playing in the street. “We were a lot like the 50s,” she says, adding that she is sad her son missed out on this. “I didn’t foresee that as a big part of the price.”
But she also has bad memories of a world “that is very ideologically small minded”.
“Some of the ideas that it holds are nice,” she says. “Life has purpose, and children are important. But anyone who starts to deviate gets punished.
“[The community] will be very nice to those who step in line, but those who don’t start to see a very ruthless side of the community. That’s how they keep people in.”
It is worse for women than men. “It’s the luck of the draw,” she says. “Men have freedom built into their lives, while for women, [freedom] is dependent on having a husband who is not a tyrant.”
Despite this, she rejects the portrayal of Hasidic practices and communal life in Unorthodox, suggesting the programme-makers had a particular vision they wanted to perpetuate. In particular, she bridles at Esty’s loneliness.
“The creators don’t have the imagination to realise a woman who makes friends easily in Berlin would have a bajillion friends in the community, because there are always people who are pushing the rules,” she says.
Unlike Esty, who wavers about her decision at the end, Vizel never considered going back to the community. “I’m blessed with a bit of resilience, which has helped me,” she says. “I’m happy. It works for me, this new life.”
Images: Netflix, courtesy of Frieda Vizel