“Unorthodox”: A Fantasy Based on a Fiction

We all know that when a movie opens with “based on” or “inspired by” true events that what we are about to see is only remotely connected with historic truth. But we want to believe we’re getting lived reality and not just writerly invention so we’re happy to accept the fiction that follows. “Unorthodox,” the completely engaging, expertly crafted, brilliantly edited, well cast, and deeply moving drama is precisely such a fiction pretending to be truth.  

Should that matter? Is the emotional journey that a well-contrived story takes us on diminished because it’s fiction and not reality? Is there any less pleasure in our response when we know it’s just made up? James Frey attempted unsuccessfully to sell his book to a publisher as fiction and only closed the deal when he declared it was a memoir. But, as we all know, he never spent the time in jail, lied about how his girlfriend died, never had a root canal without Novocain. He confessed to Oprah, but only after he’d sold more than two million copies thanks to her book club. Oprah was furious about how her viewers had been duped, and when Frey attempted to equivocate about “the idea” of his root canal without painkiller, she retorted “It’s not an idea, James. It’s a lie.”

Jerzy Kosinski’s The Painted Bird, a now infamous piece of Holocaust literature, describes his abandonment by his parents at age six, and left to find his way through war torn Eastern Europe. Its publication made him a celebrity and got him more book contracts. It was revealed to be fraudulent—among other things, he lived in hiding with his parents—and he ceased making claims it was autobiographical.

If one writes a story boasting of her supposed bravery, or of survival in the face of impossible odds, or of some great achievement, and it’s sold to the public on that basis, but is actually fiction, does the reader have the right to feel betrayed?   

“Unorthodox” is the inspiring tale of a woman who has the courage to break free of what is both social and psychological bondage. It is well-constructed, and quite moving from start to finish. By all means watch it. But judge it for the fiction it is, not as someone’s actual story. 

For those of you who don’t want to be disillusioned, stop reading now.

“Unorthodox” is at least inspired by the “memoir” about the escape of author Deborah Feldman from Brooklyn’s repressive Satmar community to which she, her mother’s only child, had supposedly been abandoned as a toddler, when her mother made her own escape. In the made-for-TV series, the mother, a lesbian, ran to Berlin (ground zero of the Holocaust, and an odd choice for a Jewish woman, let alone an Orthodox Jewish woman, except for the writers’ need to dramatize history) where, having no marketable skills, she is forced to work as a menial in a home for the aged. In the real world, however, the media reports that the mother teaches science at New Utrecht High School in Brooklyn, which she never left. More significantly, her mother took Deborah’s kid sister with her, the sister whose inconvenient existence in the story is simply deleted by Deborah. Her mother did divorce Deborah’s father and demanded custody of both Deborah and her nine-year-old sister. But Deborah was 16 at that point and in a position to make her own decisions about where she wanted to live.

At 17 Deborah married and at 19 gave birth to a son. She and her husband then left Brooklyn together, moving to Kiryas Joel, the Satmar community in upstate New York. At 23 she took off with their child, studied fiction writing at Sarah Lawrence, and, in the James Frey model, got a book deal with a sensationalized story she labeled a memoir.

Deborah eventually moves to Berlin where she meets Anna Winger, an American novelist and screenwriter living there, and Alexa Karolinski, a Jewish-German filmmaker who did a highly praised documentary about how Germans and Jews in Germany deal with their shared history. Deborah proposes they make a TV series based on her book. Anna and Alexa agree but given free rein what they produce is Hollywood melodrama with a fairy tale ending.

In their totally fictionalized version, Deborah’s 19-year-old character, Esther or Esty, bolts from her husband and her suffocating life in Williamsburg, pregnant after a year of failed attempts because of her vaginismus, but never telling her husband of her condition. She makes a dramatic daylight escape under the noses of her informing neighbors, goes to Berlin with nothing except the clothes on her back and the sheitel (the wig covering her traditionally shorn hair) on her head. Requiring a tracker of questionable ethics and thuggish disposition to pursue her and bring her back, the writers create Moishe, and a backstory of his having left the community and learned the worst of the ways of the secular world only to return for reasons unclear beyond his assertion that no one can break its pull. The Satmar rabbi gives him the kidnap commission decreeing there is no alternative since Esty is carrying a child which belongs to the community. Moishe, a chain-smoking, brothel-frequenting, gambler, is forced to take Esther’s innocent husband along so they can play off against each other—the tied together antagonistic buddies you’ve seen a million times. Moishe displays a gun but the writers, perhaps unfamiliar with Chekov’s adage, do not allow the prop to go off and mar their chances with a Disney audience. 

Once they get Esty to Berlin, the writers indulge in total fantasy: Esty is instantly embraced by a group of friendly, fun-loving, talented, diverse young musicians and you think you’ve stumbled into a Fame re-run. In no time she’s learned from her Israeli-born girlfriend that lots of Jews lost family in the Holocaust and that’s no reason to feel uncomfortable living in the land of their murderers. This is now; that was then. At least it’s how Anna and Alexis present it. Esty learns that the lake where the Final Solution was dreamt up is just a lake after all. It’s lovely and she gives herself a secular baptism and lets her sheitel float away. In no time she’s eaten a ham sandwich and discovered it didn’t make her sick. Before long she’s off clubbing, put on lipstick, and hopped into bed with the most handsome, most sensitive of her new friends and her chronic vaginismus evaporates at their first bedding. There’s the inevitable reconciliation with her mother who finally, “after 17 years of chaperoning,” gets to tell her that she never gave her up—that she was taken from her in a court battle she didn’t have the resources to fight—and who assures her that she and her lesbian partner (who has no lines and just smiles and nods approvingly) will be happy to help her raise her child.

Esty applies for a scholarship to the highly selective music school her friends attend. Can she get in without any formal training? Can she wow the hard-nosed admissions committee with her natural and never-before revealed talent? Did you not see Flashdance?

Asked in an interview to justify the heavy fictionalizing of her adaptation, Anna Winger responded with the most amazing double talk since Al Kelly: “I write fiction. So, I don’t think I would be very good at adapting something faithfully if I weren’t able to fictionalize it.” Karolinski ignored the issue of taking liberties in adapting, allowing that they wanted to write a different, more contemporary story. It’s not, she said, “so much about reality and fiction as it is about creating something that feels real to our Esty today.”  Which is fine and good, but why hold to the pretext it’s memoir?

Marketing would seem to be the answer, which is undoubtedly also why Karolinski insists her depiction of the Satmars is “quite celebratory.”  Although such notoriously repulsive Satmar practices as their Mohels sucking the blood from just-cut foreskins—a cause of  herpes transmission and occasional newborn deaths and a more than occasional number of learning disabled children in the community—are not depicted, nor their total rejection of secular education, ensuring their graduates are complete ignoramuses, denied even the grade-school learning that the Amish allow, destined for lives of crippling poverty and total reliance on government handouts, we do see the slavish adherence to empty ritual and female oppression. We watch a teary Esther get her hair shorn like a camp victim or a collaborator after the war. We learn that women are not permitted even religious study, that they are denied music—even singing where they can be heard. We see the segregation of men and women, the men marching around absurdly in costumes out of Eastern Europe from centuries back, proud of their multi-thousand-dollar shtreimels, the ridiculous high fur hats, heedless of the pain the animals have suffered to create them—as heedless as they are of the endless possibilities of life outside their tiny neighborhood.   

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