Have you watched the new Netflix drama everyone’s talking about? It’s riveting: It tells the story of Jacob Cohen, a brilliant professor of English literature at an Ivy League university who grows tired of his community’s dogmatic narrow-mindedness. Sick of being unable to express his ideas or enjoy film and literature deemed retrograde and dangerous by his politically correct peers, he finds comfort in his small neighborhood synagogue. Soon, the beauty of his tradition inspires him; he marries a wonderful woman, raises a family in a warm, close-knit community, and spends his days studying the eternal wisdom of the Bible.
I’m joking, of course. Even though I know more than a handful of Jacobs, men and women who have fled the madness of institutions governed by the lunatic left for the sanity and solace of religion, you’ll never see their stories on the small screen. What you may binge on instead is the opposite, a growing torrent of shows about observant Jews who abandon their communities of faith for a life of cheerful fornication.
So many of these shows exist that they now constitute their own mini-genre, sometimes referred to by observant Jews in my circles as OTD, or Off the Derech, the latter being the Hebrew word for “path.”
If you like your apostasy on the romantic side, you may feast on Felix and Meira, which is about a married woman who leaves Orthodoxy’s fold after her community refuses to accommodate her natural passion for music, and for a non-Jewish man who isn’t her husband. Not steamy enough? No worries: Please enjoy Disobedience, in which the queer daughter of a rabbi seduces her best friend from childhood, who just happens to be married to another childhood friend. Or Eyes Wide Open, about a kindly Orthodox butcher who takes in, and falls madly in love with, a troubled young man, only for their community to excommunicate them with neither compassion nor care. Because, you know, whereas liberalism liberates you, faith, that benighted beast, can only diminish you with unstinting punishment dished out for any deviation from its stringently guarded norms. If you doubt this truism, just pop over to Twitter for a flash, and you’ll see for yourself how open-minded and welcoming our progressive brethren truly are.
Ridiculous as the OTD genre may be, it pays to indulge for a minute in its twin apotheoses, two shows that speak volumes about the sensibilities of our cultural commissars. The first is Unorthodox, which depicts life in the Hasidic Satmar sect as one part The Handmaid’s Tale and two parts Game of Thrones, a nightmarish universe in which the men are nasty, brutish, and short and the women suffer silently. The show’s heroine rebels, of course, and the drama revolves around her escape and attempt to find a higher calling in the one country on Earth known for its historical commitment to Jewish self-discovery—Germany.
More recently and more ridiculously, My Unorthodox Life reimagines the same supposed conflict between faith and happiness as reality TV farce rather than high drama. The show’s star is Julia Haart, a woman who abandoned her religious community and her commitment to empirically observed facts to spin a story of personal redemption that took her from the depths of mirthless Monsey, New York, to the heights of the Hamptons and a career as a fashion executive. Never mind that prior to this bio-pic series, her daughter gave interviews depicting the family’s religious community as anything but oppressive. Never mind that in real life, Haart married an Italian millionaire who effortlessly installed her as the chief executive of his business.
On screen, the story takes a much simpler and juicier form. It is a tale of the pursuit of liberty, possible only once faith is discarded. It hardly takes a Talmudic scholar to decipher the show’s moral: Out of the crooked timber of observant religious life, nothing beautiful can ever be built. Only when the neckline drops, the skirt shortens, and the tongue coarsens does the true effervescence of the Enlightenment come bubbling through. Women, the show tells us, can thrive and be happy only once they’ve committed to closets full of designer frocks and hours of lewd chatter about sex.
All of which makes My Unorthodox Life required viewing, not just for Jews but for anyone wishing to take a sober look at our cultural moment. Orthodox Jews, in number and in influence, are a tiny minority—by most accounts making up only about 10 percent of all American Jews, who themselves are only 1.7 percent of the American population. That you may now enjoy so many popular shows that present their faith as anathema to freedom and self-fulfillment suggests nothing less than a real sea change in our culture.
To understand this shift, it helps to recall that societies gripped by volatile transitions from one set of values to another have often looked to the Jews as the embodiment of all that is wrong and in need of sharp, forceful correction. Jews have been derided as both too powerful and too meek, accused of owning all the capital and of fomenting communist unrest, criticized for being too tribal and for assimilating too quickly in our host cultures. That these critiques are diametrically opposed hasn’t much bothered our detractors—sound logic is never the engine of Jew hatred.
Which brings us to our present moment and the remarkable outpouring of OTD dramas. No longer burdened by bourgeois values such as freedom of speech, press, religion, and all that reactionary dross, our hardened cultural warriors are launching an all-out offensive. Rather than merely subjecting us to hours and hours of diversity training masquerading as entertainment, they’ve resolved to release a spate of shows designed to inculcate in the young a simple mantra: wanton desires good, religion bad.
You may, of course, argue that there’s nothing new under the sun, and that our media have always displayed a bias against traditional authority and in favor of liberation. But bias, properly understood, is the delta between objective reality and the crimped imagination of an artist endeavoring to portray it. A biased account is, ironically, a good-faith effort. Someone strives to give an honest account of things, but misses a corner or two on account of being blinded by preconceptions—an all-too-human limitation.
The sheer number of anti-Jewish shows suddenly on offer makes clear that we’re not dealing with garden-variety bias. It suggests a very different phenomenon, one that looks more like an orchestrated ideological operation and less like the loose and errant fluctuations of liberal bias working itself out in a marketplace of ideas. Conservative Christians can be a political force in public life, and targeting large religious denominations risks incurring the wrath of millions who wield real power. Perhaps this is why our professed moral and intellectual betters, always sharp students of revolution, target the smallest, most vulnerable group they can find: a few hundred thousand Jews who dress in funny hats and speak a guttural, long-lost language.
But what starts with the Jews never ends with the Jews. People of faith wrestling with their place in contemporary American culture should watch these anti-Jewish shows. Doing so will prompt two stark conclusions. The first is that there’s no room for us anymore in mainstream American culture, that its current creators despise us, and that any attempt to break into or influence it is futile. And second? That we’d all be well-advised to do what Jews have always done when cast aside by their persecutors: create our own entertainment, our own institutions, our own culture to replace the one devoted to putting us down.
Liel Leibovitz is editor at large for Tablet Magazine and the cohost of its popular podcast, Unorthodox.