The mainstream reviews of the recent Netflix release Unorthodox are largely summaries of the film, about as interesting as the book reports lazy students submit in place of essays, but insider critiques posted privately and on social media made me think. I recalled Milan Kundera’s claim for Weltliteratur featured in my course description for World Lit II: “There are two basic contexts in which a work of art may be placed: either in the history of its nation ( we can call it the small context) or else in the supranational history of its art (the large context).” Geographic distance, he wrote, “sets the observer back from the local context and allows him to embrace the large context of world literature–the only approach that can bring out a novel’s aesthetic value…the novelty of form it has found.”
As an example of “local” context, I offer you my sister’s response to the film series:“I found Unorthodox a bit off… The shtreimlech were horrible…the wigs and dresses were godawful…the jewelry horrendous…so unelegant so unwilliamsburg!!!”**
Another insider review, this from an Instagram post by author Jericho Leah Vincent, also from an Orthodox community, echoed my sister’s: “As a story of leaving, I was bugged by how seamlessly Esty found a new community of friends, how easily she became one of them. Crossing the cultural divide to connect with secular people, and learning the cultural codes to build friendships with them, is one of of the most difficult parts about leaving for just about every OTD person I’ve ever met. …Took me fifteen years to get the hang of it and I still have moments when I find myself stranded, awkward, ashamed.
Both critiques address the question of credibility, a challenge for representative art. But credibility is also subjective: Every viewer brings her own level of credulity to any fictional representation, and just as in life, some people are innately more skeptical. Subjectivity being what it is, more or less unreliable, the critiques end up being about the viewer’s willingness to suspend her disbelief, a term borrowed from theater, which is an acknowledgement from the outset that, yes, of course this is not real life, a performance, staged yes, but still useful for theater’s ultimate purpose, the pleasure and benefit of catharsis.
My sister’s critique of the film’s shabby clothes struck me as shallow at first, then I reconsidered: she minded for her community, for our sisters and nieces who are fashion-aware, elegant, enjoy a sophisticated taste for beautiful things. And it is true that veracity is a significant objective in the craft of fiction. Though the film attempted Hasidic dress codes, the filmmakers didn’t get it entirely right. The obviously unreal shtreimlech were a necessary compromise arrived at for budgetary reasons. A real shtreimel made with real foxtails starts at something like $6000. Human hair wigs were probably also a stretch for the film’s budget. But the deficiencies in styling of the film’s tichlech and shpitzlech have more to do with expertise. Perhaps daily experience is necessary: only a fashionista insider can tie a kerchief just so, and only a daily wearer might recognize the stylistic variations. Even as a former insider, I admit I am not discerning when it comes to head wraps.
Jericho’s critique has to do with represented time, another aspect of craft. Real life is stuck with clock time: it is linear and slow. Every minute takes sixty seconds. Life takes hours, days, years. Except when it doesn’t. Sometimes a summer flies by in what feels like a week. Other times a day takes a year, filled with distractions and diversions, which do or don’t influence the trajectory of what happens. The inner experience of time is entirely subjective, and since modern fiction and film are largely based in subjective points of view, represented time has nothing to do with clock time. The story follows the character’s subjective experience of time.
Both critiques are also in the end about space: Rich fully-detailed representations require more footage, more pages, chapters. Victorian novels were thick doorstops because they went for comprehensive representation, describing the fringe on the lampshades, the patterns in the carpet, the colors of every gorgeous room, the trim on the coat, all the decorative passementerie Victorians prized. And yet, wrote VIrginia Woolf, if life refuses to live in those pages?
The biblical representation of human life on earth is short, probably because the redactors grappled with the impossibility of depicting billions of years. The page limitations of short forms– the novella, short story, short short, and film–also push writers toward the slice of life as stand-in for the whole. How the artist chooses to portray the selected slice is where aesthetics enter, what Kundera calls the found “novelty of form.”
For my sister, the film’s aesthetic values are outweighed by her quest for realism. Feldman’s memoir, she says, is better. Of course as memoir, the book belongs to the realistic genres, which include history and biography, but the reality of the realism presented even in history is questionable because subjective. If Yahweh, the Jewish God, weren’t so angry all the time, I might say that only Gods, paring their fingernails, can be objective.
Feldman’s memoir, I tell my sister, does not qualify as Weltliteratur, while the film series inspired by her book does. This is an opinion, I know, entirely subjective.
“For a Satmar girl at such a young age, she did very well,” my sister says. They can barely speak the language even today.”
In my lecture notes for World Lit II, I find a quote that is from a preface by David Damrosch, I think: “A literary work manifests differently abroad than it does at home.”
If this was true in the 19th and 20th centuries, before technology diminished distance, before social media turned everything local, is it still true today, I wonder, when the world is so small, a virus in far-flung Wuhan hitches a ride, and creates a pandemic?
A few days later, my sister texted: Feldman quotes you and then writes:
“I’m curled up on the bed reading, and this time it’s a bad book, a book I wouldn’t want to be caught reading at home. Mindy told me about it; she lent it to me after she was finished. The Romance Reader, it’s called. It’s about a religious Jewish girl just like us, who wants to read books and wear bathing suits. But even better, the author was an Orthodox girl too, and she “off the derech,” as they say or off the path. She became secular.” (Unorthodox 143)
According to her memoir, Feldman read The Romance Reader when she was seventeen, an age when reading provides much needed life experience, a way to see the larger world, come to know oneself. Her reading, which goes on longer than the quote above, might be the best example of a work placed in its local context.
What exactly makes Unorthodox, Shtisel, and also Gett, the Israeli film by the Elkabetz siblings, art? Unlike American-made movies about Hasidic life (A Price Above Rubies, A Stranger Amongst Us), these films allow their subjects to exist as they are, in their Yiddish (presenting Yiddish speakers in English would have been a distortion), with their flaws, fully human, not caricatures. The actors and filmmakers also understand the art of holding back, challenging the viewer, another modernist aspect of craft. No judgment of either the culture or characters is offered. The stories are not presented as headline-making scandal. In Yiddish, Shtisel means prank, and the two patriarchs of Shtisel are always pranking each other, as well as their mother and children. The motivations are often psychological, but they manage to convince themselves that they are doing it in the service of God, for religious purposes. Humorouly, the pranks often wind up working against the prankster, and this too adds to the frisson of this artistic representation of Hasidic life.
** My sister’s full review: “getting up from seder to go buy a pregnancy test??? ridiculous!!! her hair down past her shoulders–never…giving her a gun to kill herself is asian culture never jewish! no matter what happens taking your life is never an option… if i had to guess which chasdishe song she would sing mi bonsiach would not have come to mind…that was funny! the tichelech and shpitzlech and wigs were so bad…i cannot believe they didn’t get someone to do it for them…and clothing…old european shmates!!! ”