A few years ago, the average American probably could not tell you what a Hasidic Jew was. But thanks to a set of shows running the gamut from serious scripted dramas to reality TV, that’s all changed. Shows such as Unorthodox and My Unorthodox Live have catapulted Hasidic Jews into the limelight with stories of escape, shunning and strict, strange customs.
Critics have pointed out that these shows exoticize and vilify Orthodox Judaism by framing it as a repressive, cult-like group to be escaped. But a new podcast from Jewish think tank the Shalom Hartman Institute has another complaint: The stories always stop at the happily ever after. What actually happens when people leave the Hasidic world?
Heretic in the House is Hartman’s first limited-run, scripted podcast (they have two others, Identity/Crisis and For Heaven’s Sake, both of which use a talk-show format). Four fascinating episodes delve into what happens after someone leaves the Hasidic world and the cameras turn off. With only two episodes out so far, it’s already soared to the top of the rankings for Jewish podcasts according to Chartbeat, displacing the long-running podcast Unorthodox from Tablet.
Host Naomi Seidman left the Orthodox world decades ago, going “off the derech” or OTD as people call it, to eventually become a professor of Jewish studies at the University of Toronto. But she doesn’t tell her story — and neither does anyone she talks to on the podcast. Instead, the podcast follows the fallout after leaving the Hasidic world, and what happens in the wake of the supposed happily ever after.
Throughout its four-episode arc, Heretic in the House does a careful dance. Seidman talks with people about their real experiences in and out of the Hasidic world, seeking in part to undo some of the stereotypes and presumptions that outsiders have developed about Hasidic Jewry and those who leave. Yet she, along with producers David Zvi Kalman — an occasional Forward contributor — and Louis Gordon, also didn’t want to contribute to what Seidman called in the opening episode “the sickening little game of telling the OTD story.”
As Seidman says of herself and other formerly Hasidic Jews: “We went from being trapped in the Orthodox world to being trapped in the OTD story, and the OTD story shuttles us back into the Orthodox world we left in order for people to watch us escape it again and again.”
This, of course, poses a conundrum: How can you talk about what really happened if you don’t, well, talk about what happened?
Not telling the story
“The podcast is consciously anti-voyeuristic,” Kalman told me. “The story we’re trying to tell is about this long, long experience that happens largely after Jews leave the Orthodox community where they’re trying to negotiate what it means to have left. And actually trying to form in retrospect the story of leaving.”
In the first episode, Seidman interviews Frieda Vizel, who leads tours of the Satmar world she left. Vizel and Seidman discuss how they each leverage their story for social gain — and how gross they feel for using their lives for fodder.
A later episode challenges the assumption that OTD Jews are estranged from their families — often, they are still in contact, but with carefully set boundaries and unspoken social codes. A third details the way OTD Jews are viewed, and pitied, inside Hasidic circles.
In another balancing act, Heretic in the House attempts to serve two audiences simultaneously: OTD Jews themselves and those voraciously curious about them. Seidman only found community with whom to process her OTD experience late in life, and she’s intensely loyal to that group; when we spoke, she was more concerned about their reactions and engagement with the podcast than the larger audience’s. (That wider audience even includes a Mennonite, who wrote in thanking the team for the show.)
This means that the podcast is peppered with terms most people, including many Jews, don’t know — words like nebuch and references to specific prayers. But Heretic in the House refuses to define most of them. This, too, however, is a masterstroke, a subverting of the usual narrative of the Hasidic escape story. Seidman refuses to bring her story to her audience and their prurient gaze, instead making them come to her.
“The act of translating for a secular audience is part of where the misinterpretations come in,” Seidman told me over Zoom. “What if you don’t translate everything? What if you try to give people the sense of the inside?”
Hartman Jews v. Hasids
Seidman said that there’s “a certain kind of upper-middle-class propriety” which defines most American Jews. Those customs are foreign to her — “Growing up, I like, fought on the streets,” she said. “I remember being on a city bus and hanging from the thing and kicking somebody in the chest.” But they are core to Hartman’s usual audience.
“A lot of Hartman’s sort of classroom setting stuff and their Zoom courses, you get a particular audience. You get like, rabbis, other Jewish scholars, and you also get your older population, retirees who want to do some learning,” explained Gordon. “A lot of times it’s more academic and historical and sociological study of Jewish people.”
Those well-off, educated Jews are exactly who Seidman thinks are drawn to the titillating stories of OTD escapes. But despite being a professor, she doesn’t feel at home in this milieu; this genteel, classy Judaism is not hers.
“The language of Jewish values, the language of tikkun olam, the culture of Conservative Judaism — basically a lot of things that Hartman holds near and dear are stylistically foreign to me,” she said.
She said that in making Heretic in the House, she fought to keep as many rough edges in as possible, to challenge listeners to be uncomfortable. This could have been a risky, audience-alienating choice. But to Seidman, putting secular Jews under the microscope, where Hasidic Jews usually find themselves, is the point.
“The OTD story is not just about OTD people, it’s also about the consumers of this story,” she said. After all, she pointed out, today’s liberal and secular Jews are “people whose grandparents and great grandparents went OTD.”
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