Illustrations by Hannah Robinson
It was nearly a year ago that William Finn’s musical Falsettos made its debut in UK theatres. The protagonist’s self-deprecating humour and sporadic neuroticism were clearly very Jewish. The UK version, however, differed from the original. Jewish voices were entirely absent. Surely a play attempting to depict the intricacies of the Jewish personality could not possibly have an entirely non-Jewish production team and cast? This one did. Outraged Jews, once again, had to jump to their own rescue by signing an open letter addressing the lack of Jewish representation. Its iconic opening song ‘Four Jews in a Room Bitching’ became ‘No Jews in a Room Bitching’.
The production company’s seemingly indifferent response to the issue only fuelled our fears. If Jewish voices can be absent from a production about Jewishness, are we destined to feel unrepresented or simply invisible not just in theatre, but in every realm of life too? A production so heavily concerned with identity, both Jewish and sexual, should have been incredibly cautious about misrepresentation. After all, the production’s homosexual protagonist Marvin was played by a gay man, Daniel Boys. Could the same courtesy not have been extended to potential Jewish actors? It is undeniable that the production would have only benefitted from incorporating first-hand Jewish perspectives.
Once again Jewish narratives have entered the mainstream. Many dramas and documentaries have recently been released attempting to shed light on Hasidic Judaism, a subgroup of the ultra-Orthodox community. Amongst the most popular has been Netflix’s Unorthodox, a loosely based fictionalisation of Deborah Feldman’s memoir, which follows the plight of Esty, a young Jewish woman who attempts to escape the ultra-Orthodox community in Williamsburg. This show was created by a mostly Jewish production team and cast, but yet again they attempted to depict a community that hardly any of the producers had direct experiences in.
The heartless, and at times cruel, nature of some of the ultra-Orthodox characters both dehumanises them and undermines their experiences, mainly for the sake of dramatic effect. Although Jewish people may be looking for greater representation, portraying them as morally corrupt and cold-hearted does not give us what we are searching for. Not only does it increase our frustrations but foregrounds our anxieties that we are forever doomed to feel invisible or to be villainised in television shows and theatre. It is the paradox of the Jews that we are constantly caught in these liminal spaces, seeking a distinct identity, but feeling as though none are adequate.
Whilst I cannot deny the entertainment factor of the show, or the talent of some of the main cast, what we should instead be striving for when looking for greater representation is authenticity and diversity. Without it, we allow negative stereotypes to run riot. We feed the idea that religion is inherently oppressive. The Satmar community may be repressive to some, as it was for Esty, but for others it provides community and meaning in a world of uncertainty. To watch without scepticism and accept its inaccuracies as necessary and justified for the sake of entertainment is to become a bystander to the villainization of Jewish life and religion in general. Unorthodox speaks for a minority in the Hasidic community, and the Hasidic community only represents approximately 5% of the Jewish population. One of Us, another documentary on Netflix, gives a much more honest portrayal of people’s first-hand experiences of Hasidic Judaism. All in all, Jewish people deserve better than having their experiences side-lined or represented as villainous.