A new podcast from the Shalom Hartman Institute follows ex-Orthodox Jews. (Graphic/Forward-Courtesy Shalom Hartman Institute)
A new podcast from the Shalom Hartman Institute follows ex-Orthodox Jews. (Graphic/Forward-Courtesy Shalom Hartman Institute)

New podcast changes narrative on Jews who leave the Hasidic world

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 Life” 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, with four fascinating episodes that 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 Chartable, 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 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?

The podcast is consciously anti-voyeuristic. The story we’re trying to tell is about this long, long experience that happens largely after Jews leave the Orthodox community.

“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.)

In making “Heretic in the House,” she said 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.”

Mira Fox
Mira Fox

Mira Fox is a reporter at the Forward. Get in touch at [email protected] or on Twitter @miraefox.

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