Law school has had many adverse side effects on me, and the worst one would be my addiction to Diet Pepsi and trashy reality TV show. Gone are the highbrow days of my youth, when my favorite television shows were Religion and Ethics Newsweekly and the Military Channel’s history of weaponry. I’m now a reality TV addict and do not miss episodes of Dance Mom, True Life and Wife Swap.
Finding out that Shunned, a documentary show about ex-Hasidim might be airing soon, made me wonder if I should be jumping for joy. Although I was raised Orthodox, I know very little about the Satmar community, as well as other communities such as the Belz and Bobov and Vishnitz communities.
I frankly find them mystifying. I walk past them in their long coats and their heavy bulletproof stockings and at best, I see strangers who happen to share my faith. As one Satmar woman who I spoke to at a wedding said said, “We know we seem like a cult. Perhaps we are one. But the difference is, we’re a cult that is correct.” This perspective is not exactly healthy, and the insulation and isolation is something very negative that should be countered. Perhaps this show could actually shed some light into the odd family members my tribe has produced. I do believe that sunlight is the best disinfectant and perhaps, this is a place where there needs to be some ultraviolet soul baring.
Felicia Atkinson, a friend and Jewish social activist had a less sanguine view of the show. “I don’t even need to read it. Just more garbage television we don’t need,” she said when she read the title of the article. When Al-Arabiya picked up the story, I began wondering if reality television was the best medium for disinfectant.
No, I am not saying that we should think about Anti-Semitism and hush up bad truths in order to preserve the good name of the Jewish community. I believe we need to brand Judaism as a forward thinking, intelligent and worthwhile faith and that means smashing the skeletons in our closet. I just want to make sure it’s only the skeletons and not the innocent who get smashed in this endeavor. Making us look like fools isn’t exactly helping the brand either, and the participants may not even realize how bad things can get.
Although I may be sounding patronizing, are the participants fully aware that reality television is about generating scandal and pushing the envelope, not about making the world a better place? Are they aware that hundreds of hours of nuanced footage can be reduced to 30 minutes of sound bites? Will a clear distinction be made between people like my parents, who have masters’ degrees, and speak perfect English and go to movies, and Hasidim who are banned from watching television at all? Are they aware that reality television thrives on schadenfraude and will skew the product to get as much of it as possible?
In the past year, we’ve heard a lot about people who have left Hasidism. I’d love to know why some willingly choose to stay? Surely, for this show to be fair, it should show those who choose to stay. We all know why someone would leave repression, but why would they stay there? For the show to truly have any meaning, both sides of the issue should be covered.
Maybe we need Hasidim to join the modern world, but we also need to respect the good that can be found in the community. Only with a full understanding can we truly improve the community. I hope Shunned can achieve that, but I’m quite worried it will turn into a freak show.
Of course, I reserve judgment till I see it.