In his seminal 1939 novel As a Driven Leaf, author Milton Steinberg wrestles with the age-old struggle to reconcile the Jewish faith in a secular world. Set in 2nd century Palestine, the story follows the life of Elisha ben Abuyah, who is raised as a Hellenist by his father and later adopted by his Rabbinical Jewish uncle. After being cast out of his home for questioning his belief in God, Elisha attempts to re-immerse himself in the secular land of Antioch and pursue truth through science. But in the end, his abandonment of religion confines him to a restless state of existential torture and spiritual loneliness.
At the heart of Elisha’s journey toward self-determination lies a fundamental conflict that so many Jews have faced throughout the 20th century and continue to face even today: How can we, as individuals and as a community, celebrate our differences while wanting to be accepted by mainstream society?
While this question is one of many in an ongoing conversation around the complexity of contemporary Jewish identity, there are some insightful answers that can be found in two recent, very binge-worthy shows: HBO’s exceptional revisionist history drama The Plot Against America and Netflix’s astonishing, multilayered miniseries Unorthodox. I absolutely loved both shows, and they each offer disparate yet potent explorations of what it means to be Jewish in America and the world at large.
Adapted from the 2004 Philip Roth book, The Plot Against America finds a Jewish-American family living in New Jersey at the height of World War II, during which they experience a steady rise in anti-Semitism as noted Nazi sympathizer Charles Lindbergh becomes President of the United States. Aside from its brilliant acting, remarkable period detail, and incisive critiques of fascism and nationalism, the David Simon-produced show contains some more-than-relevant commentary on Jewish assimilation into American culture, particularly when it comes to justifying and normalizing intolerance for the sake of social conformity.
The family’s loving but intense patriarch Herman Levin (Morgan Spector) is a vocal critic of Jewish acculturation, fervently attempting to convince everyone around him that Lindbergh is an anti-Semite whose leadership will only ignite more public prejudice against Jews. On the opposite end of the ideological spectrum is Lionel Bengelsdorf (John Turturro), the local rabbi who not only praises Lindbergh’s isolationist tendencies but becomes complicit in Lindbergh’s amicable relationship with Nazi Germany, serving as his Jewish liaison and implementing a nationwide program for Jewish children to live with rural families in order to become more “American.”
The stark divide between Herman’s and Lionel’s attitudes toward assimilation presents an intriguing and thorny debate about how to take action in the face of bigotry. In Herman’s case, calling out anti-Semitism and refusing to stay compliant is a radical act, and a risk worth taking. In Lionel’s case, embracing tokenism and the ideals of secular American culture is useful as a means of survival.
During a Shabbat dinner scene in episode four, the two men’s opposing views clash as they argue about whether or not Lindbergh could be beneficial or detrimental for American Jews. Although both characters share contempt for Hitler and perceive anti-Semitism as an existential threat, Herman’s point of view stands out as the most compelling and persuasive. His ire and disappointment with Bengelsdorf’s hypocrisy parallels to the current polarized political landscape, where, much like the fictionalized Lindbergh, Trump’s hateful rhetoric has both emboldened people to espouse ignorant worldviews and galvanized those most negatively affected by his words, including the Jewish community.
As anti-Semitism incidents have spiked since the beginning of Trump’s presidency, it’s become more important than ever to adopt Herman’s attitude — that is, to be more open about one’s differences, to educate ourselves and others, to say “I am Jewish and I am also an American” when speaking out against people who spout anti-Semitism and other forms of bigotry. While Bengelsdorf’s centrist disposition makes sense in the context of the cultural moment of the 1940s, that kind of temperament is dangerous and ineffective in the current political moment, as it only further homogenizes and whitewashes one’s cultural and ethnic uniqueness.
But even as The Plot Against America frames assimilation as a faulty solution to historic Jewish marginalization, Unorthodox recognizes how assimilation can provide personal and intellectual liberation in different circumstances.
Loosely based on the 2012 memoir by Deborah Feldman, the story follows a young Hasidic woman named Esty Shapiro (Shira Haas), who escapes the insular environment of the Satmar sect in Williamsburg, Brooklyn to the modern metropolis of Berlin. Bolstered by a sturdy, straightforward approach to its source material and a magnetic lead performance from Haas, Unorthodox grapples with the loss of rejecting one’s roots while illustrating the necessary and often exciting exposure to knowledge outside of one’s sphere of thought.
After having lived in a world that deprived her of her sexual autonomy and limited her social mobility, Esty finds solace in navigating secular life with a diverse group of musicians, who accept her almost immediately into their circle and encourage her to pursue her passion for music. While Berlin spurs her curiosity and grants her access to new experiences like ham sandwiches and nightclubs, Esty tries to mitigate the rigid beliefs she was taught in order to pursue the desires she was never able to actualize.
During two spellbinding character moments from the first and final episode of the series, Esty exemplifies the power of her assimilation into the secular world by reclaiming the profound trauma she experienced in her upbringing through her newfound emancipation.
In the first episode, Esty walks into a lake that was once a vulnerable spot for Jews attempting to swim to their freedom during the Holocaust. Esty takes off her sheitel (wig) and floats in the water, purifying herself of the pain of her past and that of her ancestors. In the final episode, Esty sings a Yiddish song during an audition for a music conservatory, prefacing her performance that she was unable to engage in music because Orthodox women are prohibited from doing so. Her performance and specific song choice symbolize the benefits of assimilation for someone who grew up in a conformist and repressive space, allowing her to exercise her independence while maintaining and honoring her Jewish background.
For any Jewish person currently struggling to integrate their Jewish identity with their other ones like Elisha ben Abuyah, Herman and Esty both exemplify a potential solution. On the one hand, it’s important to not let others define or label us and instead take the opportunity to make our own choices. But on the other, it’s just as important to not let others marginalize us and instead embrace what makes us different. There might still be barriers to overcome, but it’s certainly a start.
Header Image of Shira Haas in Unorthodox via Anika Molnar/Netflix and of Morgan Spector and Zoe Kazan in The Plot Against America via Michele K. Short/HBO.