After all the New York Times articles, PBS segments, NPR interviews and memoirs (including my own) about the Off The Derech (OTD) narrative, the long rumored OTD TV show has finally arrived. Well, the show isn’t exactly about a person trying to build a self-determined life after leaving ultra-Orthodoxy — but it still feels like a sample of the genre.
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I’m talking about Tina Fey’s new Netflix comedy, “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.” The show follows twenty-nine-year old Kimmy (the ebullient Ellie Kemper), as she transitions into a new life in New York City after being held captive for fifteen years, together with three other women, by a doomsday religious leader in an underground bunker in Nowheresville, Indiana.
Certainly, an ultra-Orthodox childhood is a different kettle of fish from a prolonged stay in a hole in the ground, but as I watched Kimmy’s unusual transition into “normal” adulthood, I couldn’t help but be reminded of my experiences and those of my friends.
I grew up in Pittsburgh, as the fifth of eleven children of a prominent ultra-Orthodox rabbi. After a string of sins that included an ambition to go to college, talking to boys, and a shirt that wasn’t modest enough, I was pushed out of my family. At 17, I was living on my own in New York City, and in a similar (although less comedic) vein to Kimmy’s story, my abrupt entrée into the secular world made for an accelerated and unusual coming of age journey.
Each of the four women, dubbed the Mole Women by the media, reacts differently to her trauma and I can relate to them all. I sympathize with Gretchen’s inability to relinquish her loyalty to the Reverend, remembering how I clung to ultra-Orthodoxy even after I was ostracized. I followed Kimmy’s path for many years, pretending the past never happened (as Kimmy’s demonic nightmares indicate, this is not a recommended course of action). Donna Maria uses her national exposure to build a business, while Cyndee builds her identity around her victimhood, basking in the pity that earns her a convertible and a marriage proposal from her teenage crush, now a handsome gay man. I’ve never received a gift bag for my suffering, but as a memoirist, my trauma has now become central to my identity, and I grapple with the troubling questions this raises.
I nodded along like a bobble-head doll as Kimmy stumbles and skips into her new world. I get her sartorial choices, even if her juvenile neon outfits are more charming than the ill-fitting jeans and home-hacked haircuts of my first years of freedom. From shedding kosher practices, I know that flash of euphoria she experiences when she realizes she can now eat anything she wants. (Although the show doesn’t follow up with what I know comes next: Kimmy doubled over in pain, belly bursting with skittles and cinnamon buns.)
Kimmy’s first forays into romance are less violent than mine were, but the underlying ignorance and lack of self-esteem are all too familiar as after a few chaste kisses, she declares her love for a co-worker and asks him to get matching tattoos. Later, just as she is finally finding her own delicate balance, she falls for a man in a precarious immigration position. I hope she doesn’t make my mistake and marry him.
One of the most poignant running gags is Kimmy’s anachronistic language (she says hashbrown for hashtag and thinks current teen acronym IMHO is a reference to IHOP pancakes), and her flummoxed expression, quickly covered with false confidence, when she encounters modern terms like selfie. I know how that confusion and cover-up well. I struggled with the language of my new world many times, like when I had a waitressing gig and my manager yanked me aside after overhearing me recite that day’s special: roasted salmon served with a chocolate pastry. “Arugula,” she hissed. “Not a rugalach. It’s vegetable! A leaf!”
Toward the end of the season, Kimmy’s kidnapper, the Reverend Richard Wayne Gary Wanye (played by Jon Hamm) is brought to trial for his imprisonment of the four women. The Reverend charms the courtroom with folksy emotional appeal, nonsensical word salads, misdirection and a performance of the Purple People Eater. He soon has the judge, jury and even the prosecutors clapping along with him, leaving the viewer and Kimmy sputtering in frustration.
The Reverend reminds me of the blustery sophistry I and so many of my peers often faced in our communities of origin when we searched for answers to budding theological questions. Like that charismatic rabbi who assured me scientists had no proof for evolution, or Wendy Shalit’s acclaimed book, “A Return to Modesty,” that promised bliss for the modest, rape and anorexia for the immodest.
There are undercurrents of fundamentalist critique in Hamm’s performance, but the show presents a wise parallel storyline, offering an alternative perspective on faith: As Kimmy flees east to reinvent herself, Jacqueline Voorhees, Kimmy’s floundering wealthy employer, learns she must head west and re-embrace her Native American roots to reach the next stage of her journey. Although it’s only a sitcom, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt presents a remarkable range of nuance as it explores the theme of creating a self-determined life.
There is one glaring discrepancy between Kimmy’s experience and mine: although the show is peppered with dark foreboding quips, Kimmy bounces around her new world in a perpetual state of glee. She doesn’t mourn what she suffered or lost; she doesn’t shed a tear as she faces the daunting task of assimilating into normalcy. Kimmy’s joy would be incongruous for most women leaving ultra-Orthodoxy for a self-determined life.
An idea cannot survive without the language to hold it, so if a woman has never been taught the language of freedom or egalitarianism, the language of suffering offers makeshift phrases for articulating an awareness that she hungers for change. In a patriarchy, a woman articulating and valuing her suffering is an act of courage. Claiming her sorrow is the first step to claiming her life.
During transition, pain serves as a guide, and later, sorrow is a doorway to heal and mourn. So while Kimmy’s joy may look appealing, the power of sorrow, in similar stories of self-determination, should not be underestimated. Sorrow is the fuel of ambition, the marrow of creativity and the mulch of compassion.
While Kimmy’s cheer is foreign to me, there is one kernel of joy in the show that sweeps me off my feet. It’s in the opening sequence of each episode, in an interview that’s been snipped into a music video, a la the auto-tuned “Black Neighbor meme” that often pops up after similar tragedies.
“They alive dammit!” the Reverend’s neighbor says, about the women, spreading his arms in astonishment, his words clipped to staccato lyrics. “It’s a miracle.” “But fe-males are strong! As. Hell.” “Un! Breakable!”
The joy he champions moves me to tears. It’s not a humbling joy, not a perky joy, but a triumphant joy that acknowledges obstacles and crows of the strength of women.
Even for a woman who didn’t spend fifteen years in an underground bunker or a hellish eternity transitioning out of ultra-Orthodoxy, "Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt" offers plenty of wisdom and laughs as it explores the ways we build our lives. And it punctuates its lessons with an immutable mantra: We may be sometimes shattered, but we always remain, unbreakable. Females are strong as hell.
Leah Vincent is the author of “Cut Me Loose: Sin and Salvation After My Ultra-Orthodox Girlhood” and the co-author of “Legends of the Talmud: A Collection of Ancient Magical Jewish Tales”