I owe a big thank you to Susie Essman. Yes, you read right—Susie Essman, the vulgar fouled mouthed comedienne now staring in the forthcoming Hallmark Hall of Fame documentary “Loving Leah.” Its not because she makes me laugh—believe me, she doesn’t, but Essman reminds me of why I am here and why I want to stay with Yiddishkeit.
When I first started thinking about writing this column, I felt flooded with self pity about how painful my teshuva journey has been. All kinds of unpleasant memories came back— my son being rejected from a yeshiva, my daughter being insulted by the Bais Yaacov principal, my other son getting potsched by his rebbe . No, the frum world hasn’t turned out to be heilige Disneyland I was, in my foolish naiveté searching for not now, but then I watched the YouTube clip of Susie Essman’s interview on the View.
In case you’ve been living Meah Shearim ( probably not a bad choice but then you wouldn’t be online would you) or in a cave, Essman is the star of the television drama “Loving Leah,” the latest media attempt to portray our people are bizarre primitives. “Loving Leah” is actually the story of —get this—a “modern thinking” Hassidic woman, a Lubavitcher ( no, not of the Rivkah Holzberg O”H ilk) who by a strange quirk of circumstance engages in a Levirate Marriage (yibum) with her late husbands secular brother.
And of course, , rather than the brother in law turned husband discovering the delights of the religious life, (that would have been the Artscroll plot) the opposite takes place, with lovely Leah letting her hair down and learning just how lovely it is to be secular, well maybe not quite secular but certainly a little less far frumped than she had been because being too frum is just, well, uncool, almost un-American.
Does everybody read the subplot? We , the uncompromising orthodox, the bnai aliya those of us who see our lives as a pursuit of holiness are a subversive group. Our culture is antithetical to the American way of life (the pursuit of happiness through whichever means suits you) and we need to be put in our place ie: made to seem ridiculous. That is what ‘Loving Leah” is all about..
Essman who plays Leah’s super frummed out (read crazy fanatic extremist Taliban) the mother who objects to this marriage comes across as stiff and uncool and badly out of step with core American values— for example she wants her daughter to get married and have kids rather than go to college.
When she asks her potential son in law whether he belongs to a shul he shakes his head, but he adds, “I do belong to a gym.” This is intended as a witticism but it sounds dangerously close to the Chanukah tale.
On the notorious “View” interview, Essman carried this one step further mocking the concept of hair covering shaking her head and screaming out. “I can’t imagine any man being turned on by my hair.” Note that Essman herself is one of our tribe As they say, there is no anti Semite like a Jewish anti Semite..
. When asked what she learned about Hassidic woman her answer was, “that they don’t dress very well.” Well what is dressing well? Looking sexy no doubt, given the come hither look adopted by Essman and all the panel members with the exception of the androgynously attired Whoopi Goldberg.
Another panelist noted, in case we hadn’t thought of this, that the orthodox were like the Muslims in their preoccupation (read neurotic obsession) with covering up. One wonders whether they think we wear suicide packs too?
When asked on the “View” to describe the mental process she used to “get into” the role of an uptight Chassidic mother role Essman quipped .”I just imagined my own daughter marrying a right wing republican” at which point entire panel broke into laughter.
There you have it, on prime time TV, a major star suggesting that adherence to the mitzvos is analogous to espousing unhip, atavistic and even proto fascist political views.
I haven’t heard that the ADL or the ACLU have taken to the barricades against Essman. Maybe they will but I doubt it. What I can say though is that on a personal level, Essman has brought my blood to a rousing boil and reminding me that I belong here, in the frum camp despite all of its imperfections. I and all the rest of us frummers are the children of Avraham Avinu, the original contrarian who stood on one side of the river while all of civilization stood on the other. And we are still standing there 3000 years later . It is people like Susie Essman who make sure we don’t forget it.