Jan/Feb 2021  •   Nonfiction

Netflix Jew

by Joe Bardin

Earthscape artwork by Andres Amador

Earthscape artwork by Andres Amador

The Coronavirus lockdown lends itself to self-reflection—what else is there to do? And part of my self-reflection has bent towards my Jewishness or lack thereof. As an immortalist and transhumanist, I see our redemption coming not through tradition, but by embracing the future of technological transformation and unlimited lifespans. It isn't so much a religion as relief from the need to identify in that way because there's something bigger than where we come from—there's where we're going. Still, my Netflix viewing choices got me thinking.

It started improbably enough, with the Israeli series Shtisel, about an Ultra-Orthodox family living in Jerusalem. The series revolves around a son, played by Michael Aloni, who is a dreamer who can't get his act together, which in that world means marriage and children, and his father, a widower fulfilling his patriarchal duties while always looking out for a good meal. Several plot lines play out, including a fascinating teenage rebellion, in which a 16-year-old girl defies authority by getting married even younger than usual, to a budding scholar, a tzaddik, all of it playing out with bizarre authenticity like some modern-day folktale.

Shtisel portrays an Ultra-Orthodox community without any apparent secular agenda other than good storytelling, and I appreciated the opportunity to better understand that black-coated, Yiddish speaking extremity of the tribe.

My grandfather, the Jewish educator Shlomo Bardin, born in Zitomer, Ukraine, left behind this kind of Judaism during the Russian Revolution to help fashion a more modern, moderate form. In this sense, Shlomo traveled not just from the Ukraine to Palestine, but from the medieval to the contemporary. I have left behind my grandfather's Judaism by a similar order of magnitude again, and am considered by some to be as wayward as Shlomo may have appeared to his ancestry. In my case, the time travel is out of the contemporary and into the future.

I followed Michael Aloni across the Netflix algorithmic byways to another Israeli series, with the corny title Where Heroes Fly, in which he plays a wealthy, arrogant kid of European, or Ashkenazi, descent, whom his army buddies charmingly nickname "Himmler," after Heinrich Himmler, the Nazi leader of the SS. The army unit fought in the Lebanon War, incurring the tragic loss of their commander, which leaves them all traumatized and at odds with each other.

The series is both over-plotted and under-realized, but it centers on the need for the unit to reunite to save a gal named Yaeli who was Himmler's girlfriend before becoming another guy's girlfriend, while also being a third guy's sister. They have to rescue her from a cult in the jungles of Colombia, and the mission is led by an Israeli, albeit a shamanistic one, who is in cahoots with a drug dealer, also Israeli. (You'd think with all the travel, we might encounter someone of significance along the way who is not Israeli, but no.)

We're supposed to assume that a cult is a cult, and we all know what that is, but having been accused of being in a cult myself because of my adopting an immortalist lifestyle back in my 20s, I don't see much clarity in the distinction. How exactly is Judaism, whether Shtisel's or my grandfather's, or any other religion, not a cult? There's no short answer to that one.

On Passover Jews celebrate their freedom from slavery in Egypt, but in the biblical telling, there is a higher liberation they never realize, the liberation of true intimacy with their divinity. In fact, after the sprint out of Egypt, it's one mediating comedown after another. It starts with the outright paganism of the golden calf, which leads to the introduction of the priestly class to take on the religious responsibilities the people can't handle for themselves. A generation is killed off wandering 40 years in a patch of desert that can be traversed in a week, but the alienation from the divine only deepens in the Promised Land, where prophets are passed up for men of power. This culminates in the monarchy, against the wishes of the deity himself, who eventually gives in to the most pagan of all gestures, a temple. How decadent is our spirituality? Our most sacred site is a wall, not even from that original temple, which the divine never wanted built, but an ersatz version rebuilt by Herod who ruled at the pleasure of Rome.

Perhaps to help engage more with the divine, Shlomo Bardin is credited with first deploying the phrase Tikkun Olam (repairing the world) in its modern American context of doing good to relieve suffering, as a form of spirituality in itself. This has become a rallying cry for social justice and a way of viewing Judaism as a force for reform towards greater equality of opportunity as well. If, as he proposed, the will to Tikkun Olam is central to the Jewish identity, what is more Jewish than advocating for the cure for aging, the greatest killer of them all? Am I not a legitimate heir to my grandfather's vision? Some would sneer at such a suggestion, and have, but isn't the very boldness of his vision taken at full value what has propelled me beyond the Judaism that produced me?

Is it Jewish to question, or to obey? Depending on how one views this, I am either the most dedicated of Jews, because I question everything, or the most lapsed, for the same reason. Jewish identity itself sometimes seems like a contrarian mechanism that regularly generates outliers it can't stomach, going back to the ultimate Jew who went too far, Jesus himself.

The conflict between obedience and independence is explored in the finely crafted short Netflix series Un-Orthodox, about a young woman, Esty, who seeks escape from her Satmar Hasidic community in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Esty, played brilliantly by Shira Haas, who was the captivating rebel teenage wife in Shtisel, is grown up, married, and miserable living among the Satmar. She is determined to flee to Berlin where her mother now lives intimately with a woman.

While Shtisel emanates warmth and a certain good will towards the Ultra-Orthodox, this show features their domineering and almost criminally controlling tendencies. At moments, it's reminiscent of Michael Chabon's alternative history novel, The Yiddish Policeman's Union, in which an imagined Hasidic sect is convincingly rendered as an organized crime family.

Un-Orthodox yields ample suspense as the Satmar find out Esty is pregnant and go after her to drag her back, while she faces challenges in navigating the new world of Berlin. But fundamentally it's a story of rebirth. By moving away from the strictures of tradition, Esty awakens to life, her passion for music, and quite literally, her voice, as well as other possibilities of her personality.

I'm squarely on Esty's side as I'm sure we are all supposed to be—she's the oppressed innocent running for freedom. But I perhaps take her rebirth more personally than some, as I've had my own, also the result of departure. Some immortalists say they knew what they were about since childhood, but I did not; my encounter with the potential of immortality changed me from struggling introvert to measured extrovert, from repressed skeptic to expressed activist, and from jaded Jew to whatever I am now, which is certainly not jaded.

Even just as a thought experiment, immortality is powerfully provocative. Who would you be? How would you live? What would you create? But as a way of life, immortality has detonated me out of an existence that felt used up by sheer repetition before I'd even lived it, and into fresh and possibly unlimited fields of endeavor.

Yet the question of how far I've gone or haven't gone was made visceral to me by a fourth Netflix series: Fauda. Fauda is Arabic for chaos, and is the code word an undercover Israeli unit operating in the Occupied Territories uses when an operation has gone to shit.

At first, I simply couldn't watch Fauda. I couldn't even believe an Israeli thriller series based on the grim and mortally dangerous realities of the Occupation existed. A lot must have changed since I lived in Tel Aviv in the early '90s, when such content would have felt far too immediate and real to be entertainment. Or at least it seems so to me now. In the US, we are sheltered from our wars; they happen far away, to people we don't know. In Israel, everyone knows someone killed in the violence.

But Fauda does exist, shot in a gripping, realistic style with fascinating views into the life, culture, and politics of Palestinians. Fauda showed me that after everything, my tribal allegiance was emotionally clear; I certainly didn't cheer at the Palestinians getting taken down, but I was terrified for the Israelis. In part this is due to the craft of the production, but also my own experiences. I know too many people who served in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) to not feel protective, even if those individuals have no comprehension or interest in my life as an immortalist. Some of them, if they took the time, might even consider it a betrayal of tribal interests, too universal to help in the us vs. them struggle that defines their Jewish identity.

Back in the '80s, I remember visiting my aunt and uncle in Jerusalem at the time when my cousin and his classmates were preparing for military service. One of my cousin's friends meant to try out for this then brand-new unit called Duvdevan, meaning cherry (as in the cherry on top of the IDF). This is the unit Fauda is based on. My uncle, a left-wing peacenik, was appalled at the time that this unit was being established, because of its mandate for targeted killings, which he considered extrajudicial. Such is the prevailing current of Israeli culture that now it's a TV show, and at times, a very good one, which happens to have been created by that very friend it turns out.

The most sublime moments in Fauda are when the distinction between Arab and Jew, blood enemies, break down, exposing the ultimate arbitrariness of tribal separations. In one of these, the protagonist, Doron, goes undercover to try to track a terrorist leader who is responsible for the death of his brother-in-law, for whom Doron is grieving. In a dazzling plot twist, Doron ends up being interviewed for selection as a shahid, a martyr, to carry out a suicide attack. While other candidates are dismissed for their lack of emotional commitment (being a shahid is financially lucrative), the leader feels the sincerity of Doron's anger and grief and chooses him.

It's reminiscent of some of John Le Carre's finest spy fiction moments in which the distinctions between the two sides of the Cold War utterly collapse, raising the eternal question: what are we really fighting for?

Perhaps it takes an immortalist to fully appreciate the ultimate absurdity of tribal war—what can be more universal than curing aging? Still, truth be told, right or wrong, my anxiety spiked for the Israelis, not the Palestinians. I legitimately wore the IDF uniform myself through a program called Marva, a two-month basic training course that introduces young Jews from abroad to the Israeli army, and which counts as time served if you take them up on the offer. I learned how to shoot and, much more often, how to clean an M-16. I liked the comradery but despised the constant, mindless drilling, discipline, and sleep deprivation of military life.

Nevertheless, being a young Jewish male in search of some inkling of purpose beyond grad school and career, I was inclined to join up as several friends would. What stopped me wasn't any deep thought or ideological consideration—it was a horrible heat rash from sweating in uniform, so uncomfortable and ugly I couldn't stand living two full years that way. You might say my body ultimately made the call for me, and I've been following that call ever since. A few years later I became an immortalist, which put me on an entirely different path, leaving me today a fairly devout Netflix Jew, if nothing else.