An unorthodox bid

Young American filmmakers look to finish coming-of-age documentary on US Orthodox kids rebelling in Jerusalem.

'Unorthodox' film 311 DO NOT USE (photo credit: Courtesy/Facebook)
'Unorthodox' film 311 DO NOT USE
(photo credit: Courtesy/Facebook)
Anyone who’s strolled through downtown Jerusalem on a Saturday night has seen them: American Orthodox Jews in their late teens carousing in the streets, usually but not always pounding back beers and smoking tobacco in nargilas (and other substances) into the wee hours.
A number of “Yeshiva boys gone wild” stories have graced the Israeli media in recent years, usually painting a picture of kids sent off by their naive parents for a year of study in Israel that quickly becomes an exercise in nightly debauchery. For two American Jewish female filmmakers, the spectacle represents an opportunity to delve into how the traditional study year abroad experience in Israel affects the lives of US Orthodox youth.
To raise money to finish the project, freelance writer Anna Wexler, 27, and scientist and researcher Nadja Oertelt, 26, turned to the “crowd-funding” site on Monday, and have already received nearly half of the $16,000 needed to hire a professional editor for the final cut of Unorthodox.
The film has so far taken nearly eight years to make. It all began when Wexler was at a Thanksgiving dinner in Boston in 2004 and was encouraged to make a film on the subject by National Geographic producer John Rubin, who quickly became a mentor.
For Wexler, who grew up in a strictly Orthodox house in New Jersey and became secular at age 16, it’s clear that the film represents an examination of her life story and that of the friends she grew up with, as much as the three modern- Orthodox teens the film focuses on.
“The reason I decided to make this film is that me and all my friends, the ‘crazy Jewish kids’ at school, went pretty wild and rebelled and went totally off the path. I didn’t spend the year studying in Israel that all my friends did, and they came back religious and it was crazy to me, what happens during this year,” Wexler said.
The transformation both fascinated and angered her.
“I was kind of angry; not at my friends, just we all kind of bonded on our distrust of the religion and then they all ended up studying in yeshiva and it was pretty crazy, like what’s going on here? So that’s why I was motivated to do this story, to look at how people can change so much in one year and why does it happen so much so reliably.”
Wexler and Oertelt, who is from New York, signed up for a film class in 2004 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology where they were both studying neuroscience, to begin learning the ins and outs of making movies, but also, Wexler said, “so I could get access to the camera.”
They found it very difficult to find kids willing to have their experiences recorded on camera, and in the end, went with three youngsters whom they knew through friends or acquaintances.
The filmmakers spent 2005 and 2006 following the students. The Kickstarter page describes them as “Tzipi, an intellectually gifted young woman, travels with intentions of clarifying her problems with Orthodox interpretations of Jewish law. Jake, a musician, wants to follow the religion but doesn’t see how he can reconcile his faith with his professional ambitions. Chaim, a half-Dominican badboy, undertakes his year of study without thinking about the possibilities of religious growth; he goes to Israel because tuition is paid for by his rabbis.”
In addition, they gave the students cameras to film their lives throughout the year when the filmmakers weren’t around.
Four years later, they followed up on the changes the students have undergone, which Wexler said in some cases were shocking. While filming the follow-up, Wexler realized the students’ story in many ways was hers as well, and reworked the film to show the experience through her personal perspective.
“Parents send their kids to Israel and they pay all this money, but they don’t really know what’s going on even though in the back of their heads they know. We show some of this, which may make some people unhappy. Another part is I talk about me leaving the community and how there’s really no support network for that age and your questioning [of the religion], so these are the two parts that I think may end up causing some controversy,” Wexler said.
“It’s not a warm and fuzzy piece. I talk about breaking away, but I’m not looking to slander Orthodox Judaism either.”
Wexler grew up in the community and has a very intimate relationship with it.
Oertelt, who grew up in a Reform community, would appear to be the outsider of the pair.
“I felt like it [making the film] sort of opened my eyes to things. I didn’t have the same teenage experience that Anna did. The two of us came from very different backgrounds in relation to Judaism and brought that to the film and we balanced each other out,” Oertelt said.
While she learned a great deal about Orthodox Jews during the project, she also found that what she and Wexler were filming, while unique, was in many ways a classic comin-gof- age tale.
“I think the thing that both Anna and I came to realize is that in many ways this seems singular to the Orthodox community, but really it’s a story that applies to anyone who has been a teenager before. I didn’t experience it in a religious way, but I rebelled in my own way as a teenager at 14 or 15. As a teenager you rebel and push back regardless of where you come from. But I think when you grow up in a community with more restrictions this rebellion can be more intense,” Oertelt said.
Those who worry that the film will air the Orthodox community’s dirty laundry or will be a lurid portrayal of kids running wild on drugs while their parents are none the wiser, are missing the point, she said.
“I think as a filmmaker and as a story teller that’s not interesting, that’s been done so many times... The story is watching these kids come to a decision about faith and identity based on this year experience,” Oertelt said.
“In many ways the story we’re telling is universal, and I think that’s why people who are not Jewish or Orthodox are interested in this story of personal transformation in an extreme environment,” she said.