Posts Tagged ‘Malkah Winter’

An Unorthodox Expression

July 30, 2010

This post was published today on The Arty Semite blog of The Forward as “Reality TV Comes to Orthodox Suburbia.” Click here to read it there.

Malkah Winter

Malkah Winter feels the need to express herself creatively, and she comes by it genetically. The daughter of the late Yiddish theater owner and producer, Oscar Ostroff, Winter has been single-handedly directing, producing and editing Jewish Life TV’s new reality show, “In Over Our Heads.” The show aims to smash stereotypes surrounding suburban Orthodox Jews in the predominantly Jewish community of Sharon, Mass., whose lifestyle Winter, a 34-year-old mother of five, is intimately and personally acquainted with.

After being a stay-at-home mom for over a decade, Winter (who has had a lifelong interest in the arts but never studied filmmaking) picked up a video camera last November and convinced a small group of friends to allow her to document their day-to-day lives. She sees herself as following in her father’s footsteps, telling the stories of Judaism and Jewish life, only through the more contemporary media of television and the Internet.

“In Over Our Heads” is reportedly the most popular program on JLTV, which reaches 30 million homes in the US and will begin broadcasting in Canada this fall. Network executives picked the show up after catching its first episode, which Winter made at the local cable access studio. The show can also be seen on YouTube, where its first eight episodes have garnered a combined total of 20,000 views to date. JLTV has ordered another 26 episodes.

While viewers outside Sharon are supportively tuning in to see Winter and her friends Valerie Frank, Yitzi Cusner, Simcha Weinberg and Marc Hirsch struggle with and openly debate everything from marriage and parenthood to spirituality and religious hypocrisy, their neighbors have been less appreciative. Unused to viewing their community and lifestyle exposed in this way, they have confronted members of the cast, asking, “What is with this?!”

Winter loves Judaism and Torah and wants to share them with others, but at the same time, she says, “I can never just accept what someone tells me.” With “In Over Our Heads,” she has found an artistic voice for her Jewish identity. “I get to break it into pieces and then put it back together.”

Watch the first episode of “In Over Our heads:”

© 2010 Renee Ghert-Zand. All rights reserved.


Reality TV: Sharing In Sharon

June 10, 2010

As we get older, we start to better be able to see shades of grey. Black and white are not as starkly perceived as they once were, and things that once seemed clear cut get fuzzy around the edges. We begin to realize that at least some of what we thought to be true and immutable is not so, that distinctions can be artificial and arbitrary. In other words, things are not always as they seem or as we thought they were – or were supposed to be. And, oh yeah, we also find ourselves from time to time in over our heads.

I so often write about young Jews who, after having grown up completely assimilated or having had a negative experience with Jewish education, are trying to find a connection to Judaism now that they are adults. So much Jewish social and educational programming today is designed as a means of reaching out to unaffiliated or disaffected Jews in their 20’s and 30’s. It’s all about meeting young Jews where they are at and hopefully bringing them closer to their cultural and religious roots. These are the liberal Jews spoken of by thinkers such as Peter Beinart, the ones he says identify strongly with values of democracy, humanism and universalism and are distancing themselves from both Zionism and Jewish particularism.

On the other hand are young Jewish adults who have emerged from upbringings and youthful experiences steeped in Jewish learning, community and tradition. They are the other half of the contemporary American Jewish equation of which the sociologist Steven M. Cohen wrote in his A Tale of Two Jewries study. It had been argued by some that these young people will be the group that becomes further strengthened and that will constitute the core that will survive and carry our people forward.

A new documentary, unscripted reality style TV show, In Over Our Heads, that debuted earlier this year on Jewish Life Television, chronicles the lives of four such young Jews (no need to worry if you, like me, do not have a TV – you can watch already-aired episodes on YouTube). The series has all the drama of Srugim, the hit Israeli cable TV program about a group of young Modern Orthodox professionals in Jerusalem, only with more raw and grittier production values. Unlike the protagonists of Srugim and the average liberal young American Jewish professional, who are all either single or newly married but childless in their late 20’s or early 30’s, the four friends who star in In Over Our Heads (and who also double as its production team) are all married and parents of young children.

Cast and production team members Yitzi Cusner, Malkah Winter, Valerie Frank and Simcha Weinberg

At first glance, it would appear that Malkah Winter, Simcha Weinberg, Valerie Frank and Yitzi Cusner have completely internalized the values and expectations of their heavily Jewish community of Sharon, Massachusetts. But have they really? This is the question that weaves its way through the first three episodes (and likely will continue to do so in future ones). The viewer discovers that things are not so straight forward and that these individuals do not fit simply into labeled boxes. In the first episode, which explores the concepts of niddah and mikveh (a woman’s ritual impurity during menstruation and immersion in a ritual bath), the focus is not on one of the women who grew up Orthodox but rather on one who considers herself Reform. In the second, we meet a married mother of two from Monsey, NY (a highly religious enclave) who regularly goes on all-night clubbing escapades in Manhattan in search of a spiritual outlet. In the third, we learn how these young people struggle with the choices they have made and with the expectations they feel their families, community and society at large put on them.

Stereotypes these people are not. Their lives are complex and their personalities nuanced. What makes this show so compelling is not only its candor and humor, but also the depth of religious and spiritual questions, considerations and yearnings that its real-life characters bring to it. They are often seen on camera referring to and discussing religious texts and commentaries, and each episode is framed by relevant quotations from Jewish and secular sources. God is present and real in these people’s conversations and in their lives – even for those who lean more toward doubt. It is this every-present layer of meaning-making cast over the production that makes it so startling (in a good way).

As much as my age cohort may enjoy and learn from this creative outlet for these four suburbanites, the show is even more important for their contemporaries (both affiliated and not) to watch…and reflect upon…and discuss.

Watch these segments from the first three episodes and see why I am hooked, and why you may be, too. I invite you to join me in spreading the word about the show. I plan on telling people that In Over Our Heads is “seriously funny,” which it absolutely is – just not in the way they will probably initially understand the phrase.

© 2010 Renee Ghert-Zand. All rights reserved.