Unorthodox just kind of showed up on Netflix (as things have a habit of doing, I suppose) and, within minutes of starting it, I was entirely engrossed in the story. Read on and decide if you should watch it too. (You probably should.)
Over the course of four hour-long episodes, Unorthodox tells the story of Esther (Esty) Shapiro, a young married woman, who decides to leave her husband Yanky (Amit Rahav) and her insular Satmar Hasidic community in Williamsburg, Brooklyn to make a new life in Berlin. Esty is played by Shira Haas, who I knew and loved from her role in the Israeli show Shtisel. Haas is a small woman who passes easily for the late-teenager she portrays in this series. Her dark eyes have an intensity that, along with the set of her jaw, gives her a kind of haunted and determined look much of the time. When her face shifts, often with just the twitch of her mouth or an eyebrow, she conveys depths of emotion and internal struggle. It’s amazing to watch and her performance, which is the very heart of the series, adds layers of complexity and insight.
The show begins when Esty, in the very early stages of pregnancy, sneaks away from her husband during Shabbat. She leaves without any luggage, carrying only those things that she can hide between her skin and the waistband of her skirt, walking away in plain sight. With the help of a friend, she flees to Berlin where her estranged mother lives, and where Judaism has a complicated past and present. When Yanky’s family discovers what she has done, he and his somewhat brutish cousin Moishe (Jeff Wilbusch) are dispatched to bring her home. Meanwhile, Esty, unable to bring herself to contact her mother, meets an accepting group of diverse young musicians and begins to imagine a new life for herself.
Why she’s leaving plays out more slowly through flashbacks to her courtship and marriage to her husband. It’s enough to know that Esty has always felt different. The first time she meets Yanky, she tells him she’s “different from the other girls.” He responds, “different is good.” But there is perhaps a chasm between what they each mean by different, one that can’t be bridged in their limited conversations before marriage.
Esty is different in that she was raised mostly by her grandmother and aunt. Her father is portrayed as a largely absent and unreliable drunk, and her mother left the community when Esty was only three years old. Also, while women in the Satmar community aren’t allowed to perform music, Esty secretly takes piano lessons and listens to opera with her grandmother. When she first meets Yanky, she mistakenly thinks he asks if she performs music (he is really asking if she likes to hear music), and the expression of joy and hope that briefly crosses her face before she reigns herself back in and once again resigns herself to her role are heartbreaking. It is not that Esty rejects all the beliefs of the only community that she’s ever known, it’s that she feels she doesn’t fit, that she’s searching for a kind of freedom.
At first, she believes she will find that in getting married, starting a family, and having her own home. The scenes of her in the mikvah, the ritual bath as she prepares for her wedding, are full of wonder, hope, and release. Once married, though, she and Yanky struggle. Sex is painful for Esty and neither she nor Yanky know enough about sex, or even their own bodies, to understand why. And, there is so much pressure for them to start a family. Later, when Esty is in Berlin, she tells a doctor that she must help replace the 6 million murdered in the Holocaust. I admit I gasped and cried at the thought of this young woman feeling that her body bore so much responsibility in somehow rectifying that atrocity beyond all atrocities. Yanky is not exactly useless or unkind, but he is ineffectual, naive, soft, and unable to see compromise. He defers to his mother to solve all his problems, including their problems with sex, which goes as well as you can imagine. And, to put things further in perspective, it was only shortly before marriage that Esty learned she even had a vagina. You read that correctly. Like all of the series, the scenes about their marriage are intimate and difficult to watch while still being humanizing and empathetic.
The story is loosely based on Deborah Feldman’s autobiography called Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots, but of course it also tells the story of so many ultra-Orthodox Jews who felt out of place in their community and chose to leave. Jeff Wilbusch, who plays Yanky’s cousin Moishe, grew up in a Satmar community before leaving as an adult. And, while the show is about the act of rejecting the ultra-orthodox life, it still manages to treat the community with gentleness, respect, and care. (Though I can’t say one way or the other if they would agree). The creators (almost all of whom are women, just by the way) took great care in making sure they were accurate in their portrayals of clothing, religious ceremonies, and even language, using both English and Yiddish, which is unusual (and extremely exciting). The entire series has a warmth to it that makes everyone, from those characters you like to those you hate, feel human and flawed and complex. Choices, even choices as stark as the ones Esty is making, are not laid out as good or bad, but are given more nuance and complexity.
Look, there’s much more I want to say about this series. Like that I felt some of the parts in Berlin were too simplistic. It seemed to be too easy for her to slip into that life, to find the right connections, and to move forward. But I understand that with just four episodes, some things need to be compressed. Or how beautiful I found this series to be. There is a part, which you can see in the trailer, when Esty removes her marriage wig and drops it into the water. There’s a tiny hesitation before she just lets it drop and float away that communicates so much, and it’s beautiful. And another part when she and Yanky meet for the first time. They sit stiffly across a dining room table from each other, both the chairs are covered in plastic and the table is wide and long and empty. Behind Yanky is a frosted glass door that leads into the kitchen. As Esty and Yanky awkwardly speak, we see the outlines of women moving back and forth behind the door, one or the other stopping now and then to peer out at the couple. It’s the attention to these kinds of details, both external and internal, that make Unorthodox so beautiful and captivating to watch. And there is something universal in its story of seeking a personal truth, in letting go of something you love in order to find greater freedom, in trusting that the right community exists somewhere for all of us.
Please note that in episode 3 (around the 43 minute mark) there is an extended scene with intense strobe lights.