In just four beautifully-crafted episodes, the new Netflix original miniseries “Unorthodox,” tells the story of Esty Shapiro, a young woman from an Ultraorthodox Jewish community in Brooklyn, New York. The Yiddish-language drama – loosely based on Deborah Feldman’s memoir of the same title – is filled to the brim with authenticity, heartbreak and empowerment. The incredibly skillful acting and storytelling within “Unorthodox” captures the emotional essence of a misunderstood culture’s traditions and values, making it accessible to a mainstream audience.
This coming-of-age story begins when Esty (Shira Haas) leaves her suffocatingly strict Hasidic community and flees to Berlin. From that point on, her present-day storyline in Berlin runs parallel to a series of flashbacks that start in her youth and eventually lead up to the moment she decides to run away. In the present-day plotline, her community reels over her disappearance, and her husband Yanky (Amit Rahav) is sent to Germany in hopes that he can convince her to return.
Meanwhile in Berlin, Esty makes friends with a group of students studying music at a world-class conservatory and attempts to earn a scholarship to join them there. Music becomes her guiding light as she embarks on her journey to discover her purpose, identity and voice.
The musical performance she gives in the conservatory’s audition is easily the series’ most poignant and powerful scene. In her old community, the act of a woman performing in public was considered immodest, and therefore not allowed. So, baring her soul in song is the most intimate risk she could possibly take, and Haas’ performance absolutely does justice to this glorious moment. As her raw and booming voice fills the room with the melodic beauty of her native language, all aspects of her identity converge in cathartic harmony. She finally finds her voice and understands which parts of her cultural identity she must keep – the beautiful music and language – and which aspects she must leave behind – the confinements that would stop her from sharing this passion, talent and spirituality with the world.
An important idea emphasized by the series is that Esty’s story doesn’t truly have a villain. Her specific Hasidic community, the Satmar Jews, were founded by a group of Holocaust survivors whose trauma seeped into every aspect of their lives, shaping the ideological structure of their society. So while this community is undeniably oppressive to Esty and her fellow women, the writers give the audience ample opportunity to understand why they act the way they do.
In one scene, Esty’s grandfather offers his bleak outlook on the world – that every massacre and act of persecution towards the Jewish people happened because they had made the mistake of assimilating and trusting their non-Jewish neighbors. It’s clear that the confines of the community and the emphasis on traditions, which happen to be inherently misogynistic, were established and upheld by people living in fear that they’d lose their culture in America after surviving torture in Germany to preserve it.
The community expresses their horror that Etsy chose to flee to Berlin, out of all the places she could’ve gone. She chooses to embrace the birthplace of her people’s trauma and oppression as her new Mecca – the perfect place for her to reclaim and take ownership of her religion, regardless of the tragedy that once occurred there. This is beautifully articulated in a scene at the beginning of the series. Esty spontaneously joins her new friends on a trip to a lake but is horrified to learn its dark history. Her friend Robert tells her that before the Berlin Wall fell, East German guards used to shoot people who attempted to swim across that very lake to freedom. Shocked, she asks him, “And now?” To which he replies, “Now, you can swim as far as you like.” So she does. Reminiscent of a religious rite of passage, she wades deep into the water, takes a deep breath and completely submerges herself, symbolizing her rebirth in a place where she’s free to be Jewish without needing to live in fear of history repeating itself.
Another brilliant aspect of this show is the creators’ extreme dedication to authenticity. Aware that they were dealing with a significantly underrepresented group of people, the entire creative team took care to ensure that every last detail was historically and culturally accurate. In “Making Unorthodox,” the short behind-the-scenes episode that follows the rest of the series on Netflix, Feldman explains that she knows the majority of the show’s viewers will not understand the language or the customs, but ideally the essence of the emotion and purpose behind the rituals will be universally understood.
Feldman is the author of the memoir which inspired “Unorthodox,” and she was very involved in the creative process, working closely with creator and executive producer Anna Winger, creator and writer Alexa Karolinski; and director Maria Schrader.Together, this team of extraordinarily talented women managed to accurately represent the Hasidic community without villainizing or isolating them; which is, unfortunately, a rare feat.
At its heart, “Unorthodox” is an emotional and gripping coming-of-age tale. The storytelling is so universally powerful that mainstream audiences are able to relate to the internal conflict of a protagonist who seems – at first glance – extremely unrelatable. There’s nothing simple or black-and-white about Esty’s journey to find her voice and her identity. Demonstrating absolute fearlessness, she makes the painful decision to leave behind her entire life in exchange for a chance to preserve the most authentic parts of herself.
Rachel Golkin is an Entertainment intern. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.