There’s an uneasy sense of calm that runs through Unorthodox, the recent mini-series that dropped on Netflix last week. The first primarily Yiddish drama to premiere on the streaming platform is loosely based on Deborah Feldman’s 2012 autobiography Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots.
It begins with Esther ‘Esty’ Shapiro (portrayed by the brilliant Shira Haas) leaving home in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Hailing from the ultra-orthodox Satmar Hasidic community means having to be religious, holding back desires, even talent in fact (as you see through the four-part series) and making your husband feel ‘like a king’. And this is exactly why watching Esty (who bears an uncanny resemblance to Millie Bobby Brown’s character from Stranger Things, Eleven) is so spectacular, yet uneasy. It is like watching a bird slowly find her way out of a suffocating cage and fly away free.
Deserted by her mother at the age of three (for reasons you learn as the show unravels), she is brought up by her bubbe (grandmother), grandfather and aunt. Married in her teen years, it is but natural for Esty to be excited for her life’s next phase to begin. A new start, as she says. Despite knowing she doesn’t fit in to the community’s rigid rules, she tries. On one hand, she secretly learns the piano and yearns for her freedom, and on the other, diligently follows the ‘lessons’ on being a dutiful wife by a tutor. As she holds back tears, Esty even gets her hair shaved off in a post-wedding ritual, and is regularly (in awkward scenarios) given advice by everyone on how to conceive a child.
- Director: Maria Schrader
- Starring: Shira Haas, Jeff Wilbusch, Amit Rahav
- Storyline: A Jewish teenager named Esty escapes from her arranged marriage and orthodox community in Brooklyn, and moves to Berlin to be with her estranged mother
- Number of episodes: 4
A year into the arranged marriage with a meek Yakov Shapiro (Amit Rahav), and she is still struggling. Difficulties in conceiving, nosy relatives, and a mama’s boy for a husband who asks for a divorce amidst family pressure, convince her to take the plunge. There’s an interesting scene where her aunt talks her down for wanting to stay with her bubbe for a few days and reminds her that it is her duty to make her husband feel like a king. Esty retorts, “Then that makes me a queen, no?”
One would expect her to run away to someplace where no one can trace her, an unfamiliar territory. But she goes to Berlin, the source of her community’s trauma. She befriends Robert (Aaron Altaras) at a cafe and the first place she visits in the city is a beach. In what is easily one of the best and moving scenes of the series, Esty is pointed in the direction of the villa where the nazis made the decision to kill Jews in concentration camps. Confused and a bit shaken, as she decides to step into the water, Esty takes off her clothes, one jacket, one sock at a time: almost like she is peeling off her layers one by one. She is finally free, and her wig goes too.
But it is not just strong characters and performances that stand out in Unorthodox. There is great attention to detail in this primarily women-led series: the director, creator, producer, costume head are all women. From the shtreimels (fur hats), payots (sidelocks), decor, architecture, to even rituals and the wedding ceremony, there is a fineness to it all. A great insight into a community (and language) that not many know of.
Esty is struggling but the thought of going back home is her driving force. She learns she is pregnant and yet, fights for a music scholarship, reaches out to her mother, and is gradually working towards some sense of normalcy. And we also get peeks into her religious upbringing spilling over into her own thoughts. How, for instance, she tells a doctor that abortion is never an option, especially for her as Jews are meant to recreate the six million they lost during the holocaust. It is beautiful to see her experience the small joys of life pictured so very effortlessly: picking a lipstick (ironically named Ecstasy), wearing jeans, going to a club, and even looking people in the eye while speaking.
The final episode brings it all together: her powerful performance at the audition, facing Yakov and his bossy cousin Moishe who come after her, and accepting her mother’s shortcomings. There are instances when you feel for Yakov, who is like a lost bird around Berlin, being pushed around by Moishe who is on his own trip. But then, like Esty says, it is too late. The last scene has her wait in a cafe for Robert and his friends, and it all comes full circle, for it was a cafe where she first met Robert and the journey in Berlin began.