Netflix series Unorthodox is bringing the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community into the mainstream – ABC News

Posted By on April 13, 2020

Updated April 09, 2020 09:14:21

If you've had a moment to collect your thoughts and breathe after bingeing the truly wild documentary series Tiger King, you might've noticed another Netflix series that has been trending this week that's also based on a true story.

Unorthodox is a four-part German-American miniseries and Netflix's first offering to be told primarily in Yiddish.

It might not have big cats and a throuple marriage, but it does take place in a world that at times feels as foreign and unknowable as Joe Exotic's.

Unorthodox tells the story of Esty Shapiro (Israeli actor Shira Haas), a 19-year-old newly married woman who was born and raised in the Satmar Hasidic Jewish community in Williamsburg, New York.

But as Esty says, "Williamsburg is not America".

The people in Esty's community are ultra-Orthodox adherents to the Jewish faith Yiddish-speakers and descendants of Holocaust survivors who are determined to maintain their culture, community and beliefs and protect themselves from another Holocaust.

They have their own schools, medical service and police. There are strict rules and conventions, based on interpretations of the Torah, that govern this community and dictate the way people live their lives from the way they dress to how they marry.

At the beginning of Unorthodox, Esty flees this community and her arranged marriage to Berlin, the home of her estranged mother.

There she falls in with a group of classical music students from across the globe, as she begins to explore the secular world and her freedom.

But under the orders of their Rabbi, her young husband Yanky (Israeli actor Amit Rahav) is trailing her, desperate to bring her home, with the help of his no-good cousin Moishe (German-Israeli actor Jeff Wilbusch) who has recently returned to the fold.

In flashbacks to Esty's life in Brooklyn, we see just how cloistered and difficult her life has been.

There are heartbreaking scenes where we see Esty learn about the existence of her vagina for the first time on the eve of her wedding, visit the mikvah that will render her ready for intercourse, and witness her pain (physical and emotional) as the couple tries to consummate their marriage and conceive a child.

The series is based on Deborah Feldman's 2012 bestselling memoir Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots.

Feldman grew up in Williamsburg's Satmar Hasidic community, and by age 17 she was married to a Talmudic scholar.

In The Guardian, Feldman wrote that "as a woman in the Hasidic community, my singular contribution to society had rested on my ability to marry and have children. My role was special and holy, but it was certainly the only role I could play. Housewife. Mother. For everything else I could depend on my husband".

The flashback scenes in the series are all based on her memoir, including her paltry "sex education" and how she had to shave her head and begin wearing a wig once she was married.

Feldman left the community in her early 20s, taking her young child with her.

Series creators Anna Winger (creator of German TV dramas Deutschland 83 and Deutschland 86) and Alexa Karolinski (director of German documentary Oma & Bella) worked with many members and ex-members of the Hasidic community in the making of the show.

Some have disputed the accuracy of the depictions of the Satmar community, but Dassi Erlich, who grew up in Melbourne's Adass Israel Hasidic community, told Australian Jewish online newspaper Plus61J: "It's very rare to see the life that I lived depicted on screen so accurately and so well. It's very rare to see it in mainstream media."

Erlich, who is a survivor of sexual abuse from within the Adass Israel community, also described the series as both "validating" and "triggering".

Where the series departs from Feldman's memoir is in the present-day story that takes place in Berlin.

Explaining this decision in Making Unorthodox, Karolinski says: "Anna [Winger] and I wanted to make a show in which we could work through a lot of the topics we discuss a lot, especially about being Jewish in Germany."

New York Times television critic James Poniewozik recommended the show, describing it as "a story of personal discovery with the intensity of a spy thriller".

Jen Chaney in Vulture writes that Unorthodox "feels right for this moment" and that "Esty is undergoing an incremental rebirth after being shut away from the wider world for a very long time. Right now, in particular, it is a gratifying, beautiful thing to witness".

My two cents: While the Hasidic world is portrayed with a suffocating richness, the secular world of Esty's new friends and new life feels, at times, a little hollow.

There is also a heavy-handed approach to the way the series deals with the reverberations of the Holocaust.

In an early scene, one of the music students suggests that the group shows Esty something nice in Berlin, and Israeli music student Yael (Tamar Amit-Joseph) jokingly replies: "Like what? Hitler's bunker? Or we can take selfies at the memorial to the murdered Jews of Europe?"

But Haas' Esty does redeem these missteps.

Haas is a petite actor who delivers a huge performance her expressive face swiftly and evocatively darts from hope to betrayal, fear and uncertainty which holds the series together, and I quickly found myself hooked, invested and rooting for her.

And the hunched and cowed way both Haas and Rahav play the newlyweds in the flashbacks, dwarfed by their family and community expectations, is utterly compelling.

Besides Deborah Feldman's book, there are many true stories including from the ABC and the New York Times of people who have left Orthodox Jewish communities.

At times, Unorthodox feels restrained in comparison to these. For example, the 2017 Netflix documentary One of Us, which is about three people who are trying to leave their Hasidic communities, includes the story of one woman Etty a victim of physical and emotional abuse who must choose between her children and her freedom.

There's also a masterfully told two-part episode of the podcast Reply All about a Hasidic man using the internet for the first time.

In terms of other fictional accounts of life in an Orthodox community, Haas made her name on the two-season Israeli family drama Shtisel (also available on Netflix).

In Shtisel, the otherness of the Haredi life is superseded by the universality of their struggles yes they live a life far from our secular world and far from our reckoning, but actually what Shulem Shtisel (Dov Glickman) is struggling with is something we can all understand: how to love and how to be.

Unorthodox is now available to stream on Netflix

Topics:arts-and-entertainment,television,religion-and-beliefs,judaism,australia,united-states,germany

First posted April 09, 2020 05:59:31

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Netflix series Unorthodox is bringing the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community into the mainstream - ABC News

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