Unorthodox: a thrilling story of rebellion and freedom from New York to Berlin – The Guardian

Posted By on April 19, 2020

There is one indelible scene in Unorthodox that will stick in your memory long after youve finished watching the four-part miniseries.

Esty, a 19-year-old Hasidic Jew, has escaped from the constrictions of married life and her ultra-conservative community in Williamsburg and fled to Berlin. There she befriends some music students. This being modern, hip Berlin, the students are worldly, diverse and nonchalantly progressive.

They invite her on a trip to a lake in Wannsee. Once there, they strip off unselfconsciously and jump into the water.

Esty, though, stands tentatively on the shore before taking off a jumper and stepping out of flesh-coloured stockings. She walks, still almost fully clothed, into the lake and then she takes off her wig, revealing her shaved head. The wig is a sheitel, worn by Orthodox Jewish women after marriage. She chucks the wig into the water and floats on her back. Its a scene reminiscent of a Christian baptism, but instead of joining a flock she is leaving one. A liberation of sorts has taken place.

This Netflix miniseries is adapted from Deborah Feldmans 2012 memoir Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots. Feldman was raised in the Satmar sect of Williamsburg and escaped an arranged marriage at the age of 19 while pregnant with her first child, eventually resettling in Germany.

For Esty, as presumably for Feldman, Berlin represents a chance at a new life and freedom. Esty is resourceful enough to flee there with papers from her grandparents, to find shelter, make friends, and ultimately secure an audition at a prestigious music school. All of this is remarkable when juxtaposed against her backstory, told through flashbacks.

But as in the case of any good drama, the stakes are raised when her husband, Yanky (Amit Rahav), and his thuggish cousin arrive with the plan to bring her back to New York and the community. Complicating matters is the discovery by Yanky that Esty might be pregnant with his child.

The story of rebellion and freedom then takes on the pace and aspect of a thriller as the men close in on the runaway. But its focus thanks to a mesmerising lead performance by 24-year-old Israeli actress Shira Haas is Estys own coming of age story. Who is she outside her community? How will she survive? Haas is outstanding. Physically tiny, like a child, the viewer is immediately protective of her. But as the episodes unfold she is shown to have a spine of steel.

For those of us fascinated by closed religious communities, the insights into the Satmar community is fascinating. The scenes of Unorthodox that take place in Williamsburg are mostly performed in Yiddish. Estys life in Berlin is an interesting contrast to the rigid parameters of her life in Williamsburg. The series presents Berlin and Williamsburg as a sort of binary: freedom versus restriction, hedonism versus conservatism, transience versus permanence. In Berlin, Esty frequents coffee shops and nightclubs, revels in the spaciousness and freedom of the citys large parks and public spaces, but there are reminders everywhere, too, of the citys Nazi past.

What Unorthodox doesnt really explore is the positive side to clan, community, tradition and belonging that occur in closed religious communities. Although massively restrictive, surely many Hasidic Jews must get strength and a sense of belonging from their faith and their community? Instead the story like Esty seems to privilege individualism, freedom and free will over the submersion of individuality into a larger, and possibly more cohesive, communal and spiritual life.

But this is also partly what makes the series so compelling. Explaining to her new friends in Berlin why she fled, Esty says: God expected too much of me. Now I need to find my own path.

The tension and the joy in this excellent series is watching her do it.

Unorthodox is now streaming on Netflix in Australia

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Unorthodox: a thrilling story of rebellion and freedom from New York to Berlin - The Guardian

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