By Anna Lilley
Netflix’s brilliant new mini-series Unorthodox follows the bold journey of “Esty” Shapiro as she flees her Hasidic Jewish community of Williamsburg, New York. The story is inspired by Deborah Feldman’s memoir, ‘Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots’ and seeks to unveil this extraordinary religion.
With its ambitious costume and set design, the series provides an intimate and authentic glimpse into this largely misunderstood community. At times it resembles something of a period drama. From the payot sidelocks to the mink schtreimals, the producers have shown immense attention to detail. It is even scripted in Yiddish.
However, this show is about paradox and while it focuses on the traditions of this Jewish community, more interestingly it brings into question our own modern, capitalist way of life. Moments of Esty’s self-evolution are slow and exaggerated, frozen from the rush of the world around her. For example, when she tries on a pair of jeans or when she applies lipstick for the first time. These are things that we do every day, instinctively. Her nervousness in these moments caused me some discomfort. I felt as though our consumerist ways, our fashions and our shallowness, somewhat violate her innocent character. I believe this was the intention of the story. By using Esty as a figure of contrast, we are forced to question some of the simplest things we do.
However, there is neither a right nor wrong way of life in this series. The consistent split between Berlin and Williamsburg creates tension between the two societies but does not diminish the traditions of the Hasidic world. While the story is about escape, the producers have been careful not to discriminate. On arriving in Berlin, Esty is forced to confront certain mockeries about her past. She may have fled her orthodox world, but she squashes the narrow perceptions that her Hasidic home is a ‘prison’ and that the women are ‘baby-machines’. Her family are not villainised. Ironically, the main villain is the troublesome Moishe, who is sent by the Rabbi to retrieve Esty but is instead drawn to drink, smoke and gambling on arrival in Berlin. It is the modern non-Hasidic world of capitalist temptation that leads him astray.
Esty is not a dangerous deviant. She is portrayed sympathetically, escaping her loveless marriage and exploring an alternative path. However, she always treads carefully and does not expect to slot easily into foreign Berlin. She is almost always aware of her own naivety although she does not allow it to tarnish her confidence. She is brave.
For me, the most striking scene is when Esty wades into the German lake and sheds her Sheitel wig. At the opposite shore is a villa where Nazis held the Wannsee Conference in 1942. This is where they outlined plans for the mass extermination of Jews in camps. Berlin was once the centre of a living horror and her reverse path shows how times have changed. Esty finds sanctity bathing in waters hostile to her ancestors. For her, Berlin is a safe zone.
With the vibrant international scene of the music conservatoire, we see Berlin as a melting pot. At its heart, this is a story about multiculturalism. Warmth comes from peoples’ efforts to understand each other, to accept difference. Even Janky, Esty’s pious husband, strips himself of his payot sidelock, desperately empathising with his unorthodox wife. Romance, however, is not the answer. Instead, Esty’s individuality is the victory in this modern fairy-tale.
Image credit: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2020/04/11/germany-freed-burden-holocaust-says-woman-whose-life-inspired/ and https://www.esquire.com/entertainment/tv/a32109885/unorthodox-netflix-deborah-feldman-true-story-explained/