Netflix's 'Unorthodox' Is Yiddish, feminist and just what we need now
May 1, 2020
Back in 2012, when Deborah Feldman's memoir "Unorthodox" came out, several people recommended I read this tale about a young woman leaving the Hasidic Satmar sect.
I didn't follow the advice, but I should have. It's an important and engrossing autobiographical work.
"Unorthodox" has inspired an incredible new Netflix miniseries by the same name. Starring Shira Haas of "Shtisel," this is reverent and beautiful television.
Haas plays Esther "Esty" Shapiro, a woman struggling to find her place in the same Brooklyn Satmar community where Feldman grew up. Like Feldman, who wrote in secret, Esty has a secret passion: music. Like Feldman, her father is incapacitated, her mother has left the community and she is raised in part by her bubbe.
But Esty's story isn't a carbon copy of Feldman's. It's more of an amalgam of the many high-profile tales of those who left ultra-Orthodoxy, such as Shulem Deen, Jericho Vincent and Abby Stein, who has a small role in the show.
Haas brings a powerhouse performance, and Esty's character is powerful and specific. Yet it's a universal tale found in the stories of Hasids who have gone "off the path"-those who feel like a square peg in a round hole in their restrictive and tight-knit communities. In each instance, for every chunk of freedom sought, there is a price-ultimately, the dissolution of the relationship with your family and the only community you've ever known. That is a heavy and constant price to pay.
In the show, which came out last week, Esty keeps searching for her happiness-in clandestine piano lessons, in a marriage that she hopes will bring her freedom (spoiler: it does not), and then by escaping from Brooklyn to Berlin, where her ex-Hasid mother lives. While she finds a new community of musicians in the German capital, and a way to follow her love for music, it's safe to say there is no way to neatly tie this story in a happy-ever-after knot. There is no place in the world that will be a square hole for this square peg. Just a place that perhaps feels a little less painful, a little more right.
Many do find their place and happiness within ultra-Orthodoxy: It offers them faith, community and comforting rituals. But for those who grow to feel out of place, the exit is arduous and incredibly painful and, in some ways, never truly complete. "Unorthodox" portrays this journey with emotional eloquence.
If you are worried that this show contains a two-dimensional portrayal of ultra-Orthodoxy, let me assuage your fears. Sure, unlike "Shtisel," the Israeli show about haredi Jews, this show centers on someone who rejects their religious community. But the portrayal of Orthodoxy is handled with utmost sensitivity and care.
For a start, the show is partly in Yiddish-a novel choice that feels very respectful and very right. Both Haas and her co-star, Amit Rahav, learned the Jewish tongue spoken by the Satmar community for the show. It was difficult for both actors, entailing hours of lessons from Eli Rosen, the rabbi in the show and himself an ex-Hasid (Rosen and actor Jeff Wilbusch, who is also ex-Satmar, helped make sure every minute detail in the show was accurate, down to the length of the socks.)
It's striking to see a show in which Yiddish is front and center. I found myself admiring the show for its beauty, musicality and warmth. One scene that features a song in Yiddish is breathtaking. And the choice of Yiddish helped engross me in the community being portrayed-a complex one, like all communities, with villains and heroes and everything in between.
Esty's husband, Yanky, played by Rahav, is a particularly strong and complex character. His love and devotion-his desperation for her to remain with him-is heartwrenching.
Yanky offers to love Esty, quirks and all, and at first she is thrilled by the concept. On their wedding day, the exhilaration on Esty's face is intoxicating-you see that she truly believes that in marriage she will find freedom. But it all sours as the couple work to consummate their marriage. Esty feels oppressed by her husband's sexual desire and her physical inability to return it.
The marriage scenes are the most intimate. A journey to the mikvah before the wedding shows Esty dipping in the ritual bath, impatient and giddy with excitement. As a viewer, the scene felt even more shocking than the lovemaking scenes of the two-they entail no nudity but can be stomach-churning because of Esty's discomfort. But intimacy and sacredness are communicated in the show, and nothing feels salacious.
Yanky is distraught when Esty leaves him without saying a word. And he follows her to Berlin-a complex place for the Satmar community. For Esty it's where her mother sought freedom from her community, and where she comes looking for her own. But the Satmar community was started in Europe and re-established itself in New York in the wake of World War II, on the ashes and trauma of the Holocaust. The show really drives home that point-in a way that sometimes feels a bit didactic, but still powerful.
Motherhood is an important part of the show-both the void that Esty's absent mother created as well as Esty's fear that she will not know how to be a mother because of it. It is never addressed in the show, but undergoing the journey to find her own happiness is not only something that Esty does for herself, but for her future children and their well-being. She does not want them to grow up with an unrealized, angry or absent parent, as she did.
"Unorthodox" is a beautiful show, and Esty is a magnificent character. Her harrowing coming-of-age tale is universal, and I feel like many of us, religious and secular, will see ourselves in certain moments of the portrayal.
A show this profoundly human is exactly what we need now, in days where we all feel so lonely and so detached from our communities-and so scared that things will be this way forever. "Unorthodox" reminds us that life is a constant search, that happiness is not always the end goal, and that sometimes you just have to work through some-pardon my French-real tough shit before you come through on the other side.
This story originally appeared on Kveller.
Zoom discussion with ‘Unorthodox’ author
On Sunday May 3, at 3 p.m., Deborah Feldman, the author of “Unorthodox,” the bestselling book and Netflix series, will be doing a special interactive Zoom discussion. Look for registration information next week on the Jewish Federation’s website and the link to watch the discussion. If you haven’t seen the series, it’s well worth watching and then joining the discussion with her.