The Originality of “Unorthodox”
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Judaism has existed for centuries all around the world and with many different sects. Though many Jews are secular, Ultra-Orthodox, or Hassidic, Jews maintain strict customs that distinguish them from others. Now, their lifestyle isn’t the norm. Secluded from most technology and secular schooling, Ultra-Orthodox Jews have strict rules on how they live. Unfortunately, many Americans are uneducated about Judaism. But with a message of rejecting social norms and self-expression, “Unorthodox,” a new Netflix special, gives viewers a glimpse into what Ultra-Orthodox society entails.
“Unorthodox” is a drama mini-series that follows Esther “Esty” Shapiro (Shira Haas) as she flees from the Ultra-Orthodox community in Williamsburg, Brooklyn and heads to Berlin, Germany. Esty, a 19-year-old bride of a failed arranged marriage, is fed up with the closed-off, separated world of the Satmar Jews and eager for a way out from a community that restricts her ambition of being a mother and housewife. Esty successfully makes it to Berlin with only a passport, some cash, and an address and adjusts to her new, secular lifestyle. But her past quickly catches up with her. Her ex-husband, Yanky Shapiro (Amit Rahav), and Moishe Lefkovitch (Jeff Wilbusch), a Hasidic Jew once ostracized for leaving the community, travel to Berlin in an attempt to bring Esty back to Williamsburg.
“Unorthodox” is notable for the flashbacks that are woven into the plot. From Esty’s wedding with Yanky to her conversations with a Hasidic sex therapist, the flashbacks vary the plot structure and give the audience a look into the insular and sheltered life of Satmar Jews. Utilizing colors to depict Etsy’s emotions, the scenes in Berlin are fun, eccentric, and vivacious, while the scenes in Williamsburg are drab, upsetting, and dull. Esty’s clothing in Williamsburg is muted, and the streets are quiet, indicating how restrained she feels. When Esty arrives in Berlin, however, the bustling streets and her vibrant clothing typify her freedom.
Haas is a force to be reckoned with. The Israeli actress skillfully embodies Esty’s desire to fit in and struggle of feeling out of place in Williamsburg. Haas effectively delivers Esty’s emotional challenges, such as when Esty gets her head shaved. A Hasidic woman shaves her head to show modesty, and it is a rite of passage for women who turn eighteen. Haas, who shaved her real hair for the series, tapped back into her childhood—when she shaved her head due to her cancer treatment—bringing depth to Esty as a character.
Meanwhile, Rahav moves the audience with Yanky’s naive and underdeveloped ideas about the real world. As the model child, Yanky conforms to society. The pressures from his parents and peers mold him into a rule-abiding and desperate person, a contrast to Esty. Rahav fully captures how Yanky’s need to fit in determines how he behaves around Esty, his family, and his friends.
“Unorthodox” is loosely based off of Deborah Feldman’s memoir, “Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots.” Feldman also escaped from the Satmar Ultra-Orthodox community as a young girl with the hope of a better life. After living through a dysfunctional arranged marriage, the denial of sex education, and the overwhelming pressure to bear children, Feldman knew that once she got pregnant, she had to find a better life for herself and her child. Anna Winger, the creator of “Orthodox,” recalled drawing inspiration for the flashbacks from the memoir, though Etsy’s present day narrative is fabricated.
Considering the unique culture and experiences in this memoir, the creators tried to make the portrayal of the Ultra-Orthodx Jewish lifestyle as authentic and realistic as possible. In “Making Unorthodox,” creator and writer Alexa Karolinski said that they took two research trips to New York to “watch and look and touch everything [they] saw” and to “meet people who are still in this community.” The production team was able to correctly depict the Ultra-Orthodox lifestyle through the clothing, traditional customs, and atmospheres of the different locations.
One could criticize “Unorthodox” for scrutinizing the Ultra-Orthodox community, leaving little room to represent the positive aspects of the Hasidic community. Many people are content with following the Orthodox way of life, while others pursue a more liberal path. The series focuses on the aspects of the Hasidic community that makes someone want to escape, hence Esty’s departure. But this does not represent the opinion of the entire community, and “Unorthodox” would’ve been more accurate had it provided a character with a more positive outlook on the culture.
Furthermore, the “Unorthodox” ends on an abrupt cliffhanger, leaving too many loose ends. While many good series end unexpectedly, the final episode of “Unorthodox” leaves many questions unanswered. The producers filled up many plot holes through the flashbacks and insightful dialogue, but the last episode as a whole seems rushed.
“Unorthodox” is really a one-of-a-kind due to its perfect balance of gripping scenes that showcase the reality of living in a Hasidic neighborhood and the events afterward that show what the world has to offer outside of following a religion. As the first Netflix series made in Yiddish, a mix of German and Hebrew that is typically spoken in ultraorthodox Ashkenazi communities, “Unorthodox” is a leap for Jewish cultural representation, further adding to the authenticity of the show. Each actor showcases their character’s development in their respective emotional arc while simultaneously defying social norms that resonate with the real world as well. “Unorthodox” is, frankly, unorthodox. And that’s what makes it so special.