Finding Empowerment Amid Orthodox Judaism in “Unorthodox”

Unorthodox Anika Molnar/Netflix

Netflix’s adaptation of Deborah Feldman’s memoir is cinematic and inspiring.

Whether or not you’ve read Deborah Feldman’s memoir Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots, there’s a great deal of suspense to be found in Netflix’s miniseries adaptation, written by Anna Winger and Alexa Karolinski and directed by Maria Schrader. The story is partly told in Yiddish, and other languages are used as necessary, such as when characters pray in Hebrew or banter in German, which has the effect of making the viewer feel they are peeking behind the curtain. However, the miniseries makes some assumptions about its audience’s knowledge base, potentially limiting its mass appeal.  

Shira Haas (“Shtisel”) stars as Esther ‘Esty’ Shapiro, a 19-year-old Orthodox Jewish woman living in Williamsburg, Brooklyn with her new husband, Yakov ‘Yanky’ (Amit Rahav). The series opens with Esty collecting belongings she has hidden in her bedroom and fleeing on the Sabbath – which is complicated by the fact that the eruv (a wire boundary enclosing the neighborhood) is broken, so she can’t be seen to carry anything with her. This is barely explained, which can leave out non-Orthodox audiences; it’s one thing to immerse oneself in the world of a story and leaving the audience to figure it out, but Unorthodox frequently presumes prior knowledge of Orthodox Jewish culture that might lessen the dramatic stakes.

Esty is considered an orphan because her mother left the community and her father is an alcoholic, so she lived with her aunt and her grandmother before her marriage, as is revealed in a series of flashbacks. Here, we see an oppressive world, filmed with darker hues that reflect the grimmer world Etsy is subjected to — she’s always being watched, judged, and told she must marry and have many children to replace those lost in the Holocaust.

Anika Molnar/Netflix

With the help of her piano teacher, Esty flees to Berlin and immediately finds her people. Yanky scoffed at her when they discussed her love of music at their first meeting. But now that Esty’s free, she almost immediately finds herself in a conservatory and befriends a group of music students who take her under their wing.

But by the time she joyfully sheds her sheitel (wig) in a lake – in a moment that contrasts with a flashback scene where she uncomfortably immerses herself in a mikveh (ritual bath) – the community in Williamsburg has already sent someone to track her down and bring her back. He is Moishe (Jeff Wilbusch), a rogue member of the community whose lack of boundaries are used by the rabbi and Yanky to their advantage: doing whatever it takes to get Esty back.

Yael (Tamar Amit-Joseph), an Israeli music student, has figured out she’s an Orthodox Jew – not a cancer patient, as another assumed when he saw her shaven head underneath her wig. “You escaped, didn’t you?” she asks. “You make it sound like I was in prison,” Esty responds, and there’s little in the series to contradict her thus far. Why would anyone want to live in that world as it’s been portrayed? But she merely says “God asked too much of me. Now I need to find my own path,” to explain her departure from her community.

The miniseries makes some assumptions about its audience’s knowledge base, potentially limiting its mass appeal.  

There are a few hiccups with the script that make Esty’s liberation feel a bit contrived. At one point, Esty tries on a lipstick literally called Epiphany in a dance club. It’s just one of several scenes that feel slightly too on-the-nose, though Haas’s performance makes you overlook these moments.

Some of the characterizations lean toward black and white good guy/bad guy, but it’s more nuanced with the main characters. This is especially true of Yanky, to whom the series takes great care to be sympathetic. Both Esty and Yanky are portrayed as victims of mutual circumstances, whose differences lead them to quite disparate responses to their environments.

Ultimately, in today’s climate, any portrayal of ultra-orthodox Jews will have some people nervous, and rightly so. And while it’s unlikely that “Unorthodox” will have anyone wanting to become a very strictly observant Jew, it’s clear that great care was taken in the making of this series, and there was much attention paid to every detail. This is a sensitive adaptation of a memoir of a person who chose to leave.

Overall, Unorthodox is a stylish portrayal of a closed community that few people will get a look into. Although many viewers won’t be familiar with Orthodox Judaism, this tale of female empowerment will resonate.

Unorthodox premieres March 26th on Netflix.

Unorthodox Trailer:

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