Netflix TV series review: 'Unorthodox'

May 16, 2020

THE various streaming networks have provided us with so much TV content these days and there’s never been such a flood of original content available today. There are just too many shows to choose from. 

So how do you know which won is worth watching? You don’t. In our case, we start a series and after one or two episodes and it’s not clicking with us, we dump it and move on to the next one on our list. 

One series that truly impressed us is ‘Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots’. It is a new mini-series on Netflix and we thoroughly enjoyed it, based on the 2012 memoir of Deborah Feldman with the same title. She was born and raised in the Hasidic Satmar sect in the suburb of Williamsburg in Brooklyn, New York,  a Jewish religious group noted for its strict conservatism and social isolation. 

Hasid means piety and most of its adherents now reside in Israel and the U.S. where they migrated and maintain their old fashioned traditions and their own Hasidic language, with English as their second language. They remind us of the Amish, who were featured in the 1985 Harrison Ford movie, “Witness”. These are Protestants who were persecuted in Europe so they moved to the U.S. maintaining their traditional 19th century way of life. 

They live mostly in Pennsylvania and use their own German dialect. There’s another religious group we met called the Mennonites that belong to the Anabaptist church and were also persecuted in Europe so they migrated, now mostly in Canada.

“Unorthodox” is only inspired by Feldman’s book and it’s totally different from what happened to her.  But the gist of a young woman rebelling from the rigid confines of the religion she grew up in remains. The lead character is now named Esther or Esty (played by petite Israeli actress Shira Haas.) 

The four-episode series starts with her escaping from their tightly knit community in New York during their Sabbath rituals and flying to Berlin where her mom (who also escaped from their family before) now lives. Creator Anna Winger and Director Maria Schrader somehow manage to transform her story into a thriller about an oppressed young wife seeking emancipation and an expression of her own individuality, and the efforts of the men around her to stop her, led by her husband Yanky (Amit Rahav.) They also succeed in injecting the shadow of the Holocaust into the series.

Esty has no previous experience in the world outside of their exclusive community, so going to an entirely new city like Berlin makes her a fish out of water. She first goes to her mom’s apartment but she wasn’t there so Esty wanders around to explore and forays into the Berlin Music Conservatory where she is enthralled by music students who are rehearsing for a concert. 

She’s familiar with classical music because of her grandparents who raised her, but it’s the first time she hears it being played live by an orchestra and she’s blown away. It’s good the music students are very friendly and even ask her to join them swimming in a nearby lake, where her experience of soaking in the water as she removes her wig, proves to be cathartic. 

Through her new pals, she discovers the pleasures of friendship and also art and music. She even applies for a music scholarship, first as a pianist, but it turns out she’s destined for something else.

The scenes in Berlin are intertwined with flashbacks of Esty’s past life. How like traditional brides in their community is betrothed by a matchmaker. At 18, her marriage to Yanky, who she doesn’t even know, is arranged. 

The whole ritual of the matchmaking, how a bride is meticulously prepared for the wedding (she takes the ritual cleansing called mikveh and her head is totally shaved) plus all the lavish details of the actual Jewish wedding ceremony are shown in the series. It will remind you of Tevye and his family in the heartwarming musical, “Fiddler on the Roof”.

In their religion, the wife is expected to be totally submissive to her husband and treat him like a king. Her duty is to get pregnant right away, but they have difficulty doing it as Esty cries out in pain every time Yanky tries to penetrate her. The sex act is done without any romantic embellishment, no kissing, no foreplay (echoes of “The Handmaid’s Tale”) and they are both fully clothed with a blanket even covering them at that. 

After so long and so much pressure on her by Yanky’s family, Esty decides to endure all the pain and Yanky succeeds to consummate their marriage. They did it only one time and Yanky is not happy. He later tells Esty he wants to divorce her, not knowing that at that time, she is about to tell him that she is already pregnant. This is the final trigger that makes Esty decide to leave him and escape to Berlin, where she finds romance in the arms of a handsome German musician. 

Back in New York, Yanky learns she’s pregnant and their community orders him to go to Berlin to get her back. Asked to accompany him is his more worldly cousin, Moishe (Jeff Willbusch), who once tried to escape from their religion before. Moishe is a gambling addict, chain smokes, owns a smart phone (forbidden in their religion) and, in Berlin, tries to match Yanky with a prostitute. He provides the suspense in the story and tells Yanky: “On the road, there is a different Torah.”

In all fairness to Yanky, he seems genuinely concerned for Esty. He just doesn’t know how to deal with women any better as he just moves upon the demands of his domineering mother and their traditions. There’s part of your heart that wishes he and Esty would somehow reconcile, but at the back of your mind, you realize it’s a point of no return for Esty now that she has found a brave new world. When they finally meet again in Berlin, what follows is a heartbreaking scene as Esty tells Yanky about her final decision. 

The series is admirable in showing us the intricacies of Hasidic religious life which is imbued with centuries of tradition. But you know right away, starting with that scene of the Passover dinner, that Esty is different and she herself admits it. She’s basically a free spirit who will wilt within the confines to rigid religion where she can never find her own place, just like her mother who also stood up to religious authority after her dad proved to be a drunkard.

The whole series works because of Shira Haas’ persuasive and moving portrayal as Esty, investing it with so much authenticity and intensity.  She reminds us of Jean Seberg when she was introduced by Otto Preminger as Joan of Arc and went on to star in “Bonjour Tristesse”. The movie uses mainly the Hasidic language or Yiddish, with English subtitles.  We want to stress that it doesn’t necessarily repudiates Hasidism, but just shows how tradition and an insular subculture that turn their backs on the world around them cannot just prevent a young woman’s desire to liberate herself from a life of servitude and submission to create a new world, on her own terms.