Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots

Courtesy: Netflix

There are some shows or movies you binge watch because you’re bored and have nothing better to do, such as “The Office.” Then there are shows and movies you binge watch because you cannot stop watching them.

Netflix’s “Unorthodox” falls into the latter category for many reasons. It is full of emotion, it is an inspiration to its viewers, and each character encompasses some struggle that we all face in our own lives.

“Unorthodox” was released to Netflix March 26, which was perfect timing considering everyone has been quarantined at home. Each episode runs under an hour, so binge-watching the whole miniseries in one night is not hard to do. Trust me, I would know. If you search “Unorthodox” on Google or Twitter, everyone has something great to say about it.

The miniseries is loosely based on the 2012 book “Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots,” an autobiography by Deborah Feldman. Although some English is spoken throughout the series, the main language spoken by the characters is Yiddish. 

“Unorthodox” follows the life of Esther “Esty” Shapiro (Shira Haas) as she flees her tight-knit Hasidic community of Williamsburg in Brooklynn. 

She travels to Berlin where she meets new friends and pursues a dream she has always had: music. Esty leaves behind her life and husband, Yanky (Amit Rahav), who she was married off to at 18. When Yanky finds out Esty has run away and is hiding something from him, he and his cousin, Moishe (Jeff Wilbusch), travel to Berlin to find and bring her back. All three characters face trials and tribulations along their journey in Berlin. 

One of the most pivotal moments in the series, for me, comes in the first episode. We see Esty at Großer Wannsee lake with her new friends in Berlin. She is fully dressed in a mid-shin length skirt, long-sleeve turtleneck, and her black wig that all Satmar women must wear after marriage because they are forbidden to show their real hair. Esty slowly walks to the edge of the water before taking a step in. 

Once she is waist deep in the water, Esty reaches up and slowly takes off her wig, revealing her shaved head for the world to see. She tosses her wig into the water before submerging herself, as if she is being baptized by freedom and liberation. We see Esty float in the water as the camera pans away. 

“As Esty floats on her back in the Wannsee, you can feel what it’s like for her to be both fearful and free,” comments Rachel Syme in a review from The New Yorker.

This scene is so important because it is the moment Esty realizes she can become her own person, and is no longer bound to her community that she left behind. 

“Unorthodox” does a wonderful job at portraying not only Esty’s struggles in both her current and past life, but also showing the struggles of the other characters, particularly Yanky and Moishe. 

Shira Haas as Esty is amazing. Haas does a wonderful job conveying emotion and communicating to the viewer without even speaking a single word. She comes off as child-like and fragile when meeting Yanky for the first time, yet she seems fierce and strong-willed when she takes off her wig, allowing the world to see the real her.

My initial thought after finishing “Unorthodox” was, “How could they leave me on such a cliffhanger?” 

I was honestly mad at first, but then I began thinking about the ending. Although the series seems like it ends abruptly, I think that was the plan. All but one loose end was tied up, the conflicts were resolved. I imagine the series ended the way it did so the viewer can create their own ending for Esty. 

I’m not sure that “Unorthodox” will get a second season, and I wouldn’t be mad if the series ended how it did. The ending really makes you wonder if you are as happy as you think you are with the life you have. 

Deborah Feldman, who the series was loosely based around, was a big part of the production of “Unorthodox,” and wanted to make sure the Hasidic community of Williamsburg was portrayed with accuracy. 

Feldman explains in the short film following the series, “People like me never really had that opportunity. We never saw ourselves reflected back in the stories being told in popular culture, so we didn’t really know how to create our own stories.” 

From casting, to architecture, to costumes, great attention to detail was put into the making of this series. 

“It was very important to us to not just get the look and feel, and costumes and rituals and everything correct, but to inhabit the ideas of these character’s worlds in a way that felt authentic [yet] also heightened because it’s television,” Anna Winger, creator and executive producer, explained when talking about creating the series.

What I love most about “Unorthodox” is the women involved in the series. Anna Winger (creator and executive producer), Alexa Karolinski (creator and writer), Maria Schrader (director), and Feldman were all focused on the authenticity of the series, as well as getting details right and portraying this Satmar Hasidic Jewish community the way it truly is in society. 

Satmar Jews were originally from Hungary before fleeing to New York after World War II. They are some of the only people who speak Yiddish, meaning they are the ones keeping the language alive. Women and men each have specific roles within marriages. Weddings are extravagant and families are tight-knit.

Following the miniseries is a short film about the making of “Unorthodox.” The film shows interviews with the cast, creators, set designers, costume makers, and anyone else who had a part in the series. It gives great insight into how the series was made, and how excited everyone was to be a part of something. A lot of people involved in the series felt that it was portraying something about themselves or something that they felt passionate about. You can watch the full film here. 

“Unorthodox” is a wonderful portrayal of the Hasidic Jewish community in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The series is bound to make you laugh, cry, and ponder your own life and happiness.

At a Glance:

  • Unorthodox
  • Starring: Shira Haas, Amit Rahav, Jeff Wilbusch
  • Summary: A Hasidic Jewish woman in Brooklyn flees to Berlin from an arranged marriage and is taken in by a group of musicians — until her past comes calling.
  • Extras: The Making Of Unorthodox | Netflix; A behind the scenes look at how the series was filmed and what went into production.
  • Rated: TV-MA; Smoking, Nudity, Adult Content
  • Streaming on: Netflix
  • Creators: Anna Winger, Alexa Karolinski
  • Rating: 9.5/10
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