Based on the true story of a young woman breaking out of the Hasidic Jewish community, Unorthodox is a layered story of personal freedom, identity, and faith
There’s a breathtaking scene in the first episode of Netflix’s Unorthodox, where Ester Shapiro, a 19-year-old Jewish girl who’s just fled the ultra-orthodox Satmar community in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg, joins a group of students at a lake in Berlin. Still dressed in traditional modesty clothes, she watches in shock as the other girls in the group strip down and run at the water. “The conference where the Nazis decided to kill the Jews took place in 1942 in that villa,” says one of the group members, pointing at a building in the distance. “And you swim in this lake?” she demands. He responds levelly: “The lake is just a lake.”
In what’s perhaps the most overt metaphor in the four-part series, Esty finds herself in the belly of her community’s trauma, and arguably the foundations on which it’s built – “make up for the six million lost” is a recurring phrase in dialogue, referring to the Holocaust that underpins many, if not all, of the Satmar community’s traditions. Tentatively, she slips off her heavy shoes and stockings – as she physically peels off the modest outfit that reflects the community’s anachronistic traditions, with it comes her generational burden and shame. Esty wades into the lake, in what appears to be both an act of sacrilege and baptism. At last, she removes her sheitel (a traditional wig worn by some Orthodox Jewish married women). It drifts away, and with it, her entropic future dictated by the past.
Whether Jewish or not, it’s hard not to feel the universal emotions that underpin Esty’s journey to personal freedom in Unorthodox. Maria Schrader’s series is based on Deborah Feldman’s true-life 2012 memoir of the same name. Stripped to its bones it’s a story of self-discovery, an individual tearing away the rules and expectations forced upon them at birth. Admittedly, for Esty, these rules are significantly harsher than most. It’s a patriarchal system where a woman’s social capital is defined by her fertility, and when her meddling mother-in-law drops by unannounced, it’s to lecture her on the need to make her son a “king” in the bedroom. Playing music should be avoided so as to not come off as promiscuous, and arranged marriages are the norm.
From the outside, it’s easy to see the Satmar community’s traditions as categorically oppressive, even villainous, especially when there’s so little material to go on. But Frieda Viezel, a former member of the Satmar sect, wrote an op-ed in the Forward complaining that the show makes Chassidic women look as humourless as “foreign Disney-witches in odd costumes”.
“It portrays a community that is one-dimensional, emotionless, and eternally bitter,” says Izzy Posen, 25, a secular Jew who broke away from the ultra-Orthodox community in north London at the age of 18. “That’s not what the community is like. It’s true that there’s lots of suppression of personal freedom and you do have to toe the line, but there’s also plenty of joy, heart, empathy, good-naturedness, and humour there.”
“In the real community there would be much empathy towards Esty, her condition would’ve been dealt with sensitively” – Izzy Posen
Posen was ousted from the community after renouncing his faith, losing many family members and friends in the process. Previously speaking only Yiddish, he learnt English and took the necessary exams to study physics and philosophy at Bristol university. “In the real community there would be much empathy towards Esty, her condition would’ve been dealt with sensitively,” he explains. “When I was leaving there was plenty of pain, tears, accusations, threats, but through all that my parent’s love shone through. This is a nuanced thing that might be difficult to understand, but when I was kicked out from home, shunned from the family, and left alone, I know my parents were experiencing very strong emotions, which included anger, but also empathy, love, and worry. I would’ve liked this to be portrayed and explored in the show. This is a human story and yet it felt that humanity was quite absent in the Chassidic part of the story.”
The show is, of course, made for secular eyes peering in – the community don’t use the internet, or engage with mainstream popular culture. Feldman worked as a consultant for the show, and Esty’s flashbacks are directly pulled from her memoirs. However, Feldman’s life in Berlin is entirely imagined, and follows a Hollywood-ised narrative. “I saw very little development of grappling with emotions on both sides,” continues Posen. “I wanted to see some introspection and grappling with difficult emotions on the part of Esty’s religious family when she leaves.”
As a fictional series, Unorthodox can’t be expected to convey the full range of ex-Chasidic experience – its heightened nature as a televised drama means it’s made primarily to entertain audiences, not inform. Even so, the show includes the voices of many former members of the Satmar community, including Jess Wilbusch (who plays Chasidic ‘bad boy’ Moishe) and Eli Rosen, the rabbi, who doubles as the show’s religious consultant. Posen adds: “The Yiddish dialect was excellent, the wedding traditions were accurately represented, down to the sleeping kids at the mitzvah tantz. The sex-ed classes were spot on from what I’ve heard from my brother and friends who went through them, and the seder felt authentic.”
For Esty, it’s not so much the Satmar community as an entity that’s the problem, but rather, her inability to assimilate into it. In a series of flashbacks, we see her really trying to fit in, despite admitting to herself that she’s “different” from the get-go. Upon her marriage to Yanky Shapiro, a loveable but admittedly nebbish schlemiel, she gives up piano lessons to focus on their relationship and play the good wife. She believes that becoming Mrs Yanky Shapiro will give newfound purpose (it’s worked for others, no?), but it only negates it. As she puts it: “God expected too much for me.”
Despite being born into a secular environment, I find myself relating intensely to Esty’s search for personal freedom, and the arduous, painful journey it can take you down. It’s this universality that makes the show so enticing – the context is merely the form in which these ideas reveal themselves. Facts aside, it quickly becomes apparent that leaving Williamsburg was only the first step in a painstaking process of self-actualisation, which requires Esty to abandon the strict internalised belief system of her past to realise her future. Growing up, we’re often confronted with the traumas of our upbringing, which are inherently tied to our parents’ own lived experiences, their cultural traumas, and so on. It’s only by knocking down these foundations and building up again that we can truly be ‘free’.
We see this most clearly in the portrayal of Berlin and the music academy, a multicultural mecca inhabited by the children of diaspora, who’ve left their respective homelands to carve out their own futures. In The Making of Unorthodox, Schrader describes it as a “post-colonial paradox”, where Muslims and Jews from across the world come together to study the likes of Schumann and Weber. Esty’s unlikely bande-a-part is an international cohort of musicians, who refuse to be boxed-in by their country signifiers – a Muslim who’s gay, an Israeli Jew who shrugs off the label of “zionist”, the only native Berliner is (symbolically, perhaps) an orphan.
Much like its central character, Unorthodox is a show trying to find its feet on a global stage. One of only a handful of Yiddish shows on Netflix (the other, Shtisel, also stars Shira Haas as the rebellious daughter of a strict Orthodox patriarch), Chassidic representation on screen is still gaining more depth, and it’s only natural that it’ll take some time until it can be reflected accurately with all its intricacies.