The Shackles of Faith (Series Review: “Unorthodox”)

The best-selling memoir of a young woman’s escape from her Hasidic Brooklyn community is loosely adapted for the small screen. The result: an unapologetic and scathing indictment of the culture.

SnapShot Plot

Unorthodox is a compelling, illuminating, unnerving and ultimately euphoric story about shattering one’s past and making a fresh start in a brand new world completely alien to the one left behind. It’s a limited 4-part series for Netflix, loosely based on the real-life story of Deborah Feldman, a writer who left her husband and severed her ties to the Hasidic Satmar community in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

Rising star, Shira Haas (mostly known for her work in the Israeli series Shtisel) is Esty, the 19 year old bride at the center of the story, in a performance that welds such a mix of innocent longing and ferocious resolve that it’s impossible to tear your eyes from her every naked expression. In the opening scene of the first episode, Esty is staring out her apartment window at the Brooklyn cityscape, looking at first glance like a diminutive Orthodox housewife in modest dress. Her head is obviously covered by a standard Hasidic wig meant to make this young girl appear more like a middle-aged matron than the vibrant person she is underneath the costume. As she turns her pained face to the camera, its crystal clear she has a plan in mind, and her look of grim determination makes evident that what she’s about to do cannot be taken lightly, or ever undone.

No spoiler intended, Esty is about to run away from home. Her destination is Berlin, which at first seems a strange choice but soon becomes evident. Her young husband, Yanky (Amit Rahav), himself completely naive about the relations between men and women, is totally controlled by his intrusive and dominating mother, who attempts to wield her influence as far as the young couple’s bedroom. Because the Satmar community hails from a sect of Hungarian Jews who were almost wiped from the planet during the Holocaust, it is ingrained into their culture that their primary reason for living is to replenish the tribe and procreate as much as humanly possible. When her husband discovers how far Esty has run, the family sends him after her to retrieve his wife and return her to the fold. Of course there will be consequences. Yanky is joined on this mission by his cousin Moishe (played to sinister effect by Jeff Wilbusch), himself the somewhat black sheep of the family who’s got his own demons to deal with.

Upon Esty’s arrival in Berlin, it’s by sheer fate that she meets a friendly group of young conservatory students who ‘adopt’ this waif-like girl who seemingly has no one and nothing: a stranger in a strange land. But once she hears them perform during a rehearsal, Esty’s determination to become one of them becomes her single guiding light, at which point we see ever so clearly – through a series of flashbacks – what has brought her to this time and place, and we understand the heartbreaking restrictions and barriers in her culture which have limited her true potential.

Parting Shot

Director, Maria Schrader went out of her way to present the world of the Satmar community in Williamsburg in as physically accurate a light as possible. But bear in mind, Unorthodox is not the kind of series that goes out of its way to be balanced or objective about its theme. It’s got an agenda. And if you’re expecting to come away with anything but a grim indictment of the ultra orthodox and closed community it depicts (in rather painstaking detail, in fact) you may be better off skipping it entirely. That would be a shame, though, for the amount of detail and care that went into the show. In fact, Making Unorthodox is an excellent (20-minute) documentary companion piece to the series. I highly recommended it for the astounding amount of historical, religious, and linguistic research that went into the production of Unorthodox.

Among the many ironic juxtapositions inherent in Unorthodox is this notion of how one can be a Jew in Germany today? It’s a conundrum that Esty wrestles with at first, before realizing that the land in which countless Jews were sent to their deaths is also the land that has become a melting pot of divergent cultures and religions. And that this country, this city, offers more to her in the form of freedom (of expression, identity, relationships, everything) than the world she has left behind. It’s a brand new start.

Unorthodox is presently streaming on Netflix.

Norma’s Streaming Picks is proud to partner on a fantastic site for Baby Boomers, Midcentury/Modern as well as right here at home. I invite you to go there for more great content!

YouTube Trailer:

Leave a Reply