“Unorthodox” and the beauty of breaking free

by Amanda Landwehr / Arts & Culture Editor

A promotional photo for Netflix’s “Unorthodox.” Photo courtesy of NextSeasonTV.

*Slight spoilers ahead

After binging “Tiger King,” my brain cells were practically begging for some sort of intellectual stimulation — and Netflix’s new series, “Unorthodox” delivered. It’s an introspective coming-of-age story based on the memoir of Deborah Feldman, who details her escape to Berlin after fleeing a hyper-religious community in New York City. Directed by Maria Schrader, this series was brilliantly executed, well-performed and thought-provoking enough to keep me entertained throughout week two of quarantine.

It’s just the type of big, made-for-television drama series that you’d expect from a major production studio, but still manages to feel small with an intimate cast and a tight storyline. The series is centered around 19-year-old Esther “Esty” Shapiro (played by Shira Haas), an ultra-Ordoxdox Jewish woman living in Williamsburg, New York. Since childhood, Esty has always deviated from the rules and expectations of her close-knit community. She belongs to a branch of Hasidic Jews, a spiritual sect that literally translates the teachings of the Torah and other religious texts into everyday life. Esty was raised by her grandparents, as she holds an estranged relationship with her drunk father and absent mother. When the pressures of a crumbling marriage and the high expectations of her community begin to suffocate her, Esty makes the decision to find her mother in Berlin and start a new life.

The pacing of the show is solid, with enough balance between flashbacks and present-day scenes to make the interwoven storylines easy to follow. Throughout each of the episodes, audiences see Esty grow from a skittish child into a confident adult as she discovers her place in the world and develops into an individual outside of the confines of her religious sect. 

Episode one focuses on Esty’s journey to Berlin and highlights some of her reasons for fleeing Williamsburg. By enlisting the help of her trusted piano teacher, Esty gets a passport and flies to Germany with nothing but a photograph of her grandmother and an envelope filled with cash. I would’ve liked to see a confused Esty wandering through JFK airport and flying for the first time, but with only four episodes I’m sure the show creators had to be picky with time. 

Upon her arrival in Berlin, Esty stumbles into a coffee shop and meets a group of musicians studying at an elite arts conservatory. Their friendship inspires Esty to chase her dreams of becoming a musician, but also allows for some compelling conversations between a conservative Esty and her liberal-minded friends. I thought that this was a really nice touch, as audiences get to see their differing perspectives on religion, sexuality and morality as Esty challenges herself to adapt to this strange new world. Additionally, Esty sparks a tooth-achingly sweet romance with Robert, a musician and history-buff.

Viewers see hinted flashbacks of Esty taking piano lessons as a child, much to the disapproval of her community. Music has always been a form of escapism for Esty, and meeting these music students implies that perhaps, Esty has found a new pathway to freedom. With the help of her friends and a generous instructor, Esty applies for the school’s “special training program,” a scholarship that would allow her to practice piano — if she can impress a panel of judges at a live audition.

But, throughout all of this, audiences see an ominous, overlapping storyline: Esty’s husband (played by Amit Rahav) and his estranged cousin Moishe (played by Jeff Wilbusch) follow her to Berlin, adamant on bringing Esty home after discovering that she’s pregnant.

Yakov “Yankee” Shapiro, Esty’s husband, is the kind of hopeless, big-eyed mommy’s boy that I could never fully bring myself to hate. Despite the fact that he often ignored Esty’s needs as a husband, it’s clear that he was influenced by his mother who resented Esty for not having a baby within the first year of marriage. Rahav’s performance was one of my favorites — he plays the boyish, well-intended Yankee so well and shows his moral dilemmas when placed against the seemingly lawless background of Berlin. But Wilbusch’s portrayal of the thuggish, gambling Moishe is also spot-on. The dynamic between these two characters, one hardened by his dark past and the other desperate to find his wife, is nothing less than intriguing to watch.

I could seriously gush about the characterization of Esty for hours. Her funny quirks, fearlessness and raw determination make Haas the true star of the show. The supporting cast of her Berlin friends felt somewhat underdeveloped and generic teen-art-hippie to me, but I did enjoy the character of Yael (played by Tamar Amit-Joseph). Yael is an Israeli Jew and tends to be harsh on Esty for being out-of-touch with the real world. This was especially compelling to me, as it highlighted the tension between two ideologies that exist within the same broader faith. Esty, in my opinion, is jealous of the freedoms that Yael has — she plays the violin, performs at nightclubs and has a liberal view on sex, yet still proudly identifies as a Jewish woman. In comparison, Esty was forcibly bound to a conservative branch of the same religion and suffered because of it. Their rocky relationship is never fully mended by the season finale but made for a really interesting part of the show.

“Unorthodox” questions faith, tradition, self-liberation and trauma in a way that is truly captivating to watch. Visually, it’s a masterpiece — simple ‘70s/’80s era buildings make up the abstract lightness of summertime in Berlin. Additionally, costume designer Justine Seymour captures the distinct look of the Hasidic community with a plethora of fur-trimmed shtreimel (special occasion hats worn by married Jewish men), women’s colorful headscarves (women are not allowed to show their hair after marriage) and Esty’s elaborate wedding dress.

One of my favorite things about the series was how delicate the creators were with handling the sensitive topic of religion. Yes — Esty is often seen suffering under the restrictions of her community, from her unhappy marriage to the gaping inequalities between men and women. Yet, we see the sheer happiness of this particular group — weddings, children, big family dinners. It’s abundantly clear that Esty’s longing to escape is purely her own, as other members of this Hasidic sect feel safe and content in Williamsburg. 

Audiences also get a look into why the Hasidic sect formed in the first place. A small number of surviving Eastern European Jews fled to America before and after World War II and banded together to rebuild their culture and religion. The show depicts the sheer trauma of topics such as antisemitism, the lingering horrors of the Holocaust and the suffering inflicted upon first and second-generation Jewish immigrants living in this Brooklyn neighborhood. “Unorthodox” doesn’t tiptoe around the dark side of history, making the series seem more like a complex story of community, faith and trauma rather than just another T.V. show about a “crazy” religion.

With that, it’s easy to tell that the creators did their research when adapting Feldman’s text to the screen. In the behind-the-scenes “Making Unorthodox” special (also available on Netflix), story editor Daniel Hendler expressed the importance of “getting the details right” when making a television show about a community living on the margins. The pressure was on for the show’s creators to present the traditions, real-life experiences and customs of Hasidic Judaism in a way that felt authentic and inoffensive. Because of this, Schrader enlisted the help of Eli Rosen, a Jewish actor who coached the cast in perfecting their Yiddish while making sure that each of the cultural details featured in the show was accurate.

By the end of the fourth episode, I was absolutely delighted by Esty’s character development and ready to see some sort of charming epilogue. Unfortunately, most questions are left brutally unanswered, and if you’re like me you’ll furiously beat yourself up for watching the entire series in one day instead of savoring every minute of it.

Both the storyline and the character of Etsy herself have a kind of ambiguous ending that left my head swimming with thoughts and my heart longing for more. But this is exactly what the creators wanted the audience to feel — we’re not supposed to see Esty as a romantic interest or a mother, we’re supposed to see Esty as her own, liberated human being, finally unbound of any traditions or commitments to her past. Although not every cliffhanger comes to a clean resolution, I still felt a sense of relief with the chosen ending. It’s unclear if the show’s creators have a second season in the works, but in a weird, conceptual way, I don’t think that season one especially needs a follow-up season. I think that if you look hard enough, all of your questions are inadvertently answered. 

“Unorthodox,” although short, packs a punch. It presents audiences with broad, philosophical questions like what makes an individual truly free, how socialization can impact a person’s life, and what fulfills the innate human desire to feel wanted and loved. I’m so glad that I decided to press “play” on this series and highly recommend that you do the same — c’mon, I know you have time to spare.

9 out of 10 torches.



Categories: Arts & Entertainment

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