Series review: Unorthodox
- Maria Schrader tells the compelling story of a young woman in a Hasidic community fighting for her liberation
Among the plethora of European shows centring on powerful female protagonists released on Netflix in March, Unorthodox stands out by telling the compelling story of Esty (Shira Haas), a 19-year-old from a Hasidic community in Brooklyn who is running away from her husband and finding her own place in the world. In spite of some pacing issues, the miniseries directed by Maria Schrader is an excellent story of emancipation, and it may very well take on new meaning in the context of the coronavirus lockdown.
The show is based on the memoir Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots by Deborah Feldman, but could easily be considered a work of fiction, as the screenplay written by Anna Winger re-calibrates and re-arranges various elements in the author’s biography, which makes the protagonist’s itinerary more symbolic and more relevant to probably thousands of women living in extremely rigid communities and wishing to break free.
We see Esty from almost the very first frame of the miniseries. There is an incredible determination in her eyes, and even without reading the synopsis, the viewer realises that the young, diminutive heroine is on the verge of doing something radical. And that she does: with absolutely no luggage, she leaves her Hasidic community in New York, gets on a plane and lands in Berlin, leaving behind her husband, Yanky (Amit Rahav), and the crushing, unyielding rules of her former life.
Esty’s rebellion is not exactly matched by the directorial approach, as the miniseries presents the story rather traditionally by alternately editing the protagonist’s liberating experience in the welcoming, sunny Berlin with flashbacks from the past that give a context for her radical decisions, and even Yanky’s misadventures while following her trail and trying to win her back.
The main attraction of the show is obviously Haas, who deftly navigates the various emotional aspects of her compelling character. A scene in Berlin, where Esty dives into the waters of a lake, removing her sheitel – the wig that many Hasidic women are required to wear in order to be more modest under the scrutiny of their communities – is an impressive symbol of emancipation and liberation. But Esty will soon discover that she has to fight for her freedom.
The story takes its time in order to discuss the barriers that a community, any community, can surround its members with. Yes, Unorthodox is about a specific community and its arcane, sometimes absurd or even bewildering rules (we wonder how many viewers who are not familiar with the Hasidic way of life will google “eruv” a few minutes into the show), but it also addresses how these rules hold sway only because we let them, in this way extending the discussion to any limitations and expectations that any community may force upon an individual.
Even if the story is contrived, and even if it moves inexorably towards a happy ending (Esty discovers family, friends, love and even career fulfilment over the course of what seems to be less than a week), no viewer will regret following the protagonist on her path. And, as so many of us are under lockdown because of the coronavirus pandemic, her fortitude is even more inspiring.
Unorthodox was produced by German production companies Studio Airlift and Real Film Berlin.
Did you enjoy reading this article? Please subscribe to our newsletter to receive more stories like this directly in your inbox.