Netflix’s latest show aims to contextualize the traditional rules of the orthodox Satmar Jewish community
Esther Shapiro is as quiet a protagonist as they come. But her journey from the Williamsburg Satmar Hasidic community to Berlin speaks volumes about the female experience in a patriarchal religious society. Director Maria Schrader provides an inside look into New York City borough’s clandestine orthodox Jewish community and culture with Netflix’s newest limited series, Unorthodox. The show made cultural history for being the first Netflix-produced series to primarily use Yiddish.
The show is loosely based on the real-life experience of Deborah Feldman, detailed in her memoir, Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots. The show’s writers Anna Winger and Alexa Karolinski draw parallels to Feldman’s accounts when writing Esther, played by Shira Haas, during her time in Williamsburg. However, the duo took creative license when creating Esther’s post-escape life in Germany.
Unorthodox traces the sojourn of a curious young woman transitioning into adulthood within the confines of her religion. Esty, as Esther is known to family and friends, already stands out in her homogeneous Hasidic community. Being trapped in a loveless arranged marriage, Esty sees only one solution: to follow in the footsteps of her mother and escape to Berlin.
Schrader explores not only the theme of rebirth, but birth as well. Although she was always reminded to not turn out like her mother, Esty finds herself in the same dilemma at 19. Pregnant and afraid, Esty is forced to confront the new life she is bringing into the world. The comfortable facade of Williamsburg cracks when she realizes this is not the environment she wants for the child. But in order to provide a different world, Esty herself must set roots and grow in a new chapter of her life.
Unorthodox doesn’t castigate or sensationalize the Hasidic community. Through the meticulous details around the culture, community, and language, the audience is given context to the inner-workings of a group bound by generational trauma. Eli Rosen plays the role of the community rabbi, but is also credited as the show’s cultural consultant and the script’s Yiddish translator. As ex-Hasidic himself, Rosen’s familiarity with the cultural garb and daily rituals helped the costume and set production departments. The visible presence of shtreimels and peiyots, among other things, are a testament to the authenticity that Rosen championed.
The show’s scenery bounces between the brick jungle of burough of Williamsburg and the aesthetical weightless architecture of Berlin. And Esty’s attitude reflects the different cities; her cultural and spiritual values are woven into the fabrics of both settings. The non-linear narrative explores how geographical location can change oneself, even in a brief period of time.
Cultural context is not lost on Esty. Being in Berlin, she encounters people and places that remind her of the persecution of Jewish identities. Esty struggles with accepting her new reality that is not the cocoon that Williamsburg was. At the same time, this new-found freedom allows for growth in Esty. In a power scene where she takes off her wig in Lake Wannsee, the audience watch Esty shedding the submissive parts of herself from her previous life.
Esty’s culture shock is not the only one viewers witness. Her husband Yanky and his cousin Moishe (played by actors Amit Rahav and Jeff Wilbusch, respectively) travel around the globe to find Esty in Germany and bring her back. Yanky curiously looks at the new world around him, while Moishe falls back into the same gambling and drinking habits that caused him to leave the Hasidic community before. The two characters together demonstrate the world isn’t as simple as believing in God; the human nature of escapism and greed complicate the relationship with one’s creator.
Music plays a big role in Esty’s life particularly. And composer Antonio Gambale translates this importance in his score for the series. “There is absolutely a study of fragility throughout the score as a whole. But there’s also strength and dignity in it too,” Gambale said in an interview with Film Music Magazine. Despite funding her lessons and Esty’s apparent talent, Yanky holds close the Hasidic patriarchal belief that women shouldn’t sing or play instruments. In Berlin, however, Esty does the unthinkable and tries out for a music program. Questioning of the female dynamic has an omnipresence in many religious communities, where women are expected to minimize and submit for endless reasons. But this subjugation brings about a feminine solidarity, and Gambale captures its essence in the score.
While the film concludes with many unanswered questions, it also ends with a sense of peace. The series doesn’t seek a solution to Esty’s inner-conflicts – if anything, it keeps adding to her personal turmoil. But she finds herself at the closing, having spoken her truth. And if there is anything most challenging for a woman in this world, it is to live honestly by one’s desires.