After finishing Netflix’s powerful four part mini series Unorthodox, I waited a few days to gather my thoughts and impressions on both the overwhelming strengths of this series, as well as a few troubling undercurrents.
Unorthodox told the story of 19 year old Jewish Esty Shapiro (Shira Haas) and her flight from her arranged marriage to her ill suited husband of one year Yanky Shapiro (Amit Rahav), and her orthodox Hasidic community in Brooklyn. After escaping her Brooklyn orthodox community and landing in Berlin, Esty sought to establish a secular life outside of her orthodox upbringing, while continuing to wrestle with the post traumatic stress related to her incompatibility with her past religious life and marriage within the Hasidic world.
This particular series is the latest in a long line of literary and cinematic treatments of Hasidic Jewish life and its unique characteristics and peculiarities, primarily rooted in the conflict that exists between ones religious devotion to an insular orthodox community vis a vis personal license, freedom to choose, and participation in the larger secular world.
My first encounter with such films dates back to college, when I read Chaim Potok’s 1967 best seller The Chosen, then saw director Jeremy Kagan’s fine film treatment in 1981. Just a few years ago, my wife and I saw director Sebastian Lelio’s powerful movie Disobedience, another film that explored the personal and social inequities faced by a gay woman raised within a suffocating, sexually repressed, and intolerant Hasidic community.
In Unorthodox, the heart of Esty Shapiro’s existential struggle rested largely upon her unsuitability for the narrow Hasidic religious life. In Esty’s orthodox world, adherents must wholeheartedly embrace the belief that a person’s social identity and personality are formed only by their religious community relationships, with no tolerance and/or need for individualism of any kind, not within the community and certainly not from the secular world, Jewish or otherwise. Given the strict nature of any orthodox religious community, it was not then surprising that so many films have presented the stories of adventurous heretics like Esty Shapiro.
What made the mini-series so compelling and watchable was that the pacing of the series, particularly the presentation of Esty’s flight from her Brooklyn Hasidic life, played out as a dangerous caper, one that given was illicit, daring, and cinematically thrilling. Because the initial episode vividly presented Esty’s unhappiness and her desire to chart her own life, viewers rooted for Esty as she escaped a community that was suffocating her.
Once Esty fled in episode one, viewers had seen her Brooklyn sect’s intolerance of any kind of individualism, particularly among women within a decidedly patriarchal society. Thus, we knew that Esty was going to be hunted down by determined pursuers and for the remaining three segments, the story turned into a suspenseful escapade freighted by the question: Will her pursuers husband Yanky and his louche Hasidic cousin Moishe (Jeff Wilbusch) find Esty and if they do, what will they do to her, especially when they discover that she was pregnant?
As the final episode ended, my overwhelming response to the series was that it was an engrossing and highly effective show highlighting the power of the indomitable spirit that allows us to break away from a life that debilitates us. And, as Esty discovered, once she did so, it led her onto a path that nourished and enlarged her soul, her sense of community, and her life’s purpose and direction.
Still, a few things nagged at me. One, as with so many recent film forays into the Hasidic world, Unorthodox painted a bleak, pinched, and uncaring paternalistic community. Given this theme – one that Hasidic communities will likely say is bias – is present in many recent film presentations of orthodox Jewry, Hasidic communities, at least cinematically, now seem to be particularly stigmatized.
This led me to do a little digging into literary basis for this Netflix series, the 2012 autobiography entitled Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots by Deborah Feldman. Needless to say, the relationship between the Hasidic community and Ms. Feldman is decidedly toxic and Ms. Feldman’s former community feels aggrieved by Ms. Feldman and has responded bitterly and aggressively to both the Netflix production and Ms. Feldman.
Whatever the case may be, even if the film narrative of Esty is largely the story of the controversial Ms. Feldman, it seems undeniable that making the decision to leave such a tight knit insular community was not easily made and required much courage and will. And this reality certainly came through over the course of the four part series.
I have two other significant critiques. One, the show’s depiction of Hasidic sex life seemed to border on macabre: Esty suffered from vaginismus, a condition that made it painful for her to have intercourse thus she and Yanky could not consummate their marriage for over a year. The sequences with Esty conferring with a female Hasidic nurse were hard to watch. This supposed nurse’s recommendations seemed clueless and callous. I wondered why this Hasidic nurse had never heard of K-Y gel.
But on a more serious and disturbing level, the presentation of the Esty-Yanky conjugal missteps seemed to imply that Hasidic marital relations in toto were akin to rape. If you really think about that, irrespective of one’s take on the inherent patriarchal nature of all orthodox religious societies, this negative representation of Hasidic marital life is an arguably false and pejorative indictment.
Additionally, as the socially stunted and painfully shy Esty arrived in Berlin, she immediately met a group of incredibly friendly and accepting, metro sexual hipsters who took her in and within a day or two, established a mutual bonhomie that had eluded Esty for her entire life. This particular story line, no matter how much we as viewers rooted for a liberated and happy Esty, certainly strained credulity.
These critiques aside, Unorthodox was a powerful, moving, and revelatory story of courage and potential. Every actor in the series, especially Shira Has as Esty, Amit Rahav as Yanky, and Jeff Wilbush as Moishe, gave moving stellar performances. I highly recommend this new Netflix series.
Written by Anna Winger, Alexa Karolinshi & Daniel Hendler
Directed by Maria Schrader
Available on Netflix