Netflix’s miniseries ‘Unorthodox’ is a triumph


Inspired by Deborah Feldman’s memoir, ‘Unorthodox’ tells the story of Esty, a young woman chafing against the confines of her ultra-orthodox Hasidic community in Williamsburg, N.Y.

Though Williamsburg is located in the heart of 21st-century Brooklyn, life in the Satmar community feels straight out of a period piece.

Piety, modesty and obedience are hailed above all else – except maybe separatism. Like the Amish and other insular groups, a member of the Satmar community is easy to spot.

Men dress modestly and grow long sidelocks called payot. Women cover their hair, wear skirts to their ankles and shirts to their wrists. Everyone speaks Yiddish. Gender roles are strictly enforced.

When we are first introduced to 19-year-old Esty, magnificently played by Shira Haas, she looks like a 40-year-old woman trapped in the body of a young girl.

Years of stringent rules and a dysfunctional arranged marriage have already weathered her face and hunched the shoulders of her tiny frame.

We are plunged into Esty’s world just as she is planning an escape to Berlin, where her ex-Satmar mother (Alex Reid) lives.

The series alternates between the life Esty fled in Williamsburg and the new challenges she faces in Berlin.

Haas is absolutely luminous as she takes viewers through Esty’s slow metamorphosis in this poetic, intimate masterpiece.

We quickly learn that Esty has dreams of becoming a musician. With a dash of serendipity, she falls in with a group of music students and sets her sights on a scholarship offered to talented performers with extraordinary circumstances.

Of course, her past has ways of finding her as she prepares for the audition …

The movement from the cramped interiors of Williamsburg to the bright, modern, airy architecture of Berlin is an amazing feat of cinematography, if a little heavy-handed.

There’s a strong undercurrent of irony as Esty returns to a source of her people’s trauma to find personal freedom.

The series is critical in its portrayal of the Satmar community, but far from damning. In light of what the Jewish people have endured – “the Egyptians, the Inquisition, the Chmelnicki uprising, the pogroms, the Nazis” – it’s understandable that a desire for separatism and fundamentalism arises in extreme sects.

Great care is taken in portraying the customs and traditions of the Satmars. A traditional Orthodox wedding is truly a sight to behold. And when is the last time a mainstream show was produced predominantly in Yiddish?

“Unorthodox” is a convergence of past and present and a testament to Jewish revival, in addition to being a powerful story of a young woman discovering what it means to define herself.

In one mesmerizing scene, Esty visits Wannsee Lake with her new group of musician friends, who incidentally hail from all corners of the globe. One of them casually mentions that the Final Solution was decided upon by Nazi officials in a building across the lake.

Esty takes a sharp breath. “And you still swim here?”

He shrugs wanly. “It’s just a lake.”

She slides out of her shoes, slowly peels off her pantyhose and gingerly removes her jacket before wading into the lake, still donning her long skirt and turtleneck, which billow with water. She takes a breath and plunges under, pulling viewers along for a nuanced, emotional and life-affirming ride.

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