The first scene in ‘Unorthodox’ shows a broken wire, dangling from its fence post. The fence is an ‘eruv’, a symbolic extension of the home for practicing Jews, marking out the domain where they are allowed to carry essential items on the Sabbath. Yet an eruv also acts as an enclosure, and for Orthodox Jews to step outside of this parameter is a violation of the holy day. It thus seems no coincidence that the broken eruv in the opening scene of ‘Unorthodox’ foreshadows Esty’s escape from her Hasidic Jewish community in Williamsburg, New York. The figurative walls have enclosed her so far, and the gap in the eruv becomes an opportune symbol for her escape.
Inspired by Deborah Feldman’s 2012 autobiography, ‘Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots’, the 4-part Netflix series charts the heroine Esty’s flight from life in an oppressive Orthodox Jewish community in Williamsburg to her arrival and following adventures in secular Berlin. Magnificently played by Israeli actress Shira Haas, we are guided through Esty’s repatriation to Berlin as she steps into the very location of her community’s past trauma. Getting a taxi from the airport, possessionless and frightened, Esty’s tear-filled eyes gaze out of the window and land on the the Victory Column. A monument to German militarism, allusions to Germany’s Nazi past are abundant in the series and this then sheds light on the complex situation we find our protagonist in: A Jewish woman seeking liberation in a city where such liberation has historically been vehemently denied.
Yet the series also presents Berlin as progressive. It is a melting pot of different races and cultures, where individualism takes precedence over any sense of community. The expansive space of the Wannsee lake, where Esty visits with her new music college friends, presents a stark contrast to the dim and claustrophobic apartments of her past in Williamsburg. As her friends strip off and run into the waters in their bikinis, Esty watches with a mix of incredulity and curiosity. After a few moments of reflection, she removes her flesh-coloured tights and tentatively wades into the waters almost fully clothed. In perhaps the series’ most powerful scene, Esty peels off her sheitel, a wig worn by Orthodox married Jewish women, and drops it into the water to drift away. Her shaven head bared, we witness the process of Esty physically shedding her Orthodox past, her sheitel having constituted an identity that was constructed for her rather than it being her own. The Wannsee waters perform a kind of cleansing for Esty: a purging of her past life and the beginning of her journey towards self-discovery.
Directed by Maria Schrader and written by Anna Winger, Alexa Karolinski and Daniel Hendler, ‘Unorthodox’ turns into a coming of age story as Esty searches to find her identity, which has until now been suppressed by her unyielding past. The narrative is interwoven with flashbacks to scenes performed in Yiddish, revealing the lead up and subsequent decay of Esty in her unhappy arranged marriage to fellow Orthodox Jew Yanky Shapiro (Amit Rahav). In the present, Yanky, accompanied by his extremely unpleasant cousin Moishe Lefkovitch (Jeff Wilbusch) chase Esty down, the urgency heightened by the belief that she is pregnant with Yanky’s child.
In one of the final scenes, Esty auditions for a scholarship at a prestigious music school in Berlin. Unable to sing in her Satmar community because it is considered immodest, Esty performs ‘Mi Bon Siach’, a Hebrew song traditionally sung at Jewish weddings by the male family members. This very song was chorused at Esty and Yanky’s wedding, while Esty was quite literally being led blind to the chuppah before the official ceremony (a bride’s face is veiled by a badeken in a traditional Jewish marriage ceremony). By performing this song, Esty is rewriting her past of subjugation and transforming it into her own empowerment. She is reclaiming back her voice, a voice that had been suppressed in her marriage by expectations in her community that a women’s role is to procreate and seemingly achieve little more. Shira Haas’ performance here is breathtaking, and Esty’s suffering is vigorously felt by those watching both on and off the screen.
’Unorthodox’ is therefore an incredibly moving series, and from when we first lay eyes on our heroine we can’t help but be completely invested in Esty’s quest for liberation from her haunting past life. It is both a joy and a privilege to be witness to such a journey.
By Lara Keville
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