In 2010, a young American woman from the reclusive and ultra-conservative Satmar community of Hasidic Jews based in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, secretly left for the German city of Berlin to start a new life. Deborah Feldman, then 24, along with her infant son, left her husband and her extended family, in a desperate attempt to escape the austere and repressive strictures of the community where she grew up. In Berlin, Feldman reinvented herself as a blogger and a broadcaster and managed wrest primary joint custody of her son from her ex-husband. In 2012, she released her autobiographical account titled Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of my Hasidic Roots – a book that elevated her to stardom, and at the same time invited hateful attacks from a large section of the Hasidic Jews, especially the Satmar community of Brooklyn. The controversy surrounding Deborah Feldman’s life feeds into the 4-part web series called Unorthodox – a screen adaptation of her memoirs, which has become a highly popular Netflix miniseries. Released on March 26, 2020, Unorthodox has been extremely well-received across the world, as reported by the data analytics company Parrot Analytics.
Unorthodox tells the story of 19-year old Williamsburg woman Esty ‘Esther’ Shapiro (Shira Haas), who like Feldman, flees to Berlin, to escape a loveless marriage and a husband who treats her as a child producing machine. Co-written by Anna Winger, Alexa Karolinski and Daniel Hendler, the narrative and plot of Unorthodox has substantially deviated from the book, especially in the part set in Berlin. It seems that the writers of the series were keen to capture the spirit of Feldman’s rebellion rather than focus on the exposé aspect of the book. The dramatic emphasis in the series firmly focused on the clash between tradition and modernity, Unorthodox has not shied away from an uncharitable portrayal of the cultural and social norms of the Satmar Jews of Brooklyn.
To the uninitiated, the Satmar community are a subgroup of the Hasidic Jews who originated in Romania in early 1905. During the second world war and the Holocaust, many of them were killed by the Nazis. After the war, a few survivors came and settled in Williamsburg, Brooklyn and managed to grow in number over the next few decades. There have been instances when the members left the community for a variety of reasons, the primary being the rigidity of the ultra-orthodox way of life. But in most cases, the withdrawal of men and women from the community was gradual and never as dramatic as Feldman’s flight to Germany. A young married woman surreptitiously leaving the closed community was itself a shocking development. The shock was further aggravated by the tell-all nature of her memoir. From abusive attacks on her YouTube page and her blog, to allegations of lies and sensationalisation by a section of Jewish critics and reviewers, Feldman’s journey to fame has been strewn with controversy.
Painstakingly recreated costumes, arcane Judaic rituals, quaint home décor, Yiddish dialogues, have given Unorthodox a strong sense of authenticity. Customs, especially of marriage and sexuality within this insular community, has been treated with realism and a touch of candour. It is a world where Rabbis, cousins, mothers-in-law seem to have more say in matters of sexual intimacy than the married couple themselves. Esty’s engagement and subsequent wedding is treated with delicate irony and humour, but simultaneously underlining the treatment of Satmar women as grotesquely oppressive. Like Feldman’s memoir, the series has been harshly criticised for lacking in nuance and for turning the Satmar characters into one-dimensional caricatures, rather than well-rounded fictional characters. Maybe this is so as we are made to see them through the eyes of Esty – a woman who can only see these characters as patriarchal oppressors, rather than empathetic fellow humans. The young people Esty befriends in Berlin are comparatively more nuanced. They inhabit a modern, globalized world, and are unmistakably millennial in their approach to life, as opposed to the Jewish characters in Williamsburg who seems to have been caught in a time-warp. It is this diverse, multiethnic, modern, open society that Esty wants to be a part of.
Unorthodox interweaves past and present, almost in the manner of a spiral narrative. The clever overlapping of an escape narrative with that of a journey of emotional awakening keeps viewers engrossed for its nearly 4 hours of screen time. It moves back-and-forth between scenes in Berlin on one hand (the present) and Esty’s betrothal and marriage in Williamsburg (the past) on the other. The main plot in the film’s temporal present unfolds like a thriller in which Esty is pursued all the way to Berlin by her estranged husband Yanky and his roguish cousin Moishe. Yanky and Moishe do not want to leave any stone unturned. She is implored, begged and threatened to return to her community. As viewers, we want to know if Esty manages to liberate herself or must return to her home in Williamsburg – defeated and discredited as predicted by her oppressors. Will she yield to the patriarchal machinations unleashed by the Rabbi or respond to the genuine feelings awakened in her husband?
Esty, played by Israeli actress Shira Haas, combines emotional vulnerability with quiet determination, a trait ascribed to her Jewish background and legacy. Esty’s husband Yanky Shapiro, played by young Israeli actor Amit Rahav, is perhaps the most persuasive character in the series, especially from a dramaturgical and performance point of view. Yanky is a product of the ultra-orthodox values and his life is steeped in its practices and beliefs. Being a husband and a sexual partner is a religious duty for him. It is an extension of his life as a Hasidic Jew – to procreate and to increase the fold of a community which had drastically dwindled during the Holocaust. He is neither innocent nor evil. Yanky’s deeply conservative upbringing has not sensitised him to needs of his partner or, for that matter, the demands of a modern relationship. The Holocaust and its pervasive trauma hang like a spectre over the narrative and informs the character’s reaction to life and its multitude of possibilities. Unorthodox is not only Esty’s tale, but also Yanky’s coming-of-age story, where he finally seems to recognise his emotions for his wife as they emerge from behind the thick veil of religious and social orthodoxy. Rahav’s depiction of Yanky moves through a range of emotions – innocence, enchantment, frustration, bewilderment, outrage, anger, helplessness, and surrender. It is not surprising that Rahav, even unknown within Jewish and Israeli film and television till the release of Unorthodox, has become an internet celebrity over the past one month. The other star that the series has thrown up is the German actor of Israeli origin Jeff Wilbusch, who portrays Moishe. Moishe is thuggish, calculative, cynical and reckless at the same time. He is entrusted with the job of abducting Esty, not because he is a devout Jew, but for his unscrupulous streak. Moishe lives life in amoral terms – drinking, gambling and loafing around the streets of Berlin while on his clandestine mission to corner Esty into submission.
The popularity of Unorthodox has become synonymous with the performances of the three young actors – Haas, Rahav and Wilbusch. But ‘behind the camera’, the work of the team of writers, director (Maria Schrader), designers and cinematographers from Germany, Israel, the UK and the US mirrors the transnational theme of the film. Netflix has recently released a 20-minute behind-the-scene documentary on this series too. This short film tells us about the dedication of the artistic team, the extent to which they went to create a parallel, believable world outside the actual community of Satmar Jews. The production value is impressive and meets the expectations of a big budget Netflix original. But more than the striking production value. it is the universal theme of a young person’s struggle to establish her voice in this world and the life affirming and uplifting message of an individual’s struggle against a repressive belief system is what endears Unorthodox to viewers.
English, Yiddish, Drama, Color