Created by Anna Winger and Alexa Karolinski
Starring Shira Haas, Amit Rahav, Jeff Wilbusch
Unorthodox is a limited series that shows you the inner workings of a Hasidic community. You know how they’re usually represented: by bearded men in black suits with sideburn ringlets. But the series actually strikes a note of startling intimacy at a setting far away from that enclave.
At one point in the first episode, we see Esty (Shira Haas), the 19-year-old girl whose escape from her ultra-Orthodox sect in Brooklyn forms the backbone of the story, standing at the side of Lake Wannsee in southwestern Berlin. A new acquaintance has just told her that a villa on the far shore is where the Third Reich first decided on exterminating the Jews, and Esty is staring at the waters as if they might contain a host of unimagined monsters.
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And then she wades in and peels off her wig, revealing her shaved head. Over the course of four episodes, Unorthodox will present many details of a secretive society, but it is at this moment that it reveals itself as something shocking yet liberating; Esty’s symbolic baptism in the waters of a place that caused her people so much pain and loss feels like both a sacrilege and a release.
Unorthodox is loosely based on the 2012 memoir of Deborah Feldman, who left the Satmar sect of Hasidic Jews in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, to settle in Berlin and become a writer. (An accompanying making-of featurette admits that the Berlin-set section is entirely fiction.) Admittedly, it derives much of its fascination from its granular depiction of Hasidic rituals and way of life. The biggest example is the series’ attention to the minutiae of Esty’s wedding to the shy and childlike Yanky (Amit Rahav): We see Esty obscured under a tent-like veil in her bejeweled wedding dress, as men in their furry shtreimel hats lead Yanky, his eyes closed, to his bride; we see a curtain hanging in the center of the reception, demarcating the areas where men and women dance; we see a small room where the newlyweds are given seven minutes to “do what [they] want.”
But more than the rituals, we get a glimpse into the sexual politics of this sealed enclave: the objectification of women as child bearers, the overbearing intrusiveness of the community in the business of intimacy, the use of trauma as a tool to ensure survival and replenishment.
Ultimately, Unorthodox is a portrait of how religion is more than a weekly commitment to attend services once a week; it is a living, breathing force that shapes lives. Far from declaring orthodoxy as a tool to oppress, Unorthodox takes a delicately balanced approach; when it shows Yanky at prayer or Esty’s grandfather presiding over Passover Seder, it shows how tradition sustains and fortifies a people.
But the strict adherence to tradition can also imprison, which is how Unorthodox’s constant shifting from present to past and back again arrives at Esty’s fateful decision to flee her stifling marriage and start an uncertain life in Berlin, the historic epicenter of modern Jewish suffering now visualized as a light, airy alternative to its orthodoxy.
Unorthodox’s admirable balance is most apparent in its male leads. Rahav has the wide-eyed transparency to communicate Yanky’s credulity (watch for a funny sequence where he asks a smartphone for the whereabouts of his runaway wife) and his dawning, heartbreaking realization that his bride is more than he accounted for. Playing Yanky’s menacing cousin Moishe, Jeff Wilbusch resists the impulse to portray his character as a heavy by leaning into Moishe’s demons, his status as a fallen Hasid working for salvation but somehow always failing.
But the real star of the show is Shira Haas. Resembling a diminutive and vaguely consumptive Léa Seydoux, Haas runs through the whole range of emotion as Esty. Flawlessly shifting from Yiddish to German to English, Haas taps into an enormous reservoir of pain and confusion in one moment, sways in sensual abandon at a Berlin nightclub the next, then unleashes a deep homesickness for the life she left behind as she belts out a Yiddish traditional in the final episode. Haas embodies what Unorthodox is really about: Only in facing your fear will you find real freedom.
Unorthodox is currently streaming on Netflix.