Film & Television

In ‘Unorthodox,’ A Hasidic Woman Finds Her Voice

Three years ago, when I reviewed The Zookeeper’s Wife, I mentioned the haunting performance by young Israeli actress Shira Haas three paragraphs before I wrote about the movie’s star, Jessica Chastain. This was partly because I was referring to a particular Passover scene. But it also anticipated what would stay with me about the film years later. Haas’s role as Urszula, a preteen who has been horrifically abused by the Nazis but somehow finds faith and comfort again, left an indelible mark.

How pleased I was to recognize her as the lead in Netflix’s current miniseries Unorthodox. Diminutive, almost elfin in appearance, Haas somehow combines fragility with strength, and youth with maturity. She is at once an innocent to the ways of the modern world and an old soul with a far deeper understanding than her peers. And, as good as Unorthodox is in virtually every way, it’s her performance as Esther (Esty) Shapiro that will keep you mesmerized through the show’s four one-hour parts.

Esty was born and raised in a Satmar Hasidic community in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. Wed at 18 to the devout and rather guileless Yanky (Amit Rahav), she is under the scrutiny of the rabbi, her overbearing mother-in-law, and even the well-meaning neighborhood wives. Although married for a year, the couple is still childless. While her husband partakes in a Shabbat dinner with his extended family, Esty runs.

At first, the reason for both her flight and her destination, Berlin, remain a mystery. But the tension is real nonetheless. Esty is desperate, as she hurriedly packs a plastic shopping bag, fields questions from the friendly wives in her building, hails a taxi and hides in the backseat as it drives past people who might recognize and stop her. She lands in Berlin and meets a group of international music conservatory students. She follows them to rehearsal, where she’s enraptured by their music, then goes with them to the beach. Standing by the Großer Wannsee, her new friend Robert (Aaron Altaras) points out a villa, “where the Nazis planned the Holocaust.” “And you swim in this lake?” Esty asks in disbelief. “The lake is just a lake,” he shrugs. 

Berlin, with its bright sunshine; clean, modern buildings; vibrant arts scene; and carefree youth from all over (including Israel) has moved on from the Holocaust. Esty’s community has not. Originally from Satmar, Hungary, its founders were Holocaust survivors. The pressure Esty and other wives feel to bear children is directly related to the six million Jews who died; it is their duty to replace them.

Through the next three episodes, scenes go back and forth between Esty’s adjustment to Berlin and her life in Williamsburg before she escaped. Her reasons become more clear as we’re invited into her family history, her marriage, and her life as a bride. Meanwhile, Yanky and his family discover where she’s gone, and he and his cousin Moishe (Jeff Wilbusch) are sent to retrieve her. Moishe has a sinister past and agrees to go only when the rabbi offers to pay his gambling debts. As the two attempt to track her down, Esty’s safety as well as her liberty are in grave danger. At one point, Moishe catches up with Esty and chides her for coming to Berlin, a city haunted by the lost souls of their ancestors. He is a dangerous thug and it takes tremendous courage for Esty to get up and walk away. 

Unorthodox is based on Deborah Feldman’s bestselling 2012 memoir Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots. Like Esty, Feldman was a young bride in extremely restrictive circumstances. In an interview with The New York Post, she remembers, “When I was 11, they changed the clothing rules. You used to be able to wear a long-sleeve, high-neck T-shirt. Now you can only wear high-neck blouses, with woven fabrics, because their theory is that woven fabrics don’t cling.” Like Esty, Feldman tried to comply but eventually felt the need to leave for her baby’s sake as well as her own. Feldman now lives in Berlin and has authored a sequel to her memoir entitled Exodus.

In addition to providing the series’ source material, Feldman was instrumental in choosing the creative team. The miniseries was written and produced by Anna Winger and Alexa Karolinski, and directed by Maria Schrader. “I realized,” Feldman explains in Netflix’s companion documentary The Making of Unorthodox, “That if anybody is ever going to be able to grasp what this story is about and execute it in a way that is going to have a positive cultural impact, it’s these women.” Although Esty’s story tracks closely to Feldman’s until she leaves New York, the series creates a different future for her. Feldman was emboldened by the heroines she found in literature by Louisa May Alcott, Jane Austen, and Lucy Maud Montgomery. Esty is inspired by music.

There have been many dramatizations of women escaping intolerant religions and cults, including Not Without My Daughter (1991), The Magdalene Sisters (2002), Martha, Marcy, May, Marlene (2011), and even The Witch (2015). More recently, Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams starred in Disobedience (2017), about a woman who has been shunned by her orthodox community because of her “unnatural attraction” to another woman. 

What makes Unorthodox markedly different is that, although clearly taking Esty’s side, the miniseries never ridicules or criticizes the Hasidim. In fact, it reverently, almost lovingly, depicts what is sacred and beautiful about the people and their traditions.

Rituals, especially those that involve women, are represented in rich and accurate detail. When Esty prepares for marriage, she must first cleanse herself in the mikveh under the watchful eyes of a matron. (This symbol of purification and transformation is mirrored when Esty walks into the lake in Berlin, watching as her sheitel, the dull, brown wig she must wear as a married woman, floats away.) In the lengthy flashback to Esty and Yanky’s elaborate wedding, the bride prays to herself and rocks back and forth. When the ceremony ends and her new husband breaks the glass, she’s overcome with elation. On her wedding day, at least, Esty was fully committed and imagined a bright future. It is only later that she feels a need to get away. 

When asked, she explains to her student friends, “God wanted too much from me.” The petite Esty, with her soulful eyes and shaved head (it was shorn as soon as she was married), sees things simply; she doesn’t really blame anyone or anything. Yet she is determined to find a new life.

Art direction by Marie-Luise Balzer, costumes by Justine Seymour, and especially the hair and makeup by Jens Bartram, Katja Schulze, and Barbara Zschetzsche, enhance every scene of the series. In fact, members of the team laugh in The Making of Unorthodox about the number of payots, side curls, needed for the men. They point out that for most films, it’s the women who require longer hair and makeup. Here it was the opposite. Seymour was also challenged to find more than a hundred shtreimel, the majestic fur hats that Hasidic men wear on Shabbat and other holy days. In real life, each headpiece is made from the pelts of six minks and costs more than a thousand dollars. She was able to source faux fur ones from a theater company in Hapsburg, treating them to bring out the luster of real fur. “So you know, no minks were harmed for this project,” she jokes. With this in mind, PETA has awarded Unorthodox a Compassion in Costume Design Award.

The supporting cast of Unorthodox is uniformly excellent, and includes Alex Reid as Esty’s “meshugga mother,” who left Esty behind when she was three years old, and Eli Rosen, a Yiddish actor who served as a dialogue coach as well as playing the rabbi. Unorthodox is primarily in Yiddish with English subtitles.

If you are intrigued as well as moved by Unorthodox and The Making of Unorthodox, you may want to watch the documentary One of Us. Also on Netflix, it follows three true stories of people — one woman and two men — who left their Hasidic communities, despite threats and heartbreaking consequences. Etty, a victim of domestic violence, loses custody of her seven children when a judge decides that maintaining their “status quo” is more important than protecting her rights. Her bravery and conviction, even in the face of such tragic unfairness, are an inspiration.

Both Etty and Esty demonstrate how far a person will go — and what she’s willing to give up — for freedom.


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