A powerful drama about one woman’s escape from the Hasidic community…
Normally, I wouldn’t review a show a couple of months after it has dropped on Netflix as feels like I have missed the boat. But German-American drama mini-series Unorthodox, which debuted on the streaming site on the 26th March, is a show that didn’t get a lot of buzz here in the UK and is absolutely deserving of a look.
The four-part drama, based on Deborah Feldman’s 2012 autobiography Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots is a fascinating exploration of one woman, nineteen-year old Esty (Shira Haas), who escapes an arranged marriage in an ultra-Orthodox Hasidic community in Williamsburg New York. Fleeing to Germany, Esty discovers a life free of her Hasidic roots and connects with a group of young musicians. Unorthodox is the first Netflix series to be primarily in Yiddish, though there is a mix of English and German language spoken.
Across the four parts, we follow two narratives; Esty’s escape to Germany and exploration of her life outside the Hasidic community and her life one-year earlier as she finds herself arranged to be married to Yanky (Amit Rahav) a member of one of the community’s highest regarded families. While her life in the Germany is presented as an uplifting journey to freedom, this is contrasted by the suffocating, almost traumatic experiences she endures in becoming Yanky’s wife.
Shira Haas is phenomenal as Esty; the scenes in the past portray her as a somewhat idealistic eighteen year-old, believing that marriage and motherhood will complete her. And yet, even this ideology is tested; Esty seeking piano lessons from the tenant of her family’s company demonstrates that she is willing to be more than her society want her to be. This is explicitly shown in the scenes in Germany in the present day, where Esty seeks out the opportunity to join the music academy, forging new relationships with the musicians and casting away her old life.
The scene in the first episode where she joins them at the lake and casts off her wig is a powerful moment; a literal shedding of her Hasidic upbringing, coupled with the uplifting score by Antonio Gamble. Esty’s fierceness as she seeks out new a new life, is what drives the story forward. She embraces western fashion, liking her shaved head to a fashion statement, even indulging in what her old community would consider extremely shocking actions – drinking, clubbing and even sleeping with Robert (Aaron Altaras).
The irony of course is that Esty isn’t the only one to break the rules and beliefs of the Hasidic community. While her mother Leah (Alex Reid) openly broke away from her roots years ago, even those within can be ‘corrupted’ by the Western world. When Yanky and his cousin Moishe (Jeff Wilbusch) head to Berlin to bring Esty back, Moishe quickly indulges in everything the city has to offer; drinking, gambling, he is as eager to live beyond the Hasidic community as Esty but cannot openly escape it. As much as he threatens Esty and her mother, as much as he is a dangerous wild card, there is something sympathetic about the man who can only be himself when he is on the other side of the world.
The juxtaposition of the scenes in Germany with Esty’s past make her journey even more liberating. Her marriage to Yanky becomes increasingly harrowing. The scene showing her being ‘observed’ by the Shapiro matriarch in a supermarket, being judged for her worthiness to marry Yanky, is just the first step to her loosing her freedom. The wedding itself is concerned more with Yanky than her, the subsequent hair shaving scene one of the most brutal scenes in all of Unorthodox. It is not easy viewing; Yanky and Esty’s attempts to have sex and conceive a child become increasingly difficult to watch, Esty’s worthiness as his wife being judged at every turn. Her dissolution at the life she thought she would have, the community around her, makes her discovery of a new life in Germany all the more richer.
Unorthodox is a powerful piece of storytelling, anchored by an absorbing performance by Shira Haas. It offers a harsh, disturbing glimpse into the role of women in the Hasidic community with an uplifting tale of freedom. The open-ended nature of the story may frustrate some, but there is something hopeful in the way the mini-series ends. We never know whether she got the scholarship, whether she has a relationship with Robert, or how she raises Yanky’s child alone in Germany. But that final scene, as she waves to her passing friends and sits alone at a café, is full of hope. Esty is free of her past and the future is boundless.
Unorthodox is available to stream on Netflix now.
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