I’m not a TV person. Unlike my TV-addicted sister, I usually prefer a good book and reading articles on Flipboard. However, since, like most of us, I’m quarantined as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, I decided to watch the Netflix mini-series ‘Unorthodox.’
Based on the memoir of the same name by Deborah Feldman, the show follows the journey of 19-year-old Esther “Esty” Shapiro fleeing from her Satmar Hasidic community and failing marriage in Williamsburg, Brooklyn to Berlin to try and discover herself. The show juxtaposes both Esty’s freedom and life in Berlin with her marital struggles through frequent flashbacks, as well as Satmar’s collective trauma of the Holocaust, with Esty’s travels through the source of that trauma in Berlin. Of course, it wouldn’t be a compelling story without some tension, and that’s provided in the form of Yanky, Esty’s husband, Moishe, Yanky’s cousin and the Rebbe’s henchman. They are sent by the Rebbe to Berlin to find Esty and bring her home to Williamsburg.
In a short 20-minute documentary about the making of the film, the producers explained how they spent a lot of time trying to get all the details of Hasidic Brooklyn right in the show. To evaluate how well they did that, I asked two of my friends, Joseph and Yidi, who, like Esty, left the Hasidic community, to critique the show. They said that it irked them a bit that some of the details were inaccurate, such as the Yiddish accents, some incorrect Yiddish phrases and the opening scene of the show, where Esty’s plan to escape Williamsburg is stymied by the fact that the Eruv (a thin string that allows observant Jews to carry objects outside on Shabbat) was down.
According to Satmar’s view of Halacha, an Eruv isn’t allowed in New York City in the first place. However, Joseph and Yidi both told me that despite these details, they felt that the series accurately captured the overall feeling of Hasidic life and her leaving of it. In particular, they felt that things like the Esty’s grandmother hanging up on her when she called, the Rebbe sending the husband and a henchman to bring Esty back and the intense gossip were reasonably accurate and reflective of the Hasidic life and atmosphere—though Joseph noted that the Henchman situation doesn’t happen to everyone. Esty is a special case, which I won’t spoil for you.
This atmosphere was accomplished, despite the faulty Yiddish accents and translation, through a superb acting performance throughout. In particular, I felt that Shira Haas, who’s claim to fame was, appropriately, her role as Ruchami on the Israeli hit series Shtisel (also a show about Hassidim), did a superb job as Esty. Specifically, I thought that she did a fantastic job of conveying the sense of anxiety and fear that underwrote Esty’s entire mindset in the series. More often then not, Esty’s mindset was revealed by the scenes without dialogue then those with her speaking, letting her hesitant and unsure body language do the talking instead. Haas’s stellar performance though, wasn’t the only shining acting performance. Amit Rahav, who plays Esty’s husband Yanky, also turned in a stellar performance, doing the somewhat remarkable task of making Yanky a sympathetic character. Rahav’s portrayal of Yanky paints him as the immature 19-year-old he is, who doesn’t intend harm but is extraordinarily naïve about the world outside his own.
My feelings about the show can be summarized in one word: amazement. Amazed at the vibrant (if a little inaccurate and sensationalized) world that was created. Amazed at the superb acting job by all, but most of all, amazed at the strength of Esty and, by extension, Deborah Feldman, to leave the only life she’s ever known for a better future. Joseph told me that as someone who left the Hasidic community himself, he admires Esty for being able to have the courage to undertake the painful separation from the life she lived before to find a purpose for herself. An admiration I share.
In short, when you have a free hour (or four), pull up Netflix and binge this show. I guarantee you won’t regret it.
Avi Koenig is a senior at Rambam Mesivta in Lawrence, N.Y.Hombre